We are caught in the middle of the crowd surging to board the blue toy train at Ooty, squashed against a large man from Bangalore, who holds a blue canary in a cage in the air above him. Amidst the chaos there are shouts of protest as people strive to shove past people, the hands and heads of smaller individuals disappearing beneath the crowd as if they are drowning in a sea of high waves. Whistles blow, elbows jab, shoulders shove as worn suitcases and battered bags are squeezed through the already blocked doorway. Silken clothes and coloured cottons merge in a blur of confusion, while the early morning heat rises up from the platform bringing with it scents of mixed spices, dust and sweat. Above all of this is the song of a blue canary. The boys and I are pushed towards the train and find ourselves stumbling up the metal steps behind the large man from Bangalore. Together we squeeze our way into our small second class wooden carriage, decorated with flower carvings and rose painted stained glass. He sits down opposite us with his blue canary, while his wife, a pretty petite woman in a pale pink sari, sits beside him, sipping noisily from a plastic container of fruit-juice. Next to her is a short stout man with round gold rimmed spectacles, a piece of twisted cello-tape sticking a broken arm to the left frame. “I am a lecturer of psychology,” the man with the blue canary informs us all, turning to accept the cup of steaming chai that his wife has poured from a plastic flask. The train toots out our imminent departure loudly, and as it does so a thin man with a pitted face and shabby white cotton trousers joins our carriage with a breathless grin. He sits down beside me. He has no luggage at all. The train jolts and begins to slowly move forwards, speeding up and rocking our carriage from side to side, knocking us shoulder to shoulder with embarrassing proximity. “I have worked on the trains for twenty years now,” the spectacle wearing man is saying with a triumphant nod of his head. “And for my hobby I collect stamps.” This statement comes as a proud declaration. “How many stamps do you have?” Dow asks. He likes stamps. “To date, I have one thousand and twenty three. I am very particular in which stamps I collect,” the spectacle wearing man continues. “And what is your occupation?” the lecturer asks me, his voice a little too loud for the size of the carriage. His wife is holding out a Tupperware box full of currant cakes. He takes one and bites into it. Crumbs sprinkle into his lap. “I am a writer,” I say, and the carriage echoes with enthusiastic exclamations. “I have written a story,” the lecturer informs us all, wiping the crumbs from his lap onto the floor, and offering his last piece of current cake to the canary, with a shrill cooing sound. The canary twitters and ignores him. “It is a story about a phycologist,” he tells us. The pitted faced man, sits silently, only nodding encouragingly whenever anyone speaks, his hands in his lap, unmoving. “Well, good luck,” I say and the lecturer chuckles and munches on a palm-full of nuts his wife has handed him. “And you?” he booms, addressing Dow. “I’m an archaeologist,” Dow tells him. “Very good,” the lecturer says and then raises his eyebrows expectantly at Orly. “Well, I used to be a milkman,” Orly informs him. “Because I love milk, but now I’m a footballer and a photographer for the National Geographic.” “Excellent,” he nods. “Excellent.” The carriage falls silent, save for the crunching sounds coming from the lecturer and his wife, who after feeding themselves once more try to entice the canary into eating with them. Once again they are unsuccessful. The lecturer sighs. “I am very worried,” he says. “We bought this bird in Bangalore and I am taking it back to Pallathruthi for my daughter and it will not eat any of the things that I am giving to it. I am fearing I have brought a very fussy bird and that he will die of starvation before we get there.” The pitted faced man rustles a hand into his pocket then, and eventually retrieves it clutching a small handful of sunflower seeds. With a small shy smile he passes them to the lecturer who looks thoroughly confused, but who turns and feeds them to the bird. After a moment of anxious waiting, the bird eventually begins to peck at them. The lecturer claps with glee. “Oh my friend, you are a Birdyologist?” At the next station the train stops and a hundred hands thrust through our window holding mangoes, nuts, pineapples and clay cups of hot chai. I buy a bag of cashew nuts from a man wearing a red baseball cap with “Yankee’s Rule,” scrawled across the front, and as I do so the ticket master arrives, sternly asking to see our tickets. The pitted faced man shuffles in his seat, the smile suddenly disappearing from his face, and when the time comes for him to show his ticket, he’s suddenly standing and trying to get out of the door. The ticket master blocks his escape. In the confusion that follows I can hear only the shouts from the ticket master and the pleas from the pitted faced man, as he tries to explain the absence of a ticket. Amidst the noise, the lecturer stands, still swinging the canary cage in his left hand. “This man is my friend,” he booms. “If he does not have a ticket I will purchase for him a ticket. You must turn and deal with me,” he shouts dramatically to the ticket master. Moments later we sit shoulder to shoulder, silently swaying to the rhythm of the train. “I did not have enough money,” the pitted face man mutters by way of exclamation, and the lecturer shrugs. “Yes my friend,” he says eventually, and turning to his canary scatters a sprinkling of seeds into its cage. “But you do have sunflower seeds and for me they are very much worth their weight in gold.”
The Rainbow Hunters are raising money for War Child (http://www.warchild.org.uk) as they travel to seven countries on a quest to collect the seven colours of the rainbow. If you would like to donate please go to https://www.justgiving.com/Lindsay-Hawdon or text RABO77 and the amount you would like to give to 70070.
Lindsay’s trip was supported in part by Inventing Futures, a global youth agency, based in Bath, that works with 9-24 year old who are at a transitional stage in their lives, giving them the chance to create a future full of opportunity. If you would like to know more please visit: http://www.inventingfutures.org
Audley Travel (01883838200; audleytravel.com) offers tailor-made trips to India and specialised tours and home-stays to Kerala and Tamil Nadu.