I love train journeys.
It might be because I’m a lazy, laid-back person and like to do things at my own (slow) pace. I love ‘travelling’ more than ‘arriving’. I don’t like it, when a book ends because it forces me to suddenly come back to a world which, for a few moments, seems so unfamiliar that I feel incongruous. It’s that same feeling I used to have as a child every time we (my family) moved and / or I had to go to a new school - of being suddenly plucked out of the lives of the people and places you have known almost forever and being ‘planted’ in a completely new setting.
Perhaps, if I had a girlfriend, she’d have vouched that I’m hopelessly romantic!
There is no denying the usefulness and virtues of air travel which appeal especially to the people who know where they are headed and when they want to reach. Trains, on the other hand, are for the nomads - the aimless wanderers - who remain happily nowhere and who have the willingness and the time to absorb the sumptuous buffet of experiences that the journey has to offer. For them (and I count myself among them), a train journey is about the countless raw, sensual treats that the boring, professional, polished comfort of an aircraft cabin can never provide.
The incessant tutter-tutter of the wheels on the rails; the myriad of voices, which wake you up from your slumber, selling ‘chai’, ‘coffee’, ‘chips’ and also a host of local delicacies depending on the part of India the train is passing through: ‘vada-pao’, ‘idli-sambar’; ‘bhel-puri’; the aroma of home cooked food that the family on the facing berth savors (they might just offer it you sheepishly if they realize that you have been watching!); the joy on the face of the little girl who waves excitedly at you as the train passes by her house; the sight of the smoke rising from the engine as the train wiggles and meanders her way through vast lush fields; the drop of early morning dew which hangs from the rickety window frame and, before you can react, leaps onto your face! Trains in India are kaleidoscopes of sights, sounds and scents!
It’s almost as if they have lives and characters of their own and many moods. Sometimes, when two trains cross each other on adjoining tracks, there is such furious excitement and frenzy as akin to a coming together of long lost friends. At other times a train stops silently in the middle of nowhere as if to meditate and ponder over her future course.
Trains are also both symbols and agents of cultural and social diversity and equilibrium. Every time a train journeys from one part of India to another, it perpetuates an osmosis of cultures which along its trail. Trains transport not only people but also their hopes and aspirations, dreams and ideas, values and traditions.
The hustle-bustle of a busy junction teeming with passengers eager to embark upon and reach their destinations, contrasts fittingly with the serenity of the ‘unimportant’ stations where the train slows down but doesn’t stop. It is near these stations that you can catch third-person glimpses into the lives of people busy with their day-to-day chores. A farmer on a tractor tills his field; a woman carrying a pot of water on her head, walks with a careless caution to ensure that she doesn’t spill a lot before reaching home; a cow-herder, whistles to keep his animals from straying too far (he rarely uses the stick he carries). In all probability, none of them has noticed you. They are too busy for that, like most of us. But, quite unlike us, they don’t seem to be in a hurry! People from nowhere, wanting to go nowhere, yet belonging to everywhere!
There are times during the journey when tracks run parallel, times when they converge and cross and times when you are all alone. When you reach a fork, you know that different tracks lead to different destinations but thankfully, it is not you who have to choose between the two otherwise you would not know which one was which!
A train journey is like life except with the difficult parts taken out. I don’t know if it is this symbolism which lends it its romance!
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