Friday, February 29, 2008

A Train Diary

The first time I boarded a train was in 1965 to travel from Delhi to Howrah. The train in question was the Toofan Mail as it was then called and unlike today, where the train still remains a shadow of its former self, in those days it was still in spurts able to run like the Toofan it was named after. It was actually quite a prestigious train those days and the only one exceeding it in status was the Air-Conditioned Express, popularly called the Vestibule Express. It was the first or at least one of the earliest trains in which the vestibule facility was available. The train was still pulled like most others by steam engines and I remember the coal getting into my eyes as I poked my head out of the window to look at the passing country side.

Once I reached Howrah, for a day or so it still felt that I was in the train for at least a day with the train’s rocking motion still drifting in as soon as you closed your eyes. Even with the eyes open, the doors and windows appeared to be moving away like the trees and the electric poles from a moving train. On that occasion, the journey itself was more enjoyable than the final destination and since then it has always been that way for me. Innumerable train journeys later, once I have settled into my seat and if no one is pushing and jostling, the trip is still far more enjoyable than journey’s end.

Unlike many, I just love train, pantry car and platform food. I have had them all the Puri Subzi in leaking leaf plates, the bread omlette on numerous station platforms, the “veg” and “non veg” offered by the pantry car attendant armed with a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil and every thing in between including the “continental” on the Rajdhani Express. Of course there is more variety on the platforms- from the well known ones like the pedhas of Mathura and the pethas of Agra to the lesser known ones. Such as the Biryanis of Bhusaval and Manmad, the mihidana and sitabhog of Burdwan or Jalebis and Kachoris at Mawli near Udaipur.

The condition of the train and the mannerisms of your fellow travelers will tell you about the diversity of the country we live in. South bound trains are typically orderly. One can travel in reasonable comfort even in sleeper class as the flow of invading passengers who ask you to “adjust” is much fewer. Itarsi is the station near about which the Rishi Vashishta the legendary figure who crossed over beyond the Vindhyas into Dravidian India might have taken a sojourn as once trains have crossed the station, the evidence of North India beginning to blur in many ways beginning with the food. The Daal for example begins to get replaced by Sambar (they taste the same though in the train!) and Idli and Vada begin to make an appearance in the breakfast menu and the snacks by the train vendors.

Once in a while you get to see scenes that you might forever. One of them that I do is the memory of an elderly Muslim gentleman settling down to say hi evening Namaz in the train. It was not easy to figure out which was West in a moving train, nor to perform the necessary ablutions but he managed some how, spread out his mat on the upper berth and unmindful to all his surroundings and even a few staring passengers as well as many granting him grudging respect, he went through his prayers. Today when it is often the fashion to wear your religion on your sleeves and with aggression, the old man’s humble but clear assertion of his beliefs oblivious of any thing else for those few minutes reminded me of what true spirituality is all about.

Today when there is all this talk of competition between low cost airlines and trains and what each has to offer, the talk mostly is all about time savers, costs, short haul, long haul and such commercial vocabulary, I am reminded that journeys are not just about times and distances - it is also about the experiences- the ones you contribute and also the ones you collect over the years and that then shape and enrich you-- perhaps the length of the journey does not matter as much as its depth does when you have reached your destination and are settled in your arm chair reminiscing. Some times a non stop journey is not as invigorating as one with interminable stops.... Just some times.


kuffir said...

lovely post, though i don't like travelling much..and were you referring to agastya, and not vasishta?

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