People like me, who come from Kerala, and whose parents have settled in another part of the country like Delhi for example, need to be born with a lot of patience. Patience to keep ourselves from blowing our lids off every time a guy calls us a ‘Madrasi’. Patience to keep ourselves from abusing people who consider themselves educated but can’t pronounce our names. And patience, to endure the long two day journey to go back home in a train.
The last point that I mention is the topic of discussion today. Times have changed. Airfares are now affordable. But to me, train journeys are so much more than sitting at the same place with nothing to do. If anything, relatively speaking, we are not sitting at one place. From Delhi to Nagpur to Cochin. A journey across India cannot be more enthralling (and sometimes amusing) than in a train.
Its my best friend’s wedding. We were roommates for the best part of our time in college. So me and my two other roomies (read Chaddi buddies) from yore make a plan to attend the wedding. All of us are now working, in different firms, but we never ever miss a chance to spend some time together. And so, although an air ticket is well within our financial grasp, we decide that we must make it a train journey and a memorable one at that.
It seems like ages since I last travelled such a long distance in a train. Thankfully, one thing that has changed is the reservation methods. Online booking makes it so easy. The new generation may hardly even travel by train, let alone go through the trauma of getting to the station and run their sweat glands dry as they wait in long queues to reach the counter, only to find that the operator is a cash hungry cow who would almost blackmail you to get a bribe. In fact, I now remember, it was exactly in such a scene that I, for the first time, abused someone who was older than me. It was awesome..
The D-day arrives. I have everything packed and ready to go. I have almost three hours till the departure of the train. Even if I take out the half an hour or so which my mom will take up making me check and recheck the entire luggage and then another half an hour giving me a lecture on the do’s and dont’s of the journey (for the zillionth time I must add, but still adoringly beautiful), I still have ample time to reach the station.
The three of us meet up at a common point. And our adventure finally begins. We have our luggage stuffed with different kinds of delicacies to stuff ourselves up. We have our laptops to watch our old pictures and laugh about it all night. And we are hoping for some good company too, if you know what company means for three twenty-something bachelors.
A railway station has always been a delight for my eyes. There is so much going on every second that you really get to realise the essence of the place where you are standing. Passengers getting off trains; others waiting to get on; the trademark call of ‘chai-chai’ (or in the south ‘kaappi-kaappi’); and perhaps the only place in the world where you can get paper soap. A railway station is almost a mini-ecosystem in itself.
I share with my friends the dream that I had last night; that in our little air-conditioned three-tiered cubicle we get three beautiful angel-like single women who are also, by the way, going to attend a friend’s wedding. And then for the next two days, we end up knowing each other so well, that once we are in Kerala, we all go for a group date. But, I think everybody knows, that dreams are always so perfect; real life, however, isn’t as giving.
Therefore, as we three make ourselves comfortable in our seats, our minds deflate as quickly as a punctured tire as we see our co-passengers- a middle–aged aunty going to meet his son, a bald stocky man who is going to Kerala for business and a guy who is about our age who has his eyes glued to his i-phone. Across the aisle, on the side berth, we see a couple with a small baby, arranging the luggage beneath their seats. Ok, I admit my dream was a long shot, but God, you could have been at least a little kind.
My friends look at me with a look that I have seen them give me when I dropped the catch of the opposition’s best batsmen during the college cup Final. I give them a look of my own- the ‘I’m innocent’ look. Very little scope for time-pass now.
The train leaves at the right time. As we move out of Delhi, the scenery becomes greener, with lesser concrete. Villages pass by once in a while. There are cows grazing in the field, women making dung-cakes by the side of the track. The amount of garbage lying on the side of the tracks is appalling. Makes me shudder to think what visitors to our country would feel if they see this.
As we head into the interior of UP, there are walls on either side of the tracks, painted with the words, ‘Gupt rogi sampark kare, Hakim Usmani’. I smile. Our dear bald co-passenger seems to need some Usmani treatment. He has been quite ashamedly been very active in itching near the ‘Usmani’ area. He then starts some small talk with the three of us and extends his hand for a handshake. We look at his hands and give him a polite Namaste.
As time goes by, lunch arrives. We all dig in, adding some dishes that we brought from our homes. There is nothing like food to kick up a conversation. The lady sitting with us opens up, and then refuses to close. She goes on about why she is travelling, why she chose train over plane, what his son is doing in Trivandrum, and loads of other stuff (we actually stopped listening after her tales about her son).
We go past Mathura and Agra, where we get down to buy some pedas and pethas for our relatives. The rest of the afternoon is spent catching up on old days, how we used to come home by train whenever we had the chance. Those were the Sleeper class days and the noise, the heat and the smell of sweat made the two days quite difficult to spend. Discussions move on to girls in college, how we all had crushes and how we often made a fool of ourselves asking a girl out. The ambience of the train is the perfect way for friends to keep chatting.
I am the only one of the three who reads a little. As our talks fade away, I take out my novel that I am reading (Life of Pi). As darkness descends, I am totally immersed in my book. It is then that my pal has a brain wave. So the three of us set out, for a walk through the entire length of the train. So what if we didn’t get our beautiful angel-like girls? The pretence of a walk is enough to scan all the compartments for some treat for the eyes.
Whoa, the walk was worth it. We find quite a few hotties in the train. Not just that, the walk has done its bit to enhance our need for food, so when the food comes, we gobble it up. All this time the young dude hasn’t talked much. He has been to himself in his upper berth all this while, and when he comes down his iphone is almost always pasted in front of his face. His actions and behaviour seem to be a little.. er..girly (no offence to any girl intended). The three of us are discussing this in hushed tones when the guy gets up and gives the three of us a wide smile. We are seriously in doubt of his orientation now, so we decide not to look towards him for the rest of the journey.
Nap time arrives. All of us tuck into our respective berths. I am the unluckiest guy in the world. I got the upper berth right next to the doubtful guy. Anyway, I pray for a sound sleep and close my eyes.
The next day, all three of us get up late. Breakfast has already arrived. Once we freshen up and eat, we realize that we are in heaven. We are passing through the lush green slopes of the Western Ghats-the Konkan railway. It’s almost as if our eyes just don’t want to look anywhere else. A series of tunnels follow.
As the day progresses, we make our way down Maharashtra and into Karnataka. The anticipation and the excitement of reaching Kerala start to peak. The train journey is slowly but surely coming to an end. As the destination comes closer, we start to discuss our plans once we reach. But inside somewhere, I am also asking myself, when will I have the chance to travel by train again?
My leaves are limited, so I am going back by flight. Train journeys have still not lost any of its rustic charm. The generations to come might not be as patient as we are. They would want travel to be quick and easy. Trains will only be used for short distances. But just like sitting on the toilet gives you the best ideas, travelling long distances in a train is the best way to be recharged. Two days of retrospection; two days of visual delight.
We reach our station, Thrissur, the next morning. We get down and plonk our luggage on the platform. The other two guys start to make a move, but I stay. I stay so that I can see the train leave. It has been my home for the last two days. It deserves a goodbye.
I once saw a t-shirt which showed a jam packed local railway train and had a slogan underneath which said, “Indian Railways: 150 years of bringing people ‘closer’”.
Whichever way you look at it, it sure does...