On a Train (Literally)

“If you’ve seen the movie Gandhi and remember the scene where his English friend clambers on to the roof of a train, I can tell you that nothing much has changed”

Recently, my family visited Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, as a birthday treat for moi. It was a most enjoyable few days I must say and is as close to a holiday as we normally get – though wandering through the hot, dusty and smelly streets of one of the most overcrowded cities in the world is not everybody’s idea of fun. It is relatively cheap though and as we live on very little , it is the best we can do and it is good enough for me.

There are many sights in Bangladesh that remind you that no matter how poor you may believe yourself to be, you really are not that poor at all. If you can read this and you’re doing so on your own laptop, phone or other electronic device, you are richer than the majority of people here.

When we came to leave Dhaka to return to LAMB one such sight caught my attention despite seeing this hundreds of times before.

We were waiting for our train at Cantonment Station and numerous trains went by, as they do. One, in particular, came past with a number of people sitting on the top of the roof. It was far from unusual and there weren’t as many as you see during the Eid festivals. But it was moving unusually slowly and I decided the number was low enough that I could count just how many were sitting on the roof as well as take photos of interesting faces – especially the children.

I’ve seen children as young as four running across from one end of the train to the other while it moves at speed looking like cartoon characters standing still in the air while the train zips away underneath them. Thankfully, I never saw them really hover in mid-air and plummet to their doom but children do, regularly, fall off the trains and are killed or badly injured.

Occasionally, you see a guard come up and start hitting some of the roof passengers with a stick to throw them off but it is a half-hearted attempt and they all soon get on again.

If you’ve seen the movie Gandhi and remember the scene where his English friend clambers on to the roof of a train, I can tell you that nothing much has changed – except I’ve never known a white guy ever succeed in getting up there without a guard stopping him. Many have tried.

What amazed me with this train is that though there were only a ‘handful’ of people on the roof I counted just over 150 people along the whole stretch. I couldn’t believe there were that many. How many are there when the Eids happen and every square inch of the trains have bodies attached to them – including the engine?!

It also amazed me that underneath – in the carriages themselves – the paying travellers were crammed in to standing room only compartments with little fresh air and no space. Trains here often remind me of Nazi POW trains from WWII. All that is missing is the sound of wailing. How many more were squashed in those carriages from hell, I wondered.

My family and I were sweating away on the platform, waiting for our train which was over an hour late. We would take the journey in an Air-conditioned cabin ‘squashed in’ with four others from a Bangladeshi family sat on the opposite side, served food and tea for the entire ten-hour trip with our feet up on the padded seats.

I thanked God for my blessings.

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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6 Responses to On a Train (Literally)

  1. audrina1759 says:

    Honestly if only we all knew how much people in some parts of the world are suffering most people would be more grateful for the small blessings they have. Hope u enjoyed your holiday?


    • I did enjoy the break, yes! This is such a normal sight in Bangladesh that it almost feels quite right in a way. Despite recent news announcements that poverty is decreasing in Bangladesh, I don’t know where they are looking because I see it all around!


  2. oh true very true few steps out of my house and I know I am blessed cos the poverty all around is shocking even after being born here….and this reminded me of one of my journeys when the train shook up badly and few travelling on the roof fell down and were cut into pieces..it was horrible


    • Oh I can well imagine. I’ve seen a few deaths on the roads here in Bangladesh – usually buses or lorries involved – but thankfully not by trains. Wifey sees the survivors of train accidents regularly though. The ones coming into LAMB hospital are inevitably from the train roofs…


  3. mj says:

    Scenes like these do make us count our blessings, you are right! Hope you had a good holiday!


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