Indian Wealth: How to Cook on a Moving Traing

Bhuj, Gujurat, India – Up at a reasonable hour and immediately took my swords to the tailor to have him sew me a bag so I could cart the damn things around with me (they were way too big for my pack). Once that was finished I met Rich and Nicky and we headed over to the ‘silver street’ to purchase some cheap precious metal. I ended up getting two silver boxes, one with the design of an Indian elephant colourfully enameled on the lid, for Rs500 (US$18) – this place was expensive, we were paying Rs58 (US$1.90) a gram. The silver shops closed during the heat of the day so we rested in the courtyard of our hotel for the afternoon until they re-opened. Rich and I went for a walk through the backstreets where no tourists ever went. Everyone we met was so friendly, I think because they didn’t see that many Westerners. The locals had painted the city in the most brilliant colours. The streets were amazing, sometimes entire streets painted in one shade of a pastel colour, a different one for each street. We stumbled upon a few brilliantly painted temples, each better than the last one we saw. We eventually made our way back to the hotel to find Nicky and head to the train station. We were headed to Udiapur, via Palanpur through the state of Rajasthan.

The three of us bit the jovial hotelier farewell and he walked us to the door and waved us off as we packed ourselves, luggage and all into a rickshaw. Now three people sans baggage is a squeeze. Three people and their backpacks is almost overloading the petite little motorized vehicle. Our driver was insane and swerved so closely to a few cows that Rich was able to touch them as we passed. It was a hellacious drive to the station, coming within inches of hitting most cows and almost all pedestrians.

Boarded our train, had a wee smoke then vegged out in the compartment. The train was packed and we ended up sharing our compartment with two Indian men who said they were escorting six older women to Mount Abu (an Indian honeymoon resort with an amazing marble Jain temple). The women were in the next compartment over and after taking a quick peek saw they were all over 50 years old, and judging by their excess body matter they were well fed – indicating wealth (because you’ve got enough money to eat that way to get fat). The train pulled away and shortly thereafter the smaller, skinny Indian man in our compartment began to rummage around under his seat, pulling out a couple of pots which he placed on the seat his butt had just been warming. The larger chubby man seemed to be telling the skinny man (dubbed Laurel) what to do. Rich, Nicky, and I watched in awe as Laurel opened up one of the pots and pulled out a few peeled potatoes. He proceeded to mash them up, then add other ingredients that had been pre-chopped and stored in a third pot. He made this potato dish with a yellow curry sauce. We couldn’t believe it – the man across from us was cooking on the train. And making koftas at that! He rummaged around under the seat some more and pulled out a stack of plates and a pot of cooked rice. He dished up two servings of his culinary creation then headed off sown the aisle towards the women I’d seen earlier.

That’s when it hit me – this man was the women’s personal cook and the chubbier Indian man in our compartment (Hardy) was their porter, for he dealt with the luggage and showed the train conductor the women’s tickets. Unbelievable. Nicky just could not believe this was going on across from her – great expressions. After the women had been served and finished their meal the cook brought back the dirty plates and rushed off to the loo to wash them with a huge bottle of water he’d brought with them. After witnessing this pseudo-cooking show we were wondering, “Wouldn’t it be easier to eat before getting on the train?” In our Western minds, yes, it would be, but to them, we hypothesized, eating on the train like that – with the cook and all – would give them (the well-to-do) another opportunity to flaunt their wealth, Having a cook cook for you on the train (one commodity item – the servant) along with the fact you were being served good food (the food being commodity item number two) other people would see how much food you got to consume, thereby showing your status.

Once the dinner was over we all climbed into our bunks, and watching Laurel and Hardy showed me some insight into their class system. The cook (the lowest class member in our control group) had to sleep on the lowest bunk with the porter above him (from a higher class). The cook had to sleep with a suitcase, taking up a quarter of the room on his bunk, but he could still recline his feet up on top of it. The porter has his own bag as well, but he’d decided his bunk wasn’t too comfortable with his suitcase taking up so much space – the bunk would be much more comfortable with the suitcase on the cook’s bunk. At that he passed it down to the cook and made him sleep with it. With this new object added to the already cramped personal space in his bunk the cook could no longer stretch his legs out so he resigned to curling himself up tight into a fetal position so his body would fit on the bunk with the luggage. Since he was the lowest member of the caste with the group he was traveling with he ended up with all the hardship. At least his way was being paid and he was employed, two things that are hard to come by in India for the locals. Laurel and Hardy were all snuggled up in their beds as were Nicky Rich and I, but there was still one empty bunk above me that needed to be filled before we could go to sleep. Otherwise we’d just be woken by the noise they’d make moving in.

Our train made it’s first stop where the occupants of the empty bunk arrived. This man came in and laid out a long bedroll across the top bunk. (I was laying in my bunk watching things being passed up and down past my bunk by the man and his children.) The only thing about the bedroll it that it was so thick it took up almost half of the space from the bunk up to the ceiling.

The man’s twelve year old daughter came in and climbed up there, then to my surprise the father (a very large man) followed her up. Out of curiosity to see how one contorts one’s body to fit two to a bunk I leaned out and looked up. All I could see was the bulk of the father’s torso precariously balanced on the edge of the bunk; almost ready to tip the wrong direction and send the man to the floor by way of a near fatal back dive. I couldn’t believe the two of them were going to actually sleep up there, but this was India, so anything’s possible.

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