Squeeze A Grape (The Finale) ~ Early Morning Thoughts

The Finale (Chapter one) (Chapter two)

Our train car still overflowing, was beginning to settle down. We were still crowded beyond belief, still trying to find ways to get comfortable and the village was still encamped around the bathroom. Evidently, my maneuver with the drag queens had given me a small bit of notoriety, and there were no longer complaints or grumblings when any of us had to use the bathroom. And the car was still connected very close to the engine. A coal fired engine.

At this point, some of the negatives of the situation were becoming very overwhelming – especially to the students. They had put up with the train station upheaval, the conditions – and all the people. However, even their willingness to be adventurous was being tried to the limit.

The train pulled into a station for a quick stop. That was when we discovered that the Cirque De Woodystock was about the enter the free market zone. From that point on – until we reached our destination – the wheels of commerce had joined our group. I think I would have welcomed the dancers back. During this time we were treated to vendors getting on at a stop and getting off at the next. We were all wondering why the passengers weren’t doing that as well.

We had booze sellers – of both the hot and cold variety, no ID check required. My immediate answer was no – which had to be repeated several times to the older students. The villagers in front of the bathroom were very glad to see that vendor. We had people selling various food items – some identifiable and some (most) not. Roasted nuts proved to be very popular among everyone in the car. At some point two fruit vendors got on the train and walked the aisles with bananas and such. We had vendors with dishes, cooking pots of all sizes. We had someone selling a rubber band ukulele and something I had not seen before nor since – a tin can guitar. There were at least two booksellers, I think. (Remember, at this point we all have been without any or much sleep, food had been sporadic and no one had been near a shower for awhile. We were “the sweaty unwashed masses.” ) One of the booksellers realized the breadth of his audience ages. He tried to sell children’s books to the students and to the adults – in full view of the students, he offered a selection of adult books. The covers of some would have been cause for immediate arrest in the US.

While the phenomenon went unnoticed at first – a couple of the more alert students picked up on it, and acted accordingly. At some of the stops, passengers were getting off along with the various side-show people that had made our long night more interesting. As this occurred, more spaces became available around us. Students and adults would gradually move into the available spaces and could actually begin to move limbs that had been immobile for the entire evening. A few changes in luggage placement and several more could actually stretch out and attempt some sleep.

Eventually, the vendors seemed to be gone. The sun was coming up over the horizon, and with it the new day – surely our stop couldn’t be too far from now. More and more of the puppy-pile bodies were disentangled and finding spots to claim as their own. The last vendor, I remember was selling a new invention: the safety pin (!?), and had gone to…wherever these vendors were going. Not, I’m sure where several of the people in the group had wished they would. At last, I thought I might have a chance to get some sleep – in relative peace and quiet.

Any chance of that was abruptly ended by a very loud, repetitive “alms for the poor” type chant/song from the other end of the car. And I do mean very loud and very repetitive. When there was a pause for breath, the chat was punctuated by the “tugga-tugga, tugga-tugga” of a damaru. (A small hour-glass shaped drum, with a hard object attached to leather or such, allows the drum to sound by moving one hand back and forth.) Some damru’s are very lovely and sell for quite a bit of money. In this case, the drum was home-made and had a very distinctive sound…”tugga-tugga-tugga-tugaa” followed or preceded with the very loud, very repetitive “alms for the poor.” I was convinced that I was going to be trapped forever on this train, in some kind of Twilight Zone existence, doomed to repeat all the nights activities – over and over.

As the alms seeker made his way toward us, I realized that he was “blind” or so I thought. When he arrived so I had a closer look … he gave the appearance of having had some terrible problem with his eyes. They weren’t clouded by cataracts or such. They were covered with a very white, somewhat wrinkled film. It had small folds in it, and covered the entire eye – something he made sure that everyone still left on the train had a very good look at.
Then, I remembered a piece of trivia I probably would have been better off forgetting. When I was in college studying drama in all its forms. We had gotten an article about Lawrence Oliver and one of his earlier performances of Oedipus Rex, the great Greek tragedy. He was looking for a way to make coming onstage after blinding himself more real and horrifying to the audience. Evidently, he did some experimenting and took the inside membrane of a chicken egg and put it on his eyes. It was translucent and allowed light and some shadow in – and gave exactly the same appearance as I was now looking at. My suspicions were confirmed when we reached the next stop and as he was getting off, he reached up and pulled the membranes off his eyes and walked away having had a “miracle,” and made money in the process.

The next stop would be ours, and we began the process of gathering up what was left of our energy, relocating luggage and preparing to get off the train. The schools auditor/financial officer was to meet us.
He and his wife had left after we did and were flying to meet us before they left on their vacation. By now, we understood what being in a car close to a coal fired engine meant. We were literally covered with soot. It was in the hair, clothes, on the skin. I felt as if Sherman’s Army had “marched to the sea” barefoot in my mouth.

