By Iain Marlow

The crowd pulsed and surged along the platform, extending and buckling like a steel rod under pressure. There was no way I was boarding this train, I knew that for sure, even if I did have a ticket. Sure, it was a waiting list ticket – and WL #482 at that – but a ticket is a ticket, isn’t it? Not in Bombay it isn’t. And certainly not tonight.

Outside the station, the post-colonial city was shining in the Indian sunset. Like vines this country has exuberantly reclaimed the foreign buildings built on top of it. Bazaars now flourish beneath cracked imperial awnings.

I had not been here long: arriving by train around 5 pm, rolling through the slums cascading from the city’s gleaming center. We entered the outskirts around dinner time, as cooking smoke wafted through the endless alleys. Kids ran between rows of corrugated iron shacks, barefoot and half-naked, chasing each other joyously; others played cricket with broken sticks and pieces of garbage.

There are anywhere between 13 and 20 million people in Bombay, depending on how and who you count. Indian cities like Bombay, and especially Calcutta, are simultaneously cosmopolitan cities of wealth and cesspools of human misery. Officially, the city is now called Mumbai – but only by people with business cards and fixed addresses, or by the politically correct.

I stepped off the train and met an English couple on their gap year. They became delightful – and later crucial – company. The Brits and I were catching the same southbound train that night at 11 pm and we strolled along streets of imperial buildings and Indian signposting. It was delightful. Dusk was deepening. The sun started setting.

In the animated Colaba market, a man grabbed my arm suddenly and pulled me to a stand and bought me coconut shards; women yelled prices at me for prawns I most certainly did not need. I tumbled deeper, bartering half-heartedly for broken antique clocks and dusty telescopes. Surrounded by wasps, bare-chested men ground sugar cane stalks into juice. I pocketed some cinnamon bark for five rupees and we left for the station.

Bombay's Colaba market

Our tickets read: Platform 15. Its rank in Dante’s inferno would turn out to be significantly lower. The narrow platform overflowed with people: families jostling nervously, men sitting on enormous bags of rice. All seething, in a sense, all waiting: the train was late.

And then an approaching train’s lights washed change over the crowd, like an epidemic viewed from on-high and in fast-forward. A shiver-en-masse shook the platform. The carriages slowed with a hiss and when they finally stopped, mayhem erupted: waves of luggage-laden Indians crashed down upon the carriages. They seemed to be aiming agreed upon wedge formations at the doors. Old women were knocked down; children cried out for parents; men punched for their position.

At first, I just stared. My companions were safely in first class. I, on the other hand, had W/L #482 in my sweaty palm and a clammy nervousness was spreading over me like a fever. I sprinted toward the nearest official. “Excuse me,” I said. “Which carriage do I get in? Where do I go?”

The man, preoccupied with either his own arrogance or maintaining a remarkably cold detachment, snatched my ticket. He examined it, laughed and mumbled, “This. It is a waiting list ticket.”

Yep, I thought icily: it is, isn’t it? I pleaded: “But how does it work? Where do I go? Which car do I get in?”

The man, now annoyed, pointed behind me. “There. General carriage,” he said.

Relieved, I spun. And then froze in abject horror. Inside the train, lamps illuminated twisted, broken-looking bodies jutting out at sickening angles. Heads cracked sideways against the wall; arms stuck out with faces jammed into armpits; bodies were suspended four feet above where they should have been, forced upward by the heaving mass. The car was overflowing and people were still forcing their way inside. I couldn’t get near the doorway; the crush of people would give for a few seconds as people made their way in the carriage and then suddenly surge backward, as physics or gravity or some transcendental sense of justice ejected them, once again.

I ran back up the platform to find my English friends. I got past the ticket collector at the door and his armed, camouflaged companion. My friends were sitting in air-conditioned comfort and warm-heartedly suggested I stow away. A bright-smiling Aussie girl and another Brit – their bunkmates – seconded the motion. Stowing away seemed bizarre, was obviously illegal. I was still breathing heavily. That, and the large gun bouncing off the guard’s shoulder 10 feet away, prompted me to blurt: “I’ll give it one more try.”

I dashed back down the platform, but, again confronted with the visual horror of the “general carriage” and what would be a 12-hour overnight train ride inside it, I gave up.

Fortunately, collectors had checked my companion’s tickets after I left and before I returned. We closed the curtains on our four-bunk compartment. The pandemonium outside faded under the dull buzz of air conditioning and small talk. At some point, I found time to think I should probably wash the accumulated grime off my face. I popped a piece of cinnamon in my mouth, pushed aside the curtain, and stopped dead.

There, staring at me and stroking his gun, was the guard. He regarded me quizzically, coughed once, and held out his hand. I thought in frigid silence that he wanted my ticket. Figuring a 300 rupee W/L # 482 would not pass for a 2500 rupee first class ticket, I steeled myself for forcible ejection.

He continued to stare at me. This was getting awkward. Then, bizarrely, he rubbed his throat and pointed to my mouth – where I had my teeth clenched, as if someone were about to set a broken bone, on a 3-inch piece of cinnamon bark. I took the package of spice from my pocket and offered it. He selected a few pieces and tossed them in his mouth. He mumbled something about a sore throat. I shook his hand.

Iain, a few days after he got off the train, in Kerala, south India

That night I slept on the floor, perpendicular to the bunks: my head under one and my feet under another. When I awoke, the sub-tropics of Goa were flitting by the window in a green haze. I stepped out onto the platform of the Karmali Train Station in glorious sunlight. Beaches, swimming, seafood, Portuguese architecture, scooters; all awaited me. As I walked past the railway officials checking tickets at the exit, I flashed W/L # 482 and a grin so smug my mother would surely have slapped me had she seen it.