I steeled myself for the usual assault. And sure enough, before my foot hit the broken, moist pavement, three of them were on me.
I didn’t really need a porter to carry my bag, I could do it myself, but I needed one to help me find my platform, my train and my bogey. And yes, as I was barely awake, it was a relief to have someone carry my bag through the teeming railway station to the platform that was almost a kilometre away.
“How much?” I asked, knowing what was coming.
“200 rupees,” came the answer.
“Are you kidding?! I’ll carry it myself.” There is actually a fixed tariff, though you would never know it.
“I live in Delhi!” I exclaimed, in Hindi. “I know the charge is supposed to be 40 rupees per bag!”
“Okay, okay 150,” came the retort.
And so on, until finally we met sort-of in the middle at 80 rupees (about $2.00), which was high, but manageable. I have come to expect a “foreign tax,” and I know these guys really do need the money.
I followed my porter, who was of course running ahead, thinking it was my lucky day: he was very tall, which made him easier to spot as he raced through the crowd with my luggage on his head.
We arrived at the platform and I showed him my ticket. After some confusion, and consultation with a notice board that listed all the passengers, he pointed out that I had a waiting list ticket only. Number 48 on the waiting list. I thought 48 was my seat number.
Panic. I really needed to get to my yoga ashram. The Kumbh Mela was only days away and millions of people would be streaming to my destination. There would be no chance to get another train. “I need to get on that train!” I told my porter.
He grasped the situation immediately, and sprang into action, sprinting up and down the platform looking for a conductor. We found the first class conductor surrounded by questioning passengers. A chubby, satisfied-looking babu in a worn uniform, he said it was impossible. All the trains to Haridwar were booked for weeks.
But still, my porter didn’t give up and neither did I. With only minutes left before departure we found the second-class conductor, a handsome man with a thoughtful face who simply said, “You can have my seat,” and told the porter the number.
On to the train we jumped, together, united in our sense of urgency and exhilarated by our success. The train was packed, but the porter found a place overhead to squeeze in my bag as the final boarding call resounded up and down the damp, cavernous platform.
The porter and I looked at each other and smiled, accomplices now, and I gave him a heart-felt thank you as I thrust a small handful of 100 rupee notes in his hand, much more than he tried to scam off me.
Photo of New Delhi Train Station by Zwetkoff.