The loudspeaker at the train station screeched advice to travellers not to spit, while a woman swept the dust around the platform lazily with a broom.
India is on a cleanliness drive and the prime minister had personally swept a street and a school campus to help inculcate the notion of hygiene and civic sense in the vast population.
It was ironic that during the symbolic gesture, a waste paper got caught in a shrub and the prime minister’s broom would not budge it.
I was on Platform No 2 at a railway station in Bengaluru, to travel to my hometown of Secunderabad (which is the twin city of Hyderabad) in the neighbouring state.
Apart from stopping passengers from spitting, the rail authorities should get rid of noise-polluting loudspeakers and the unintelligible messages that emanate from them. It should follow the example of airports that have stopped making announcements on the public address system to give passengers a noise-free ambience.
Medical experts say that noise pollution not only leads to hearing loss, but can also slowly kill you — through hypertension and heart disease — and can give you panic attacks. A study has found that Mumbai is the noisiest Indian city, followed by Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi and Chennai.
On the streets, motorists honk loudly at everything on the road — from cows, dogs, to pedestrians — to warn them to get out of the way. No wonder, I am now shouting at everyone when speaking, even when indoors. (When I arrived in Dubai, I found no motorist honked and wondered if everyone was a bad driver).
My wife thought it was silly of me to travel by train, which would take nearly 12 hours to reach my destination, just 700 km away.
Drinking tea blues
I was in no hurry and wanted to see the country at a leisurely pace. (It is another story that I never got to see the countryside as we sped through it in the dead of the night at a rapid-fast jostling speed as I prayed our express train did not hit a herd of wild elephants or a mob of stray cows crossing the tracks).
Booking a train has become easy since the last time I was home. You do not have to stand in a queue at a rail station as everything is done online now. There was an online option for ordering food on the train, as well, and my wife advised that I take with me a strip of Norfloxacin, which is a medicine for Montezuma’s Revenge, or “Delhi belly”, as it is known locally.
But one thing I was sure, that I would never drink tea on the train after photographs of a man preparing tea in a train toilet went viral.
One guy with a steel samovar, jumped into our compartment when we halted briefly at a station, shouting “masala chai”, but I did not have the guts to order a cup of tea, even though I was aware that food or beverages cooked or heated at high temperatures destroys all microbes, bacteria or viruses.
It is not only in India but even in the United States that about 70 million people fall sick due to food-borne illnesses and millions of dollars are lost in productivity, while they undergo medical care. It is strange that Indian streets are so unclean, and it’s got nothing to do with poverty, because other developing countries such as Thailand and Indonesia are cleaner.
Indian homes, on the other hand, are spotlessly clean and hosts ask their guests to leave their dirty shoes at the door. Most homes have a shelf for shoes right at the entrance, with some also offering a chair to sit and remove shoes. Even some gold shops, dentist clinics and typing centres ask customers to remove their shoes before entering. In a land that prioritises ‘Swachhata’ (cleanliness) at home, there is hope that Indians would practise the same outside.
Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi.