A Police Chief in India

Richard Tillinghast

Old Delhi was smoky with wood fires. Dozens of men and women in dhotis and saris who had slept out under the shelter of the train-station roof were performing their morning ablutions, brushing their teeth with twigs, having a wash, hawking and spitting, smoking bidis and brewing up chai. Just the day before, when I took the train to Delhi from the Pakistani border, war had been declared between the two neighboring countries. More unsettling for me personally was that the pouch where I kept my passport, shot records and other travel documents had gone missing, plus seven $100 bills. In India back then, $700 was a lot of money.

I had travelled overland across the Alps from London, boarding in Venice what was still called the Orient Express—a rattly ghost of a once legendary train whose last stop was Constantinople, now called Istanbul. From Istanbul I continued across Turkey and then through the fragrant and fraught kingdom of Iran. The Shah was still on his throne back then, and Americans could get travel visas. Next I crossed through mountainous Afghanistan, a refuge of hospitality and goodwill unaware of the cataclysms that awaited it. A precipitous bus trip down the Khyber Pass brought me into Pakistan.

But those long miles were behind me now. My Pakistani friends had pleaded with me not to travel to India. It was a treacherous place, they insisted. In Lahore, crowds marched through the streets demanding war. But India was the object of my pilgrimage, Mother India, and I was not to be deterred.

I took a bus to the border and walked the hundred yards across no-man’s-land into India. A blackout was in effect. I changed some of my money into rupees, bought a train ticket to Delhi, checked my backpack at left luggage and strolled around the darkened town, buying chapattis and potato curry from street vendors before boarding the train. The weak light of lanterns, cooking fires, and spirit lamps illuminated the small, unpaved streets of the little border town. It was not until I was seated on the train that I felt under my shirt for my passport and money and found to my horror that the pouch was not there.

To say that I spent a restless night on the train would be an understatement. Even under the best of circumstances it would not have been easy to get to sleep on the wooden third-class bench I shared with five other men. Once outside the station I hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me to the home of a friend of a friend where I was to stay. My hostess, a Dutchwoman, welcomed me warmly and did not seem overly anxious when I explained to her my predicament. In India these things happened, her manner seemed to suggest. An official at the American Embassy later in the day more or less shrugged at my plight, and gave me some forms to fill out.

I had enough rupees left to take rickshaws where I wanted to go and to eat cheaply, and I saw a bit of Delhi. One evening I returned to my lodgings to be told that a man had turned up asking for me. My Dutch lady could be very abrupt, and no doubt she had scared the man off without learning anything about what was going on.