At Varanasi Junction, a woman’s voice blares (thickly, fuzzily, incessantly) over an old loudspeaker, announcing train arrivals and train stops and train delays and train changes and train numbers, as well as tips on being more hygienic in the train station. In Hindi, and British English. One man ignores her suggestions, brushing his teeth on the platform and spitting onto the rails.
Trains bellow and screech through the station. Vendors jingle bangles and shake noisemakers passionately, as though there wasn’t already enough noise. They call out their offers to no-one in particular, or anyone who may be paying attention. And still, some people sleep, as though deaf to the calamity that surrounds them, because they live in it.
Families congregate around their luggage, an assortment of cheap duffel bags and empty rice sacks. Some beggars have hands that act as their feet: arms that are thick and muscular and legs that are only skin over bone. They move around on all fours. Lepers move around pushed in carriages, brandishing bandaged and bloody stumps for appraisal and pity.
Almost every kind of Indian can be found in a train station like Varanasi Junction. The dirt poor are not here, but the very poor are, hoping for a ride by paying a few rupees for aisle space on a full train. A few tall, almond-eyed Sikhs wear their long beards rolled up and tucked into turbans on their heads. Muslim men wear white robes and their beards out and full, but cover their heads with white caps. The Mulism women wear black, from head to toe, while the Hindu women wear cloth of every colour. There are Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, and then thousands and thousands of Hindus with different last names, of different castes and colours: every shade of brown that can be found between black and white.
The northern people, Punjabis and Kashmiris, are very tall; the southern Tamils and Keralites are short. There are newborns, the very elderly, and everyone in between. Women, men, and a couple of eunuchs.
Saris, kurta pajamas, sherwani pajamas, salwar kameez, dhotis, lungis, monks’ robes, jeans. Some heads feature hair that is luxurious and thick and dark, reaching to their owners’ knees. Some heads were shaved only hours before.
Bare feet, sandalled feet, sindoor-stained feet, jewelled feet, nike’d feet. Gold jewellery. Paan spit.
Some skin is dry and deeply cracked, years of dust and rinsing. Some skin is coconut oiled, soft. A rat like a small wolf crosses the tracks, afraid of nothing.
Cotton scarves, silk scarves, synthetic scarves, all sweat-spotted at thirty nine degrees in the evening.
One vendor balances a basket of bracelets on his head, cocked jauntily to one side. He haggles with his voice and arms and dark eyes that dart from side to side. He looks like he’s about to be married off, wearing bangles up to his upper arms, and brandishing more between long fingers. This vendor almost tripped over a tiny man in green uniform, who was bent in half at his waist. Unable to look upwards, the man yelled and cursed at the floor instead of his assailant. He continued to drag a squeegee across the platform, uselessly.