So Happy This Didn’t Happen to Me

(I don’t know if I am allowed to just cut and paste stories from The Globe and Mail onto this blog, but I can’t resist posting this one.)

Flush from embarrassment


Special to The Globe and Mail

October 18, 2008

It didn’t come crashing to a shrieking halt. Bags didn’t fly missile-like from overhead racks. And people didn’t tumble into the aisles.

Instead, all was calm as the train rolled gently to a standstill: This is what happens when you pull the emergency stop?

We were two weeks into our journey across Western India, heading north from Udaipur through the colourful state of Rajasthan. And we were relaxed for a change.

After our white-knuckle drives on India’s treacherously narrow highways (where the still-smoking wreckage of transport trucks seemed part of the natural landscape) and agonizingly long journeys on buses vibrating with Bollywood music, spending a night on a train felt like a walk in the park.
Print Edition – Section Front

Indeed, rail travel in India is a fantastic way to see the place. More than 63,000 kilometres of track criss-cross the country’s 29 states, and more than 13 million passengers ride the rails each day, staggering numbers by any measure.

You can travel first, second or third class. You can standing room only, or opt for an air-conditioned sleeper, complete with freshly-laundered sheets. You can also travel in the privacy of your own spacious cabin. Or, if you’re a woman travelling solo, hop on a female-only car.

Best of all, you can open your windows to the scents of sea and spice (and diesel), and to the calls of touts and hawkers peddling chai and spicy samosas.

Much as I was enjoying this heady awakening of my senses, though, I was distracted by the rumblings of my stomach. So with some trepidation – what would a toilet used by hundreds of millions of people look like? – I headed off to the washroom.

Thankfully, Indian Railways is the world’s largest state employer and I had little to fear. Somebody, clearly, must be assigned to clean the toilets. And now it was up to me. I glanced at the sign posted on the wall behind the toilet: Flush before and after use, its bold, black letters advised; in front of the sign dangled a bright, red, chain.

I shrugged and pulled hard, staring down at the toilet. But there was only silence. It was then that I noticed the foot pedal on the floor. And in a flash, the adrenalin began to course through me.

With a gentle sigh, the train started to slow and I made my way quickly back to my seat.

“It’s stopping,” I whispered anxiously to my unconcerned partner.

“Uh huh,” he said, not looking up from his book.

“You don’t understand. I did it. I pulled the emergency stop!” I could hear the panic in my voice as he stared at me in amazement.

We glanced at the sign posted across from our seat: “To stop train, pull chain,” it read. “Penalty for use without reasonable and sufficient cause, fine up to Rs. 1,000 and/or imprisonment up to one year.”

I imagined police, angry passengers, a year behind bars. I could pay the 1,000-rupee fine (about $20). But would I get to choose?

And then, in a small voice, the child within me spoke. “Do you think they’ll know it was me?”

Within a minute I heard shouts and saw men gathering around our rail car. We poked our heads out the window and followed the fingers pointing upward.

Busted. A small red flag flew accusingly from an opening in our roof.

“It was me,” I yelled, anguished. “It was an accident!”

And then I watched in horror as word of an “accident” spread like wildfire through the car.

“No, no. It was me.” I said, struggling to get the story back on track. “I thought I was flushing the toilet.”

More shouts, more head-shaking, more quizzical expressions. Finally, a passenger beside me leaned out the window, translating.

Silence. Disbelief. Then, miraculously, laughter. Giggles and chortles and outright guffaws. Rail travel in India is nothing if not entertaining.

I can’t remember if I ever made it back to the washroom on that trip. But with no fine, no jail term, no major public humiliation, that train journey remained a relief.