The Boy on the Suryanagari Express

The winner of our Storytellers competition is Gina van der Ploeg. We loved this heart felt story of her train ride through India, and the kindness shown to her by wonderful strangers.

A true story written by Gina van der Ploeg  

Anyone who has ever been to India before the monsoon season knows how relentless and soul destroying those few weeks can be. The sun beats down; shade provides no reprieve and clay bricks radiate intolerable heat into any room. We were one week into our nine months of backpacking and my friend Jem and I were already homesick. Who would have thought that all we needed was a Mumbai-bound trip on the Suryanagari Express, saving us from the deserts of Rajasthan, to restore our faith in that beautiful country?

A word on Indian, third-class trains: The pleather seats are covered in a layer of Indian dust and are the width of one’s shoulders, the windows are stuck permanently open inviting in sand, heat and a mixture of gorgeous and unpleasant smells. The trains move very slowly and everyone squashes in for a long trip which encourages strange and interesting conversations. To paint a grim scene: I wasn’t feeling too well, our seats were well coated in that layer of grime, it was over 35 degrees and we had an overnight train ride of sixteen hours to look forward to. Big eyed, big moustached Indian men stared at us from every corner. They watched the white girls sceptically, as we hoarded our rubbish instead of throwing it out of the window. Back then, we still had optimistic thoughts of finding rubbish bins at the next stop.

News of the two goras travelled fast. Before we knew it, flocks of eager faces were filing down the aisles to come and meet us. The throngs of people made movement through our carriage tricky and we had no choice but to sit and receive all our visitors. Jem did most of the talking as I leaned against the window slats, feeling ill. I listened to her singing to a blind boy and answering the hundreds of questions about our families and where we come from, whether or not we’ve had Delhi Belly and why we aren’t married.  

Among our admirers was Abishek. He, and the two men sitting opposite us, took an immediate interest in me, and my health. He must have asked me seven times throughout the evening if I was ok. Abishek convinced me to come and meet his family, and we bustled through all the people, down the carriages, avoiding sticky little children and precariously piled luggage. His mother was a tiny woman. She couldn’t speak any English, so we simply sat and smiled at each other, holding hands, until Abishek decided that we were well acquainted enough and led me back to Jem. By this time I was feeling worse and curled up in a ball, hoping for sleep.

The rattling train screeched to a halt at the next stop, Rani Station. I opened my eyes to find Abishek holding a lassi under my nose. A few things must be explained here: 1) a lassi is a delicious Indian yoghurt drink and 2) Indian trains do not stop for very long at the stations, vendors walk along the side of the carriages, rather than commuters dismounting the train and risking being left behind. Abishek had called his friend in Rani, asked him to buy us the best lassis in town and meet him at the station. Of course, true to the Indian culture, he refused payment for them, looking offended when we offered. Jem and I had made it our mission to find the best lassis and best dosas in India. They truly were the best lassis we had in our six week trip; milky-sweet with roasted cashews and dried fruit. “…to make stomach better.” Abishek had said. He watched, smiling, making sure we finished them, and then shooed away all the onlookers to pull down our sleeping benches.

The men opposite us promised to look after us and our luggage. That night I slept the best I had since we arrived in India, and I woke the next morning to the frenzied wonders of Mumbai and Abishek, with his cellphone and some Bollywood pop music. I have many memories of India, good and bad, but this feeling, of being so well- cared for and loved by strangers is one that I will never forget. At that time we would never have believed that Abishek’s gesture of kindness would start off an endless rolling of phenomenal experiences; crashing waterfalls, jungles flowing into beaches, scooter adventures, indeed the best dosas, many beautiful sunsets, temple wanderings, strange German trance parties, hilarious monkey interactions, all the ice creams, politely well-meant Indian harassment (or hospitality), secret hanging shrines, Tamil lessons, the sweetest Indian treats, chalk-painted elephants and finally, finally, the day when the monsoon came and the relief permeated the land and people and Jem and I cheered along with everyone else.

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