Heart and soul: 'Fake foreign tourist' wins over new friends with a song in their language

Passenger train at New Delhi railway station. Photo: 123rf

Heart & Soul
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It was my daughter’s first journey to India. Apart from the usual tourist sites, we had visited family and friends and were about to return home.

Still basking in the warmth of the preceding days, we boarded the New Delhi-bound train from Aligarh on a cold winter morning. Helpful porters rushed us into the train, along with our belongings, as it had stopped only for a few minutes.

We found ourselves in a packed compartment; all the berths were occupied. An assortment of luggage filled the spaces underneath.

Vendors went about their business, selling drinks and snacks.

A singing beggar couple appeared and moved on, gathering alms while the train was picking up speed.

We stood in the passageway with our bags, aware of the unwelcoming glances we were getting. Soon, a ticketing inspector appeared. One look at our tickets and he curtly told me we were in the wrong compartment.

I tried to apologise, explaining we were Malaysian tourists and had made a mistake. He was not convinced. There were no other stops on the way, and he could not throw us out of the moving train. Exasperated, he marched on as he had a lot more ground to cover. By then, our illegal status had become common knowledge.

Fellow passengers were scrutinising us as we pretended to look out at the changing landscape. In the background, we were being talked about in Bangla, as fake foreigners, intruders.

Tense moments subsided, though, as more people were waking up and preparing for the day.

Attempting to explain and apologise, I initiated a dialogue. Turning towards the nearest person, I inquired how far we were from New Delhi.

His surprise was obvious. The “fake foreign tourist” was now speaking in Bangla. He warmed towards me, though, and offered a corner of his crowded berth, which I thankfully accepted.

Conversation progressed, and people could not hide their curiosity at my ability to speak their language. I was asked to explain, and one thing led to another as we went into our personal, collective, and ancestral journeys.

I told them of my family’s East Pakistan days, and our train trips between Lucknow and Calcutta (now Kolkata) of the 1950s and 60s. Soon, I was talking about my school days, New Year celebrations, poetry, music, and roads lined with blossoming trees in Dacca (now Dhaka).

The writer and her daughter on holiday in India in 1994. Photo: Farida Jamal The writer and her daughter on holiday in India in 1994. Photo: Farida Jamal

My fellow passengers were descendants of people who had left East Bengal for West Bengal during the Indian partition in the 1940s. Through me, my new friends were transported to a land their nostalgic elders used to talk about.

An invisible bond formed among us, and I was being addressed as didi (sister), mashi (aunty).

People from other berths joined us, and one of them asked me if I could sing a Bangla song.

Softly, I began to sing a song I had learned in school. Written by Tagore and recited by Mahatma Gandhi during one of his marches, it is still a much-loved song: Jodi tor dak shonay keo nae ashay, tobay ekla cholo ray (If they answer not your call, walk alone).

The family seated nearby sang with me. With each line, the number of voices swelled, and soon our entire cubicle was singing the famous lyrics. New groups from other cubicles initiated their favourite songs, and we sang with them in turn.

Somewhere, somebody took out a harmonium and added music to our impromptu choir. A lot of people were singing now, drowning the sound of the fast-moving train.

Each successive song took me back in time to family and friends, days and seasons of my life passage, through Shonar Bangla, Golden Bengal. The crowded and messy compartment took a fresh new look that November morning.

As we approached our destination, I learned that we had barged into a sleeper compartment, reserved by a wedding party travelling from Calcutta to New Delhi. The magic of shared songs had turned intruders into friends. We were invited to the wedding, with the promise of musical evenings, but we had a flight to catch. In no time, we were in New Delhi.

Although decades have passed, the memory of that train full of songs continues to fill me with wonder and delight.

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