Scenes from a train
Recounting the endlessly quaint experience of travelling on the Indian railways, an experience that will likely never be the same again
Life is like one long train journey during which milestones are reached, passed and forgotten as you chug on from station to station till your train hoots, smokes and belches its way into that final platform from where there are no more trains to catch and no more destinations to reach. Each journey brings with it stories which for some are soon forgotten and for others last a lifetime.
A train journey was one of the highlights of a peripatetic childhood. Preparations began with the rolling out of the bedding. One by one, essential travel companions like a quilt, bed sheet, pillow, slippers, towels etc., would be coaxed, pushed and squeezed into it and once filled to the brim it would be rolled back, tied, fastened and strapped down with the help of the heaviest member of the family who would be asked to sit on it. A trunk box or airbag, puris, alu-sabji and a surai made up the remaining luggage.
One would arrive at the railway station and be instantly swamped by an army of redshirts who seem hell-bent on separating you from your possessions even before you board the train. In the midst of this chaos, negotiations are finalised with a 'sahayak' (like the uniformed services, Railways too have learnt to be politically correct by removing old nomenclatures that compromised one's dignity without of course removing the indignity itself) who will guide and transport you and your luggage to the correct coach through the maze of platforms and trains. You soon find yourself trying to catch your breath as you keep pace with the 'sahayak' and skip a few heartbeats every time he disappears into the crowd with your possessions. The platforms themselves are small ecosystems of different life forms ranging from disinterested canines to joint families in monkey caps. Some would have already laid out their beds and are fast asleep, others are enjoying a family meal perched on boxes and sturdy bags as platforms are converted into bedrooms and dining rooms. A motley crowd stands in front of the reservation chart board going up and down the list in the hope that somehow their name will appear there. A few have wandered into the platform to see off relatives and can now be seen inserting coins into the colourful and noisy machines from which small tickets with daily fortunes and weights leap out like surprised fish. A railway worker would be randomly spraying the platform with a water hose providing free shower services. And in the midst of all this you weave, dodge, walk, run and gallop your way to your coach with your heart in your mouth.
Once safely (a term loosely used here) deposited inside, the Indian railways continue to test your physical fitness by demanding that you swing like an orangutan from the floor to the upper berth. You navigate from the lower berth to the upper berth via a brief stopover at the middle berth when you seemingly hang in space for an eternity before clambering on to the apex nest.
The arrival of the TT in the compartment signals the start of the journey and he clearly views all passengers as interlopers unless proved otherwise. While his manner with bona fide passengers is short and cursory almost as if he is disappointed with them for travelling with a valid ticket, his eyes light up at the sight of the ticketless and the berth less who follow him into the cavernous interiors of the three-tier sleeper uneasy and distraught with tales of sick relatives and other such emergencies. One by one they are all dispatched to berths by the TT like a magnanimous monarch in what had appeared to be an already overbooked train!
Another challenge of an Indian train journey is the trip from your berth to the lavatory. These are minor journeys in themselves fraught with obstacles and danger. Considering the per square feet population density of Indian trains, you cannot throw a samosa without hitting a sleeping or prostrate passenger on a berth, under a berth, between berths and just outside or even inside the lavatory! Raising one leg to avoid a wailing baby and gingerly shuffling the other to circumnavigate a sleeping octogenarian, you somehow reach it. Inside you endure the jerks, shakes and earthquakes that greet every visitor to an Indian railway lavatory on a moving train and somehow defy gravity to stay on your feet.
Then there are the brief stops at stations where you run like a Usain bolt of lightning to refill your surai and re-board the train before an impatient whistle signals its departure. Our quest for a sprint Olympic medal would have been rewarded by now had we picked and groomed a few of these passengers.
However, as you settled down and looked out of the window of a running train, the physical strains often gave way to more relaxed thoughts. One is struck by the familiarity you feel with the fleeting faces and images that go past the window mixed with the melancholy of realising that you will never see them again. Stories unfold in your mind as you imagine their lives. Then there are the small stations whose platforms disappear suddenly into the ground as the train rolls past them imperiously without stopping. As the faces and the images blur into the distance and the horizon slowly merges with the evening dusk, the mind returns to the fresh challenge of digesting the pantry car dinner.
Train trips used to be more than just trips-they were journeys that let you escape for a day or two into another world to swap stories with strangers before different stations in life separated us never to meet again. Now we will just have to bite the bullet and forget the simple pleasures of daydreaming on a train!
Views expressed are personal