Crime and Punishment on an Indian Sleeper Train
January 12, 2012 § 7 Comments
Plodding swiftly through the dry Deccan plateau – yes, plodding swiftly: my train speeds toward Amritsar a thousand miles north but it plods and lumbers, or so it seems to me – the parched, cracked navel of India makes everything seems so slow, thirsty, interminable. At first I am encouraged by brief glimpses of pink petals on some thorny tree but eventually I seek out another landscape inside my book.
Not that Dostoyevsky’s Russia is so very different from India: I have witnessed streets and rooms like those of Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg – the scaffolding, the bricks, the dust, the unbearable stench, the rags, the multitudes…
I am a third of the way through. A drunk man has been trampled by a horse, two old women murdered with an axe, an orphaned boy cries “Run like billy-o” and Raskolnikov says: “That’s enough. Begone mirages, begone affected terrors, begone apparitions! There’s a life to be lived.” I read until day becomes dusk and Porfiry Petrovich says with a giggle tee-hee: “My dear fellow! Why it’s from you, from you yourself that I’ve learned it all.”
I lay my book down and withdraw from this fabricated world for the final moments of the real one as the sun slips behind a dry horizon and a farmer whips his goatherd homewards…
“Chai! Chai! Chai! Masala tea, chai!” The raspy cry of a chai-wallah roaming the aisles with his canteen and paper cups rouses me at dawn. In the night, the train rocked me back and forth and broke my rest as it hurtled through the northern plains. I wake up in a new world, a different India of misty fields of mustard seed and people cowering in the cold. There are goats on the tracks and human shit. Seven scraggy children jump up and down on a cold tin roof while pigs snuffle and root in mountains of waste that are the gardens of the places where people live. They are not waiting for a train. They are not going anywhere.
In the toilets, I squat to pee and stare bleary-eyed through the hole at the tracks below. The India-Pakistan border is yet a day away. How much of it can I bear to spend staring into the mire of this poor humanity? I escape to the pages of my book to find it is no better in there. Nikolai is down on his knees confessing to a crime he did not commit and sweet Sonya, poverty’s whore, is telling Raskolnikov: “You must accept suffering and redeem yourself by it.”
And though she may be right for he has surely sinned, I find myself unconvinced and seething at religion and history and cultural legacy and all those myths that tell us we must accept suffering, that we are redeemed by it, that it is the will of a divinity whose mysteries we are too base and ignorant to understand. And these myths, these holy lies, they keep us dumb and compliant and they are the reason, the true reason, for these tent towns by the railways lines. Dostoyevsky knew it in 1865 when he wrote the devastating Crime and Punishment and I see it still today, I see it from my window on a sleeper train in India.
And I cannot escape the fact that I am on one side of the window and they are on the other; that they are going nowhere while I travel anywhere I please; that I’m not only traveling in this world but have the pleasure and privilege to break free from it and lie low inside the pages of another. And though I have committed no crime, I understand, like Nikolai, that in some strange and convoluted way I am part of it all and the sin is also mine…