Fighting and jostling like a pro I find a seat in the ladies-only carriage of the train. I love this particular Indian custom. As a feminist it should offend me, but in such an intense culture to be able to travel free of male harassment it’s a welcome relief. I get to bond with women who in the company of their husbands might not be so forthright and candid. Still, at every stop small children reach their hands through the window bars begging for ‘Ek rupee!’ and the ladies carriage is given no immunity from beggars. I’m traveling with a group of women, and one who is about six months pregnant. At the train stop she sees something and quickly covers her stomach with her shawl and handbag, concealing her pregnant state. I shoot an inquisitive look.
“Number sevens! If they see I’m pregnant they will curse my baby unless I give them a donation.”
Just when India can’t get any weirder, Number Sevens is the name given to hermaphrodites and the gender ambiguous. In India or at least here in the north, when a hermaphrodite child is born parents can choose to give them up to a tribe of fellow hermaphrodites to be raised within a community. I’ve noticed these sometimes stunning women in ostentatious saris and costume jewelry making a great fanfare wherever they go, but they’re exaggerated gestures and large hands and feet always hint at some variation of trans-gender persuasion. Maintaining themselves by singing, dancing and begging, they’re notorious for turning up at weddings, funerals or any other auspicious occasion demanding donations in exchange for their blessings… or rather to avoid their apparently devastating curse. After they passby without incident, she elaborates that the real term for them is “hijra” in Urdu, or "khusra" in Punjabi. Why she's calling them Number Sevens, I don’t know. These days nothing raises my eyebrow.
I’m making good distance. I’ve been on the train for over twenty four hours, which means little to nothing given that in India trains have no qualms about stopping in the middle of nowhere, and simply sitting for hours at a time. But this train’s been moving non-stop and my carriage has seen its share of characters come and go. I am now alone. The landscape is quite barren, almost scorched. I can tell I am in the middle third of the country, and no longer up north. Every now and again in the distance I can see a solitary man sitting in a field. Squatting. No doubt taking a dump. I have not been more dump conscious anywhere on this planet than here in India. It seems everywhere I look someone is pooing in public. And nothing can prepare for the toilets on an Indian train, not even Morocco. Quite literally it is a feces-smeared hole in the floor with the mesmerizing passage of railroad tracks whizzing by underneath. One might become hypnotized if it were not for the gag-inducing stench of excrement. I might be giving myself colon cancer. I absolutely refuse to go. It’s bad enough peeing, but at least it’s almost possible to hold my breath. But poo? Forget it. I would rather die.
Another night on the train and I’m shaking, woken by a violent storm. I am most definitely no longer in the middle of the country but moving toward the sultry south. We seem to be crossing rivers, yet the train appears on par with the water. It’s pitch black and impossible to see, save for lightening strikes that illuminate the sky for several seconds followed by vicious claps of thunder. This is long enough for me to see small clay homes and palm trees being slapped around by torrential wind and rain almost as loud as the sound of the train. It’s scary. I already have little faith in India’s railroads and their safety. Now it appears as though the tracks are disappearing in the flood waters. It is however, strangely beautiful. I watch out the window for an hour alone in my delicious ladies carriage, but I must be drifting to sleep. It isn’t until I hear the familiar “Chai, chai!” that I wake with sun beaming through my barred windows. I am in tropical Kerala.
The people in Cochin seem much cleaner and more traditional. The ladies are all wearing saris as opposed to the Salwar Kameez. They look lovely, slighter in frame than their Northern sisters and making jingle-jangle noises with bangles and ankle bells, making them possibly the world’s least likely cat burglars. In order to get to Mata’s Ashram I have to take a bus, then a boat through the backwaters that separate a small strip of land from the mainland. Out of my bus window I can see young and old women building asphalt roads. Now that’s women’s lib! What’s more liberating is that some of the women are not wearing choli tops, yet they are so expert at keeping their breasts covered. I continue pointing this out until someone puts me out of my misery and explains that cholis are an invention, the result of the Mogul invasions in the Middle Ages. Indian tradition is very suchi (clean), and by having no seams in the fabric such as a sari, one can keep the cloth impeccably clean. Not all northern habits make it south, especially not to the poorer classes.
I hop a boat to cross the backwater. It resembles one of those flat-bottomed crafts you might see going through shallow swamps to catch crocodiles. As we pass another boat in the opposite direction I notice it’s full of Indians except for two Western girls stripped down to bikinis. They are just laying there, sun baking on deck. The locals are bunched together leaving a good three feet between them and the bikini babes, staring aghast. Culturally it’s the equivalent of being naked on the London Metro. This cultural obliviousness pisses me off. A slap in the face of "when in Rome" it only serves to make traveling alone all the more difficult for women.