We got off the train and gathered on the platform looking, I’m sure, as a very dispirited band of ragamuffins setting out to the new world without a penny to their name. We were met by absolute visions in white. Absolutely blinding white. The financial officer and his wife – who had spent two very relaxing days waiting for our arrival – were walking toward us with big (rested) smiles on their faces. Their clothes were crisply white, their smiles glistened with white – I think even their hair had turned bright white. I will not repeat what one of the students said under their breath behind me, but suffice to say I didn’t correct her either.

“And so, did you have a great trip?” were the first words out of his mouth.

For the first and only time in my life I contemplated murder most foul.

“Squeeze a lemon and you don’t get apple juice” was a popular saying a few years ago. The meaning was quite simple – whatever I am inside, is going to come out during stress and strain. Whatever masks or identities I wear — when the going gets personally tough, whatever is within – whatever I hold as “me” is probably going to “shine” when the push becomes the shove. Miss Marley (an elderly lady who lived at the school – and was the oldest resident of the school) always told me – “When you squeeze a grape, you don’t get wine. It’s got to be mashed around a bit first.”

Squeeze A Grape (Chapter Two) ~ Early Morning Thoughts

–Chapter Two (Chapter one here)

We are squeezed into a train car along with a lot of other people, and the train is heading down the track. Normally, there would be the soft lulling sound of the train, the track and the gentle rolling of the car. This time, I’m looking over at bodies of students, and adults looking like some kind of huge puppy-pile – involving arms, legs, heads and luggage. The group camped in front of and around the bathroom were highly protective of their space, and resented having to move for anyone. But, at least, with some grumbling they were willing to eventually move. And the train continued to head down the track. I mentioned earlier that we were one of the cars close to the engine. A coal fired engine.

As the late afternoon turned into evening, people had made peace with the situation – somewhat, and were beginning to settle into a resigned manner of getting as comfortable as possible for what was obviously going to be a very long night. I looked around and realized that if someone were to take a picture, we would look as if we were advertising a multi-cultural performance of “The Lower Depths” (a play by Maxim Gorky). I didn’t dare chuckle about it too loudly, as trying to explain where my mind was wandering unaided would be too difficult.

A few hours passed…

I started to come to the realization I was about to “lose it.” As in – completely lose it. I felt I had reached the end of my patience, understanding – you name it. Something had to happen, or something was about to happen. I think almost everyone has reached that point at some time. In this case, the idea of losing it was actually quite a delightful idea. I had this crazy picture of a madman (me) tearing through the train compartment luggage and all flying in my wake. At that moment, there was a commotion from all those camped in front of the bathroom door. They were actually laughing and whooping and such…and pointing to the door of the bathroom. I found this interesting, as I hadn’t seen (or heard the loud complaints about) anyone going in – let alone coming out.

Imagine my total shock and surprise, when two VERY lovely Indian ladies came (evidently) from the bathroom. And I do mean lovely. They were in beautiful sari’s, jewelry with their hair impeccably done and make-up absolutely perfect. Bollywood (Bombay) film actresses was my first thought, which was immediately followed by the question of what would film actresses be doing on THIS train and that was followed by the thought that I must have lost my mind, or gone into total hallucination. These lovely ladies gently moved their way through all the encampment and ended up in front of the first compartment and myself. At that point, they leaned over and put on their dancing bells. These bells are wrapped around the legs of dancers and the legend has it that a superior dancer is able to ring each bell individually.

By now I was sure I was suffering from a gigantic hallucination – however, the students continually asking me what they were doing and/or going to do, convinced me that this was NO hallucination.

The attaching of the bells finished – the two began to sing a Hindi film song, and to dance (well, dance with as much room as was available). The “encampers” had reach a state of almost football game excitement. As in, they were shouting and being very loud – with much shoulder and back slapping. The students and adults (to say nothing of the rest of the train car) were now completely awake, and all thoughts of how uncomfortable they might have been – had been forgotten as they watched this performance.

I thought that this interesting tamasha (a Hindi word that really has no easy English translation) might simply be moving down the car – a sort of impromptu entertainment. But, it soon became apparent that they had no intention of moving…until they were paid for their performance. As I was looking at the ladies, I made other discoveries. One of them had 5 o’clock shadow beginning to peek through the make-up and the other had a bosom that seemed to be moving in different directions – and slipping slightly -occasionally. Of course, the adams apples should have been my first clue. And the students – who are never as naive as people think they are – had begun to figure this out as well. Now, I was in a quandary. There is no set price for these performances, and it’s true – they will not stop and will not move on unless they get what they think is a good price. As I had mentioned earlier, the trip was tightly budgeted – and there was no money for extraneous performances such as this, which I wasn’t sure I would be able to explain with any degree of rationality to the administration.

So, I did the first thing that popped into my mind.

I got up, and precariously stood on the bench I was sitting on, and began to imitate them. By this time, our entire end of the car was in complete uproar. To say nothing of the students and adults. However, I was now committed – and there was no turning back. I tried to match them gesture for gesture, hip bump for hip bump. I guess that one of them decided to humiliate me by reaching over and grabbing my rear end. We used to refer to that as a bah-poo (accent on second syllable) . As I was told, that’s the affectionate pat one gives a baby’s bottom, and in the wonders of Hindi – it can also be a term of endearment (and you thought English could be difficult). So, there I was trying to keep from being a total fool (probably too late for that) and was having my rear bahpooed by a drag queen in a crowded train in the middle of somewhere.

Again, I did the first thing that popped into my mind.

I whirled around, stuck out my hand and demanded 5 rupees. I repeated it several times (each time pointing to my rear). “Five rupees.” They finally figured out that I was either 1) completely crazy or 2) completely crazy and serious. They gently took their leave of the first compartments and moved on down the train car. And I was five rupees richer.

–the finale tomorrow

Squeeze A Grape (chapter One) ~ Early Morning Thoughts

Chapter One ~

Earlier this week, and again today – I was asked about various happenings to me during my time in India. I was there from 1971 until 1978, teaching at Woodstock School, an international school. At the time I arrived, the school was over 100 years old, and when I left I’m sure the school felt it was over 300!! The school is located in Mussoorie , U.P. high in the Himalayan mountains. The school was a boarding school/day school for grades 1-12…with about 450 students in any given year. The school had expanded it’s “junior or senior year abroad, ” and dual diploma program, so as a perk, the school decided (well, leadership actually decided) in 1974 that taking those students on a circle tour of India for about 6-8 weeks would be a very educational and interesting way to fill the time between semesters and keep those students out of everyone’s hair.

The trip was carefully planned, budgets calculated and everything was going according to plan. The trip was going to consist of 28 students (all high-school) and 5 staff. There were a couple of school families added to the mix, so we made a rather large contingent. By now, reservations at the hotels were made, train tickets were purchased and the reservations reasonably assured to be reserved.

During the 70’s and I’m sure today as well, India was highly dependent on trains. It was said during that year at least 10% of the population traveled on trains every day. Also, without the network of trains manufacturing, transportation of food and such, would be completely impossible. Three weeks before the Cirque de Woodystock was set to leave, the entire train operation came to a complete halt, due to one of the largest strikes in India’s history. As in – nothing going anywhere. A few commuter trains within certain areas supposedly were still running, but nothing else.

And now everything seemed to be unraveling. However, there were assurances from all over that the strike would be settled very quickly, so we went on as if nothing had changed. I’m not going into the historical or political ramifications of all that occurred – that’s not the story I’ve been asked about. Finally, five days before we were to leave, the strike was settled and we were going on a wonderful tour. We packed, laughed – checked tickets and headed out – yes, it felt like a cattle drive at times.

There were many adventures along the way, but one of several highlights has to be leaving Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). The trip into the train station was a small tip of the iceberg as to how this trip was going to go. We arrived in Calcutta to make the connection onward. With the tie-up of trains due to the strike, literally thousands of people were trapped within train stations. Now, add those people to the people who actually lived in the train stations (no different then people who occupy spaces here in the states or Europe)…and it made for every crowded conditions. There we stood, like a crowd scene from some Broadway show. After a rather tense 6 hours – part of the sporting events we watched from a distance included an attempt to burn the station down – we were lead to a portion of the platform to await the arrival of the train from the round-house. Which arrived from the round-house completely full. As in packed.

More adventures (for another time) and all of us were on the train. Perhaps saying we were in the car would be a better description. The conditions of that train car made Dr. Zhivago’s train trip seem like traveling on the Orient Express. The car we were traveling on had open compartments on one side, with facing single seat benches on the other – and an aisle dividing the two. There was a bathroom on the end of the car where we were located. The car was designed for a maximum of 72 people. I counted over 150 when I decided that I wouldn’t count any more, and I couldn’t see beyond about 1/3 into the car. Normally, this would be a fairly comfortable way to travel – but given the fact that as many people as possible were in that car – comfort was not going to be an option. The students and staff were in the three compartments designed to hold four to six plus luggage – now were wall to wall people and luggage. An entire fishing village were camped in front of and around the bathroom. I and three staff were occupying the benches (along with the overflow of the fishing village). Oh yes, important to a later part of the story, there were no closable windows – and this car was one of the first behind the coal fired engine.

“Squeeze a lemon and you don’t get apple juice” was a popular saying a few years ago. The meaning was quite simple – whatever I am inside, is going to come out during stress and strain. Whatever masks or identities I wear — when the going gets personally tough, whatever is within – whatever I hold as “me” is probably going to “shine” when the push becomes the shove. Miss Marley (an elderly lady who lived at the school – and was the oldest resident of the school) always told me – “When you squeeze a grape, you don’t get wine. It’s got to be mashed around a bit first.”

–Chapter Two tomorrow