Tuesday, January 27, 2009
India on Rails

If you are a touring non-native or an ambitious Indian with a decent pay, chances are you would seldom take the rail route to travel between cities. More so with cheap airlines vying to get your footprints on board their "shoe-string" jets.

Yours truly aint a common face on the rail routes either but she likes to witness the changing face of Indian Railways every once in a while. And believe her if you will, every train trip meets her with a fresh array of surprises...if we decidedly ignore some of the permanent irritants. Both inside and outside the wagon.

This one's an attempt to capsule changes she took in while she crisscrossed the face of the nation; for leisure, on job, out of it, as a student and as a kid in an army of wedding-goers.

Summer vacations at school mostly meant a trip from the plush and pomp of the nation's capital down to Chennai (then Madras) and a little beyond. The girl hated most of it except she found windfall gains in as many feets she touched touring the smutty city. The sight of a huge water body also excited her for she'd never seen Yamuna (the feeding river to the capital) swell more than a choking gutter.

The in-betweens of the travel, the train journey was well planned.

Ma sets about packing food for the 6 meals the family will have to have onboard and Pa went out buying packets of knickknacks to keep the kids busy through the journey. The kids for their part made sure they packed as many games as possible, hoping to travel for eternity, without having to reach any destination.

The kids sure had reasons for it...they could hop over from one berth to the other, play games, strike conversations with strangers and hoping they'd let them get a bite of their packed food - poori aalo, parantha and pickle etc. Somehow the array of south india food ma meticulously packed never appealed to the boy and girl - not the Idlis coated with gun powder, not the tamarind and lemon rice, nor the curd rice and fryums and pickle.

The railways pantry dal vada and cutlets were the family's favorite and each one of the four secretly hoped the other would ask for it. Just when the guy's making way into the next wagon Pa will give up and yell for him from this end of the wagon.

The boy and girl's faces light up and the mother would pretend like she aint party to anything happening inside the compartment. For she'll look out of the window every time the kids wanted something from the blue trays or cane baskets or gunny sacks.

The cling of the bottled fizz was something the kids skipped sleep and play for. All activities froze and both kids turned to look at pa and ma with puppy eyes knowing perfectly well that their requests will meet meek protests from the parents and slowly wither away in favor of one bottle of fizz shared between both kids.

The hawker would dig for a chilled bottle from the bucket full made cold with blocks of ice and pop it open with a mild froth threatening to spill but will give away the protest too soon. Boy gulps first and let's out a loud burp from the mouthful of carbonated water traveling down the throat and the girl takes a calculated sip fearing letting out a similar burp.

Slowly the bottled elixir makes its way down into both their stomachs and before the parents can rest a little, there are hushed tones of wanting to make a trip to the restroom. The girl never makes the trip alone for she is convinced the hole in the commode is too big to swallow n spit her out of the train...not to mention the dread of poop n muck all over her. On most occasions the stench in the restroom would kill her desire to relieve herself.

And that also explained why she sipped water and fizz and nibbled on food. By the time the journey ended the kids would surface grime-streaked and the girl would have a million zits and boils to tell the story of how she managed to skip trips to the toilet.

Innumerous times friends made oboard only because they let the boy and girl play with their kids or they themselves got down to striking lenghty conversations or playing cards with the family. Mailing addresses exchanged and promptly misplaced, forgetting all that transpired in the two days after hopping off the train and pushed and shoved through to meet the uncles and aunts who'd come to meet the family at the station.

The girl's first solo train journey happened when she was frequenting Bangalore as a student. Her decision was initially met with a loud protest by her Pa. She only smiled to her Pa's opening statement, "Don't you know everyone's out to lure girls on the trains?" He went on explaining how people lace food with sleeping pills and kidnap and steal and other not so pleasant things that they do only to girls. Decidedly, she made her journey without a hair amiss.

The solo journey was one of the many observant trips she made in a few successive years to come. Since she didn't turn out to be a natural conversationalist, she found time aplenty to absorb eyefuls. She noticed how people gave into the constant cradling of the train and slept ever so often.

Most conversations would end in some kind of edible exchange, paying for each others' tea, sharing biscuits or a meal, or at least exchanging visiting cards (now that's not edible). The railcar would fall silent at undefined hours with precision. By 11:00 in the night you'll only hear loud and stifled snores play a sonata of their kind. And if you stayed up too late, you'd hear mild protests of wanting the lights turned off.

On many trips she also took in details of book reading habits of people - ranging from zehar hoon mein, kamsin jawaani to Midnight's Children, Lotus Sutra, King Lear - Abridged, Bhagawad Gita and Khooni Darinda.

In the sleeper class, people have this tendency to travel more than one person per seat. Also, unreserved travel is in abundance. But amidst all this chaos, sweat and grease exists a truly kaleidoscopic experience that doesn't die out for someone with a keen eye.

During winter months, travel up north finds most women often striking up a conversation with their knitting needles. Men occasionally leave their seats to summon the chai boy from the pantry or take a bidi break standing in small groups at the entry to the wagon.

The beggars vary in dexterity too. Some are crippled and simply ask for alms, some sell cheap items at a premium and there is this lot who strike the right note with flat chips of stones that flirt with each other in rhythmic harmony. They are true entertainers for they have the best of movie songs stashed away in their mental database only to be instantly replayed on request.

Capturing memories with a pair of eyes is one, living it is another. Go get yourself a sleeper class train ticket and make a rail trip...you'll come out grimy but you'd have lived the Great Indian Soot Coated Dream.

posted by Shivranjini Krishnamurthy @ 1/27/2009 06:36:00 PM  
  • At 4:58 AM, Blogger pr!tz said…

    I am glad you are back in here, shiv. I missed you. In fact, I miss you. I do think about you a lot.
    I loved that piece about your appa and RD parade. I could picture it. Even better because in my mind, I can see him in his veshti and you walking about in that pushpanjali house. No other apartment really comes to my mind, you know that. I can see your silent mom smiling at me and your bhai saying something about rash driving to me.
    Sometimes, we form a mental picture about some people and no matter how many years go by and no matter how much they have changed, the picture just does not fade or change. I love that thing about our minds/hearts. You dont need photos to keep people close to you.
    Wrote too much. Wont delete it.

  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger Irregular Arrhythmia said…

    Witty, highly factual and entertaining read. Keep it going!

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