Dispatch from Padrauna, India (Part 1)

I often end up running for trains, so it was no real surprise that I found myself in the Delhi train station with just four minutes to spare, having to run from Track 1 to Track 16 against the crush of hundreds of passengers advancing in the other direction.  It was only when I caught a glimpse of my colleague Karthik Chadrasekar’s eyes that I realized that our 2:45 train might leave on time and without us – never mind that just minutes before we’d confirmed online that the train was running two and a half hours late.

A short, breathless sprint later, we bounded down the steps and onto platform 16 at exactly 2:45, and, seeing the train start to move, dove into the steamy, overstuffed third-class cabin.  A couple of minutes later, the train ground to a halt, affording us the chance to jump out again and head to the front of the train to our much-more-spacious second-class seats.  Just as we plopped down, the massive, iron beast groaned its way out of the Delhi station –  just 14 hours to go until our scheduled arrival in Gorapkhur.

Karthik, Molly Alexander and I were setting out on a two-day excursion to visit Husk Power Systems, an Acumen Fund investee that is providing power to some of the poorest areas in the northeast Indian state of Bihar.  Like most Acumen investees, Husk is doing what others said could not be done – provide power in rural India in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner.

All very exciting, but first we had to get there, and the best way to get there is a 700 km train east from Delhi to Gorahpkur followed by a two hour drive to the town Padrauna, where we’d arrive in (hopefully!) 16 hours’ time, just a few hundred kilometers away from the Nepalese border.  Just a week prior, I was in North Carolina for a family vacation, and I couldn’t help but feel a shot of traveler’s whiplash at how much ground and how many worlds I’d crossed in such a short period of time.

I’d heard lots of stories about Indian trains – the crowds, the mayhem, the lack of safety – and while the many stations we passed along the way were a sight to behold, with hundreds of people splayed out and settled in on colorful cloth and plastic squares, seemingly settled in for the night, the ride itself was singularly uneventful (might I have felt differently without a native Hindi speaker as a travel companion?).    And so, after some long conversations with Karthik and Molly and all-too-little sleep, we rolled into the train station in Gorahpkur at 4:30am, foggy from the lack of sleep but still in high spirits.

A few heated cellphone calls later, Karthik located our driver, and we piled in to a little, nimble Tata Indica for our two hour drive to Padrauna.  I would have given anything for a bit more sleep, but the road (full of both speed bumps and holes) and our driver (for whom two trucks coming head-on in the other direction was not cause to waver) were enough to dissuade me from that plan.  So we quietly watched the sun rise over rich, green rice fields bursting with monsoon rains, while all around us hundreds of people began their days, mostly squatting in fields and at the side of the road to relieve themselves (less romantic, but that’s reality)…