Thursday, 4 June 2009

Romancing The Rail:

Given the way the economic recession brought us to our knees, while looking for ways to cope up with a bleak economy which can actually better our lives, I touched upon the romance of train travel and Sejal suggested that we needed to introduce our children to its charms. Watching videos of Indian trains on Youtube triggered instant memories and reminded me again of why trains have such a special place in our lives. Well, perhaps not in the lives of the generation brought up on the dubious pleasures of cheap air travel, but certainly in the lives of those of us who have cherished memories of train journeys long since lost in the mists of time.


I vividly recall every detail of my first such excursion, taking a train from Howrah station in Calcutta to visit the tea gardens in Assam. I was barely five, had just about mastered the written word, and was excited beyond relief to be allowed to buy a selection of Amar Chithra Kathas at the station bookstall. I settled down at my window seat and even before the Howrah--Guwahati--Dibrugarh Kamrup Express pulled out of the station, I was deep burrowing into the pleasures of Indian mythology. But as the scene outside grew more rustic, even picturesque, my attention wandered to the marvellous moving display outside my window. There were gentle rolling fields, green and lush more palm trees than I could count and an endless expanse of a bright blue sky.

Just then, a man entered my peripheral vision. Scythe in hand, he was intently cutting down some tall grass in the fields. "Oh look," I cried out to my mother, "It's a farmer, a real life farmer!" As a city-bred child, I hadn't realized until then that farmers actually had a life and an independent existence outside my story books. That wasn't the only discovery I made in the course of that first train journey or the many others that followed. Gazing out of the train window as I travelled across the country, I was introduced to a new India that was far removed from the bland boundaries of my middle class urban existence. I like to believe today that this made me more aware of the complexities of the society we live in.

Obviously, at that time such elevated thoughts were the farthest thing from my mind. I was just intent on having the best time ever. I tucked into endless cups of milky tea and wolfed down everything from pav bhaji to oily samosas at each stop. When it became too dark to enjoy the scenery outside, I read books that had been specially chosen for the trip. And then, when I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, I allowed the gentle rocking motion of the train to put me to sleep.

Train journeys have been far more than simple pleasure trips for me. Many of them have marked important rites of passage as well. I still remember the thrill on an Indian train of taking my first solo trip to Mumbai from Bangalore on a train. I was returning from Bangalore after a pleasant two week stay during the Diwali holidays and my mom who decided that I need a break and experience life on my own.

So, I was deposited on the overnight Bangalore--Mumbai Udyan Express by my aunt and I revelled in the feeling all grown up and important negotiating the various formalities of train travel myself (i.e. rousing myself when the ticket collector came calling). My aunt who believes that I am always in the imminent danger of being malnourished, had packed some really oily rotis and tasteless potato curry along with my favourite dessert pal payasam, which made me popular among the kids sitting next to me.

Needless to say, the rules of train travelling have changed these days. Mothers now instruct their kids not to speak to strangers in case they stumble on a child molester; adults are exhorted not to accept food from strangers who may want to drug and then rob them; and platform vendors can't really intrude too deep into the airconditioned compartments of Indian trains. The nature of train journeys has changed. The romance still endures despite the recent sanitation of the experience. The magic was best evoked in the first half of "Jab We Met", where veteran traveller Kareena Kapoor encounters train rookie Shahid Kapur and tries her best to strike up a conversation with him. The easy camaraderie with which she tries to help him when he is caught travelling without a ticket tells us all we need to know about the charms of rail journeys.

That's the reason why I am determined to rediscover the joys of train travel the next time I take a break. Sure, the station will be dirty and noisy, messy and nothing less than a nightmare to negotiate, but frankly, airports aren't better these days. And even the dreadful loos are a small price to pay for the pleasure of simply sitting back and watching the world go by.

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