Book excerpt

Slowly but surely, I’m still working on my book about Graham Staines. And news keeps coming; last week the man accused of killing him, Dara Singh, had his life sentence upheld. The judges involved in the review took the chance to make some snarky comments about conversions that has prompted some good defences of freedom of religion in India.

This morning on Twitter, writer/producer Jane Espenson (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and much more) said she’d been procrastinating and challenged all her followers to join her in 30 minutes of totally uninterupted writing (or whatever their creative challenge might be). Here’s what I wrote: the (first draft of the) introduction to my Kolkata chapter.

I planned to catch a local bus from Baripada to Kolkata. I’m not saying I thought it would be a fun few hours, but I knew there were no direct trains and I assumed regular buses would run north from Baripada to the big city. Subhankar talked me out of it. He was sending the Malayali family in a jeep to a nearby town that had direct train links to the north, so I should buy a ticket online and go with them, he said. When I could only find a wait-listed ticket online Subhankar told me not to worry. He said I should just get on board and show the print-out of the ticket to the conductor and he would find me a seat.

‘It’s not a busy train,’ he said. I tried not to think about the large warnings on the print-out of the ticket that said travelling on a wait-listed ticket was illegal and would subject the holder to fines and possible imprisonment.

I found my platform and squeezed onto a very crowded carriage and stood around the doorway with some friendly young men. I told them I had a wait-listed ticket, but I had been promised I could work something out with the conductor. The men raised eyebrows at each other and one of them said ‘Maybe it will be OK because you’re a foreigner, but there’s no spare seats today.’ The train rolled out of the station.

The conductor turned out to be furious, or at least he was acting that way. ‘No, this is illegal madam!’ he said.

‘But uncle was telling me this is what I should do,’ I said, trying to shift blame, like I always do. The conductor got out his pen and underlined the warnings on my ticket so hard that it ripped the paper. He told me to stay where I was, and he marched away. The young men didn’t say anything, and they didn’t look while I tried not to blub. I imagined I would be forced off the train at the next station, which would no doubt be a random, tiny north Orissa town from which I might never be able to escape.

It was an hour later before the conductor returned, in which I had plenty of time to reflect on the bad thing I had done. He gestured for me to follow him down the carriage and into what looked like a baggage storage area, and he told me to sit down on a random sack of something hard. He looked at me and I looked down at the floor. It was exactly like being at the principal’s office.

The conductor told me again that what I had done was illegal and unacceptable. I would have to pay a big fine, he said, and I would be put off the train. I said I understood, and I was sorry. He let his words sink in for a few moments, and then he explained what was actually going to happen. I would pay him for my ticket – the exact amount it was worth – and then he would take me to the air-conditioned carriage where I would sit in the one free seat – his own seat. He would stay on his feet. When we reached Kolkata he would come and find me, and I would walk all the way through the station with him so that if anyone asked to see my ticket he could explain the situation.

I didn’t dare smile.’Thankyou sir, thankyou,’ I said.

The conductor didn’t smile either. ‘Come, come,’ he said, and he lead me to his seat. I thought I might vomit with relief. I sat down and looked out the window at dusk falling over West Bengal, and breathed deeply.

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