September 03, 2015

The Train

I love travelling in the train. Cars make me sleepy and worried about the driver sleeping off. Planes make me feel squishy and uncomfortable and pray for a boom in the deodorant industry. Trains, on the other hand, are cool. Well yes, the bathrooms could have been better, the seats could have been more comfortable and most importantly the co passengers a little quieter but trains give me something which no other mode of transport can provide at the cost – a time to think, reflect and eat. As I write this, I am crossing a station called Gondal. I do not think Life will ever bring me again to Gondal, but the fact is today I am here, at this moment at Gondal. Maybe the last time when Gondal was mentioned so many times in an article was when the kids at the school in Gondal were asked to write an essay on Gondal. (Btw Google told me later that Gondal was once a princely state)

Now enough of Gondal. I checked already, the food at the station was nothing great to bring to the wife sleeping on the bunk above.

Our fascination with trains started in Europe, where strangely we got flight tickets at a much cheaper cost than train tickets and suddenly had a new found respect for trains. A failed attempt to board the Palace on Wheels made our resolve even stronger. And then we fell off the social ladder and from being NRIs became your average Indian, two amongst our 1.2 bn. And we Indians, we love our trains, so much so that we paint the sides of every single coach red, with our Beatle leaf stains.

After 2 years of jet setting around Europe and South East Asia, we realized that we needed slower holidays. Ones where you could stop at a countryside in Punjab and do the DDLJ pose (still pending) without worrying about missing the bus or an amused shaking of the head of a French taxi driver. Another thing cropped up during a debate on our next destination. We figured that while we have admired the Thai Buddhist monuments, neither of us have ever seen Bodhgaya. That started the “See India” movement in the family.

Thanks to the distances between Mumbai and the really off the road places that we pick to visit, one of the world’s largest rail network is often the only way to reach. Even otherwise, trains might take longer but at our stage in life, the journey is as much a part of travel as the destination itself.

Trains show me the Indian countryside. The flamboyance of greenery, the ruggedness of the dry, arid mountains, the squalor of the small towns, the prosperity of the villages, the children heading to school on their cycles, the farmer tilling his lands, everything makes me connect to an India that I want to know and yet feel far away from. And once you know where to look, you get to see the differences in the greenery, you get to read the body language of the people waiting at an unmanned crossing, you see the hope for the future of your nation, you also see the pitfalls. And you learn.

Neither of us are picky. We travel light and therefore we jump on any compartment we get our hands on, rather IRCTC allows us on. So we have sat elbowing our way in a sleeper to get a cup of tea to the first class coupe where a banquet was spread out for us. And that allows us to meet people. No research reports make you understand SECs better than travelling in a train. In my honest opinion, a 12 hour train journey can be as rewarding as an in depth qualitative research. The train journeys help me understand India better than sitting at my desk. It shows me what Indians (if such a generalized term exists) are thinking, how they are speaking, what they are eating (always) or reading (rarely these days as they are always playing a version of temple run on their phones)

We have met exciting characters. Drunk Jats who want to discuss politics, angry Tamilians abusing every specimen of North Indian food, Gujjus who have bought enough food to feed the whole train and the occasional bong who will come and speak to you as soon as he hears a syllable of his mother tongue. Honestly, this is where you can grab the pulse of the nation – something the Indian tweeteratti will never know; at least not yet.

There’s another reason I love travelling on a train. It is the food I find at the stations. The best vadapav for example is found in stations just before you enter Goa and not in Mumbai as you would imagine. The chole kulche of Kanpur and Bareilly Stations still linger on in my mouth and the veg patties at the small halt en route to Shimla in the quaintest of stations can give any bakery in a metro a run for their money. The only places where I have felt cheated are at Burdhwan in Bengal where the famous Sitabhog and Mihidana found at the station is almost always sub-par and. But then Bengali sweets are the most delicate food items after sushi. The second is Ahmedabad. I just don’t understand why Ahmedabad can’t have good food.

Anyway, I wait for Rajkot as I write. The dhoklas at the station can be quite amazing.

No comments: