1944. One train will take Alice from Colombo across the sea to Kerala and wind its way up to Madras, where she will take another train to Bombay in Maharashtra on the west coast. The journey will take many hours in a dusty, airless, cramped carriage. But it’s this journey—out of Colombo, out of any experience she’s had—that makes Alice’s spine vibrate.
She wants to go. She can’t imagine going. She wants to see Bombay and Pune. She can’t imagine not coming home to the house with the wide verandah at the end of Hendela Ferry Road. She wants to live in a dorm with other girls. She can’t imagine not sharing a room with her sister Maureen and the baby. She wants to visit the famous Chowpatty Beach. She can’t imagine not seeing the night fishermen riding the waves in to Trincomalee Harbor, the women waiting to haggle for the best of the catch. She can’t imagine not seeing her aachi, who always greets her with kisses on both cheeks, one on her forehead, one on her nose.
Her suitcase will not shut. Removes the six framed photographs. Chooses two: one of just Mummy and her, for her sixteenth birthday. One of the whole family at Appa’s and Mummy’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Cries over the one of her holding Maureen’s baby girl. Leaves it in the drawer.
At the station, with the help of a short and very loud rickshaw-wallah and Mummy’s elbows, they drive a path through the swarming-seething mass and claw themselves into a third-class carriage. They find a Colombo family also traveling to Bombay. Mummy makes sure they know Alice is leaving home for the first time. “Going to college, isn’t it?” The aunty wobbles her head, “Very nice very nice, come-come, sit-sit.” The father is asleep. The two children make big-eyes. The aunty introduces Alice as their akka, big sister.
Introductions and making room for Alice’s case under the seat, and thanking the family, and now it is time for the train to leave. This is it. Mummy is staying. Alice is leaving. “Only for a while, darling. Just until you get the qualifications and then find a job this side.” Maybe Mummy is right. It will only be two years. Even so, the tears are coming. Mummy is swallowing, “Come, darling. This nice aunty will be with you and you will arrive safely that side. Telegraph to let us know you’re arrived safely. Okie? Okie, darling. You must go now. Mummy loves you very much.”
And just like that, Mummy is gone.
The train shrieks and jolts, straining against the tracks. Alice pushes her way to a window and searches for aachi’s brown sari, Maureen’s red blouse, Mummy’s blue and gold dress that she wore especially for today. Is that her? Among the anemone of waving arms, one has familiar bangles. It must be her. She shoves an arm out of the window and waves back.
The smoke swallows up everyone on the platform: the families, the rickshaw-wallahs, chai-wallahs, girls with baskets of oranges, small kids running too near the tracks. She is no longer Alice of Colombo. What happened to the Alice who was clinging on to Mummy’s arm as they pushed down the platform? This is a new girl, sitting in a seat on the train, going to Bombay, holding a baby the aunty has handed over.
She doesn’t look around at the strange faces and the children who are squashed up against their sleeping father. Doesn’t look at the baby resting solid, inert in her arms. Doesn’t look at the aunty who is saying, “Not to worry. Big girl, nuh? Going to college and all. Family will be so proud, isn’t it? Try this one.”
And in the tradition of comforting the crying child, the aunty offers a samosa. It’s not as good as Mummy’s but no one can eat and cry. She finishes and settles the baby, tiny head in the crook of her elbow. It is like holding her small niece, but this baby only wakes for his feed, and only because his mother insists. He peers around with bleary eyes, deeply uninterested in his family or Alice, who holds him for the rest of the journey.
After Rameswaram, the train moves out across the low slung Pamban Rail Bridge. The bridge is close to the surface of the water, and the train slowly squeals across, carriages clanking. Alice listens: is the grinding noise from the train or is the bridge creaking under the train’s weight? What happens if the train is too heavy and the bridge breaks? Alice imagines the train slowly falling off the bridge. How would they get out of the doors? She looks at the windows. Perhaps a small girl like her could slip out. But even if she could, she can’t swim. She would drown. Everyone would drown. All their bags would lay buried in the train at the bottom of the ocean. The baby opens one eye. Alice sings to him, and he falls back into his sleep coma.
It is loud on the bridge. No one else seems to be bothered. Each screeching wheel, each shudder of the carriage, and they might be launched into a watery death. Please guide the train driver so we don’t fall in. Then they are across and are pulling into Mandapam where they must change trains for Madras.
The passenger chit-chat suddenly magnifies, as though some kind of disaster is upon them. People rush off hauling bags, wives, children. “Come here, not that way, don’t dawdle, where is the train to Bombay, Alice hold on to my skirt.” Someone tugs along a reluctant goat, someone is carrying a chicken under each arm, someone’s tray of mangoes spills and the crowd parts for a moment while the man scrabbles after the fruit. The aunty is an expert: she corrals her family into one place, seizes two porters, loads them with the bags, including Alice’s, and marches off to find the next train.
The train jerks out of the station and Alice, still holding the sleeping baby, watches the country change like the giant painted scroll at school that shows the history of the world. They leave the palm trees of the ocean, cross bridges, pass a waterfall. One old elephant rubbing itself against a tree. The trees are different. If only she had her nature book, she could look them up. Across dry land and wet land. A swelling of pink and gold temple domes. Back to the ocean, the Bay of Bengal. A thunderstorm blots everything out. It rains all afternoon and evening, and she dozes while the baby makes tiny snoring noises. In here, Colombo is sleeping. Outside, India rushes and thrashes past. At Madras, all metal and stone and dust and noise, another scramble for the Bombay train. She is becoming numb to the pounding of other bodies and luggage as she keeps up with the aunty.
They travel deeper into India, further from her life in Colombo, away from home and away from the girl who used to run home from school and eat her jaggery and cream on the back step. Will aachi brush the hair of Maureen’s little girl the way she did for Alice? Will Mummy call her granddaughter in the morning, “Come for tea, baby?” Will Mummy sing songs to the little girl as she did to Alice? She feels like the outline of herself is fading, unshaping. They will live without her. It isn’t all one birth, one death. Little lives grow and die all the time.
At Vashi Bridge. Alice gently rocks the baby, barely notices the lights shining across the water, the clouds lying low, their curves a promise of the future. They are coming into Bombay. Bombay! She is no longer a girl leaving home for the first time. She is a young woman on her way to college. She is a grown-up girl who has to find the next train to Pune.
The mother takes the baby back and for a moment, Alice feels the weight of her empty arms. Who will she hold now?
Everything is big and loud and fast. It is like being dropped into a film but much dirtier. So many cars and buses and rickshaws. Where are they going? How can anyone cross the street without dying? What are these grandmothers doing without their families? Who is going to look after the grandfathers leaning on their walking sticks?
The mother finds a porter to take Alice and her bags to the Pune train. They say goodbye. Alice is teary. Why does she have to follow yet another man to another train to another destination where it will start all over again? Why can’t she stay with the family? They are her last link to home. But she is led through a crowd that seems to have been waiting to trip and elbow and kick her as she is finally boosted on board the train to Pune and deposited in another carriage next to an old aunty, wedged against the window, traveling with three chickens in a small wicker cage. The chickens scuffle and shower feathers and bird shit as Alice’s case is shoved next to them under the seat.
The aunty is startled—“Who is this? Is it a man?” She cannot have a man next to her. The porter gestures to Alice: small, female, and alone. The aunty lifts her chin and squints through round glasses.
Alice says her name twice, loudly, is hit with a barrage of questions and must pull out the aunty’s heavy bag to retrieve a picture. “This is my niece. You see? You could be twins.” The niece is dark as coal with bushy eyebrows and prominent front teeth. The old woman touches the picture and kisses the ends of her fingers. “My sweet girl. Now, Alice, bring my shawl. It’s just up there.” Alice wonders if she is to be a slave for the whole journey. How many more questions must she answer? But, fortunately, the aunty’s head droops, and she is asleep.
Alice rescues the framed picture before it slides off the lap, and gently tucks it beside the old lady who groans and sleeps on. The soft, sagging mouth, the folds in the neck, the hands crossed over the round comfortable stomach, the sari pallu slipping from the shoulder. She almost looks like Aunty Neema, who used to brush Alice’s hair after school. The small goat that is Alice’s conscience tugs at her, and she is sorry for her impatience.
She wants to stay awake, to look out of the window and watch the landscape change, to know the moment they are in Pune, but she drifts and is roused when the train bucks and jerks to a stop. Pune! Pune! Pune!
She jumps up, struggles her case out from under the seat, upsetting the chickens. She tries to say goodbye to the aunty who waves her on. “Go quickly. You will miss your stop. These people don’t care about the passengers. They will take you all the way to Hyderabad and no amount of crying and pleading will make them stop.”
Alice pushes her way through a thicket of passengers, clutching handbag, suitcase, coat, and hat. She stands on the platform to reorganize everything and realizes she’s forgotten the precious blue leather gloves that Mummy gave her as a going away present. Luckily, the aunty has noticed and dangles them out of the window. Alice seizes them, grateful for the aunty’s eagle eye. “You take care of those gloves!”
A porter grabs at her suitcase. She holds on to it. The porter insists he knows where she needs to go. She knows he’ll try to cheat her. They tug at the suitcase until a short woman, white pith helmet, white skirt and jacket, holds up a thick walking stick. “Now then. This young lady is with me. Off with you. Chale jao. Miss Alice de Kretser? I am Mrs. Vanderpeele, head matron. I’m here to escort you to Spicer College.”
Alice bobs a curtsey and then scurries to catch up as Mrs. Vanderpeele’s pith helmet surges away, the walking stick flicking and carving a path through the crowd out to an Ambassador taxi. She looks around to see if they are to take a rickshaw instead. A moment of anxiety. Will she be expected to pay for the taxi?
The driver puts her case in the trunk, and Alice gets into the back. Mrs. Vanderpeele has removed her helmet. In its flattened state Alice can see the blonde hair needs another dose of bleach. Mrs. Vanderpeele checks her compact mirror. “We don’t make a habit of meeting everyone from the train. But Pastor Jesen sent a telegram to say you were traveling alone and asked for our help. He says you’re a very good student.” She snaps the compact shut.
Three days without soap and water. Alice’s arms and face are streaked with sweat marks. Her underwear and petticoat are glued to her thighs. Her bones feel like they’re still rattling from the train, and she hasn’t seen a familiar face for six hundred miles. Now, all the way from Colombo, this kindness from the Jesens arrives in her lap like a purse bursting with silver. She takes a sad-looking grey handkerchief from her handbag and turns aside to blow her nose and quickly wipe her eyes.
Mrs. Vanderpeele draws herself up and edges away from the spurt of emotion. “Spicer prides itself on taking care of its students.”
Alice remembers. She is not just any girl arriving in Pune. She is a de Kretser. She dredges up the last dribblings of resolve and straightens her spine.
“We are not far from the college, Miss de Kretser. Your house preceptress, Mrs. Rupesh Bhardwaj will meet you and show you to your room.”
At last she is in Pune. For three years she and mummy have dreamed about this moment. You will stay in school. You will not get a baby like your poor sister. You will go to college.
Now it begins.