On the L14

Of the course the metro would be a railway train. I was expecting a subway. The whole day I had told the autos, “No, no, no, no train. Metro!” Usually they shook their head and sped away. “50 rupees was a rip off anyhow!” I shook my fist until the next instant another yellow auto appeared to bumble me away. One call to Satish and we had the name of a station. Kukatpelly unlocked the language coffer and soon I found myself on my tiptoes, waving my rupees above the heads of the other women in the inquiry line, and heading back through the useless metal detector to the train platforms waiting for the intra-city line to Lingampalli.

I sat down next to a pillar. “Welcome on to Indian Railways!” I said to Isabelle. She hadn’t yet ridden the train. I revealed in part at the initiation. I enjoyed delivering inflated assertions: “This way to the platform!” I said. “There is the waiting room!” “Here is your ticket!” “We need to get on this compartment!” “That is a train!” I filled our wait with the proclamations to cover the nagging feeling that at any moment, IR would best me and, after all these confidences we’d be stuck on the wrong side of this metropolis.

But the train came on time, and we alighted to the general compartment. We had to stand in the crowded car. On the wall, a ripped advertisement: Improve your height! 3 to 4 inches in 3 months! The product placement succeeded well – I could barely reach the handlebars on the ceiling. My shopping bags hung from both my arms like a painted clown frown, which my face also made. Lingampalli was the train’s last call, and we had already spent the whole day marbling through the Lad bazaar.

Then two boys, about our age, struck up a conversation with us through the ubiquitous “What country?” greeting. Wary in this male-centric train, we kept the small talk the smallest. “How do you like the water in Hyderabad?” one asked. I rummaged for the water bottle out in my backpack, held it with the label turned towards them, and took a swig. “It’s good,” I smirked. This elicited a row of genuine smiles. Everyone knows the city water’s polluted, terrible.

The boys exited a short time later. They had given us their seats. They waved goodbye, it was nice to meet you. Not seconds later, Isabelle had shoulder-turned to address the man behind her. Her light hair got another one, I thought.

We passed by the stacked white geometric apartments that meant we were anywhere in the city. We should have eaten dinner before we departed, I sighed. Then Isabelle’s unraveled face bent toward me. That man hadn’t asked her country. He didn’t need it.

“He just told me the whole train is talking about us.”

“Because we are white?”

“Because we are too friendly.”

“What are they saying?”

He had refused to tell her. “Oh no, it was too crude to repeat,” he had shaken his head and left quickly at the next stop. He had waited until his exit to tell her. He couldn’t risk fraternizing, either.

Without pausing, we had both lied to the boys and our location and our exit stop in synch for protection. We had talked about cricket and the iMax theatre, fields of study. We asked no questions in return. While the boys had laughed at the water bottle trick, we sent the passive observers into another kind of hysterics. Our look, our skin, our gender had implicated us without our words.

“Welcome to India,” I truncated my initial greeting into a flat warning. We said little the rest of the way home, even to each other.

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