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In Spite of the Gods

What striking truth about India does a British reporter learn from a young Indian boy on a train ride to Delhi?

February 26, 2007

What striking truth about India does a British reporter learn from a young Indian boy on a train ride to Delhi?

I had just wrestled my way through the bustle and clamor of the crowded railway platform and was looking forward to a night of untroubled sleep. I had booked a berth in the first-class sleeper carriage, which in India still retains much of the feather-bedded comfort of the classic railway experience.

It shuts out the noise and the heat. I enjoy the little things, like adjusting the reading lamp or twiddling with the temperature controls. It is an uninterrupted break from the world.

The Indian train journey is invariably soporific. There are few more comfortable sensations than fighting a losing battle with sleep as you watch India float past your window.

"What is your name?" asked a voice, on the bunk opposite mine. I turned toward the questioner and saw a young Sikh boy assessing me curiously. I answered the question. "And which country are you from?" Again, I answered. "I wrote a letter to the Queen once," he said. "She still hasn't replied."

He told me he had written to advise the Queen that she should visit India more often because lots of good things were happening here. He had also written a letter to President Bush, advising him to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq. Again, he had received no reply.

I asked him his age, which was ten, and where he went to school, which was in the city of Allahabad. His father, who was not accompanying him, was a major in the army.

His mother, who was on the bunk below (Indian first-class compartments always have four berths), then told him to leave the stranger alone and go to sleep. She switched the main light out.

The young boy waited for a few minutes until he was sure his mother was asleep. Then he switched his reading lamp on and trained it on me. He caught me just as I was about to descend into the oblivion of a deep sleep.

"Tell me some interesting things," said the cheerful voice. "I have no plans to go to sleep tonight." I tried many different arguments to convince my young interrogator to turn his light out and go to sleep.

But he managed somehow to brush aside all my pleadings, inducements, threats, and protestations without enraging me. His persistence was too artless. "I still don't understand why we can't have a conversation," he said.

So I resigned myself to his suggestion of a general knowledge test. I started with simple questions, which he brushed aside easily — the prime minister of India, then the finance minister of India, then India's biggest river, then the capital of Sri Lanka. "I'm not completely stupid," he said.

So I moved onto the capitals of Europe, which he found a piece of cake, and then the flora and fauna of India, of which he had far greater knowledge than I, and then the presidents of the United States, and so on.

Eventually after about an hour of swatting flies, he suddenly decided he wanted to scrutinize my career and my educational background. Each of his questions was informed and refined by my previous answer.

He was beginning to build my profile. It felt, in fact, more like a criminal profile. Periodically he trained his lamp on me to check that my energy was not flagging.

Finally, I struck a deal with my restless torturer. He would let me go to sleep if I gave him my mobile phone number so that he could call me whenever he wanted to continue the conversation.

We shook on it. But he interpreted the deal far too literally. I do not know how long I had been asleep when my pillow started vibrating and brought me awake with a start.

The cell phone underneath it was ringing. "I just wanted to check you didn't give me the wrong number," said a familiar voice from the bunk opposite on his own previously undeclared cell phone.

I rebuked the boy sharply, only to regret it straight away. "There's no time to lose," he said, looking crestfallen. "The train arrives in five hours. What shall we talk about?"

So our conversation resumed. Every hour or so the train would stop at one of north India's endless provincial towns. A couple of times we got down on to the platform to buy a cup of milky chai masala served in the disposable earthenware cups that are unique to India.

I began to feel entertained by his unflagging curiosity and precocious intelligence. There cannot be many ten-year-olds around the world carrying around this amount of information in their heads.

In spite of his utter disregard for my sleeping plans, he was courteous to a fault. He was also wily. "Would you like another of my biscuits?" he asked whenever my eyelids appeared to be wavering.

Eventually, having mined me for all the information he possibly could, he announced it was time to sleep. Dawn was already intruding. There was only about an hour of the journey left.

"We should really go to sleep now," he said in a tone of mild admonition, gently wobbling his head in the way only Indians can. "Tomorrow we can continue our conversation. Good night." Within seconds he was asleep.

But I was well past the point of no return. For some reason I found myself laughing. It began slowly, originating in the abdomen and rumbling its way silently upward. It was that rare kind of laugh that spreads through the body and fills you — for the duration, at least — with a humorous optimism.

Someone once said to me: "Remember, India always wins." India has a way of confounding you and still making you laugh about it. My chuckling did not subside until the train had reached Delhi.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from Edward Luce’s IN SPITE OF THE GODS, copyright 2007. Reproduced with permission by Doubleday.