||I DONT UNDERSTAND what is first class about this train car, my husband said.
I looked around at the dirty, rusty old car, with bent bars on the open window, red betel juice stains on the walls, and the single hard seat in the small cabin. I looked through the bars to the bustling train station, with hawkers, beggars, food and magazine stalls, travelers, crying children, hungry dogs, and all the noise that went along with the bustling activity in the humid Bombay afternoon. I could smell the pungent odor that is always present in India a combination of rotting garbage, sweaty bodies, and smoke from dung fires. The sights, sounds and smells were coming back to me after thirty years of being away. I suddenly realized why such a decrepit car would be labeled first class. Its because we are the only people allowed in here, I explained to my husband. In India, there are people everywhere. You are never alone. It isnt the quality of the cabin that separates us from the others. Its the luxury of having some space and time to ourselves.
We sat back and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the hard bench in the humid afternoon air. The only first class tickets available for the four-hour train trip had been Non AC that is, no air conditioning. I didnt mind, however, as the heat and noise contributed to my nostalgia. The humidity, the vivid colors, the sounds of life at the station, and the scene of the ramshackle slums of Bombay as the train pulled out of the station were quickly bringing me back thirty years. Back to a time of idealism and the eternal belief of youth that we really do have the power to change the world.
Joining the Peace Corps
My husband and I had joined the Peace Corps right out of college in 1966. The Vietnam War was raging, and we were among the Peaceniks who felt there was a better way. We were given three months of training in poultry management and the local Marathi language before we were sent off to Nasik, a town of 100,000 in the state of Maharashtra, India. There were twenty-one of us in group India 26 all of us scattered around the state whose most famous city is Bombay. At the end of our two years of service, most of us had come to the painful realization of how hard it really was to make any significant difference in the lives of people in a culture that is 5,000 years old. As a result, most of us gained more from our experience than we were able to give.
We returned to America in 1968 to begin the process of establishing homes and careers; and soon the PTA, the school board, and the local soccer leagues along with our jobs drained us of any leftover zeal to change the world. For some of us myself included eventual divorce, and the life changes that go along with it, also became a part of our life experiences. I remarried and moved on.
An opportunity to return
In 1998, my new husband, Pat, and I were invited to represent our software company at a conference in India. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and to extend our business trip by two weeks and travel to Nasik where I had been stationed in the Peace Corps. It was not an easy decision to make and I was not sure what or who I was looking for by going back. However in November of 1998, thirty years after leaving India, we flew from Seattle to Bombay, and after one night in a hotel, found ourselves on the first class train to Nasik . Less than 48 hours after leaving home, I would be back in Nasik with a new husband, very little memory of the Marathi language, and thirty years of change both within and without. I had no idea what to expect, and as the train moved slowly through the afternoon heat, passing lush fields and towns crowded with noise, people color, and life, I began to reflect on the people I had known when I lived in Nasik, wondering how and if I would find each of them when we arrived.
My first thought was of Chief, a wealthy Hindu, who was used to power and money. Chief had a purse from the government, which he received for having been a Chief of a small sovereignty at the time of independence in 1948. Chief lived in the largest house in Nasik full of servants, friends, family as well as local and at times national politicians. Chief gave large dinner parties, traveled the world, and was a very gracious host to the local foreign community. It was Chief I had called to say we were returning to Nasik, and he had been most gracious in arranging for a place for us to stay.
Falu and Roshan Irani were of the Parsi community. They lived in a small, older home on the family compound with their two teen-aged sons. Falu had been educated in England and raised in a wealthy family. He was a gentleman farmer, enjoying the time in his fields on his tractor and the feeling of dirt under his fingernails. Falu was also a hunter, helping local villages when a leopard or tiger crept too close and started taking their livestock or sometimes, a child. I remembered many evenings spent with Falu and Roshan, she sitting quietly after serving us an exquisite meal while Falu sipped whisky and philosophized on the meaning of life or told wild tales of his hunting experiences. Falu and Roshan were very peaceful people, rarely leaving the solitude and peace of their quiet compound.