When I was booking up our trip to India I gave my sister and her girlfriend a choice of whether we should take a night train from Haridwar back to Delhi or whether they'd prefer to go during the day. I warned them that the trains don't suit everyone and that, even though my husband and I love the night trains, a lot of people really don't like them at all. I thought they would probably opt for the day train so I was pleased when they decided that a night train was a compulsory part of the India experience and so they wanted to go with that. Being a nice sister – and one who can't see the point in saving a small amount of money on second class – I booked us a First Class air con compartment, ensuring we'd have it all to ourselves.
Night trains in India are often used on journeys that aren't really quite long enough to justify the length of an overnight journey. In order to stretch out the experience so that the trains arrive at not too stupidly early an hour they tend to leave as late as possible, go so slowly that you could be forgiven for thinking they're going backwards, and make long stops at small stations to waste a bit of time. In this case the journey is something like 283km - no great distance for wasting 7 or 8 hours.
The night train from Haridwar to Delhi leaves just after 11 pm so we planned to be at the railway station an hour before. It was a bit of an overkill to be quite so early but if you don't know the railway station it's always possible that things can go wrong so I like to have plenty of time. We had driven to Haridwar from Rishikesh so we didn't know how big the station was or how complex the platforms would be. We rolled up with about an hour and a quarter to spare and set about trying to decipher which platform we needed after weaving our way through all the bodies lying sprawled in the main station hall. There's no sense of reserve about getting down on the floor and having a sleep in India and it can make it tricky to get past without running a sleeping traveller over with your suitcase.
The information boards confirmed that we didn't need to go far as the train would be arriving on the nearest platform but we weren't able to find the passenger list and check which carriage we would need or where it was likely to arrive. We sent my husband off to speak to the Deputy Station Superintendent (or a gentleman with a similarly impressive title) as we've learned from experience that these tend to be the only people who know what's going on. He confirmed our compartment and berth numbers off a long computer print-out and waved his arm in roughly the direction of where he thought our carriage was likely to park up.
We found a patch of platform that was free of bodies and staked our claim to a bit of space. My husband and sister went shopping for snacks whilst Joyce and I kept an eye on all the bags. With bottles of water and outrageously hot potato crisps, some chocolate bars and some packets of juice, we were well provisioned for the night. As we waited a gang of greedy monkeys started to swing through the eaves of the railway station roof. A pair of particularly cheeky primates decided to have a go at sifting through the bins and perched on the edge of the swinging bin throwing all the rubbish out onto the platform. A young station boy with a stick was upset because he and his friend thought they would get first dibs on checking out the content of the bin and had been upstaged by the monkeys.
A large family came and settled beside us. Before sitting down they spoke to another family who pointed them in the direction of a stall where they could buy a large cardboard sheet on which to sit. The father returned and they carefully opened it out and started to set all their bags and baggage on the sheet. As they fussed around they became distracted by the monkeys and a tiny old lady in a very dirty sari crept up and grabbed a bottle of coke off their sheet. We thought she was going to get away with it until the father spotted her out of the corner of his eye and chased her away. Whilst it's true that a large proportion of people bedded down on station platforms are travellers killing time before their trains, there are also a large number of homeless people who spend their nights in the shelter of the stations. We were fairly sure that the lady concerned wasn't going anywhere but was looking to see what she could pick up from unwary or generous passengers.
After another 20 minutes or so the family were settled, reading their newspapers and nibbling on the snacks that mother or grandmother had prepared. The little old lady rose from her threadbare blanket and strode to the edge of the platform where she squatted down, lifted her sari and peed or pooped onto the railway tracks. My sister stood their open-mouthed trying not to stare whilst my husband and I doubled up laughing at the look on her face. Job finished, the old girl stood up, strolled back to her blanket and went back to sleep. We had warned Aileen and Joyce that they could expect to see some strange lavatorial behaviour on railway stations but until they witnessed it with their own eyes, I really don't think they understood quite what we meant.
About fifteen minutes before we were due to depart, the train rolled into the station, we gathered our bags and boarded the train. The carriage we needed had come in exactly where we were standing (thanks to the assistant superintendent or whatever he was), we found our compartment, settled in and gave the old lady a wave as the train pulled out of the station.