The prospect of journeying to a new place excites most of us. It is perhaps one of the best ways for the mind to free itself from its daily straitjacketed sort of thinking pattern and wander aimlessly and without borders…. borders one is not able to transgress in real life, for reasons of social constraints and our own personal inhibitions. Travel, thus becomes an instrument not just for geographical movement, but more interestingly, sets us in the mood to wander on a mental terrain-where we forget momentarily the quotidian influence embedded in the layers of the daily strife of life. The routine, commonplace events are suddenly replaced by the contours of one’s imaginative coloring, whereby forming a whole new mental landscape created by our hidden dreams and desires, giving us rare moments of utopia. In this utopian world our thoughts transcend onto a different plane, and a new aspect of our personality emerges, albeit momentarily. For this reason perhaps, I’ve always enjoyed journeys, and the ones by train allow us a longer duration to dwell in some dream world close to our hearts. Suddenly one’s dormant thoughts come alive and kicking. Besides, a good conversation with a fellow passenger or an interesting encounter en route can always spice up the journey to that long destination.
As our train rumbled along varied landscapes, from the grey winter evening haze of Delhi, through sunrise to sunset, in the darkness pervading all around, and from the barren expanse of land in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh to the richer and more picturesque Southern coastal belt, one is amazed by the diversity of it all. One day the semi- desert land stretches out before us and the next day the lush green semi equatorial scenery seems to decimate all that aridness.
In less than 24 hours, the train becomes a microcosm of what largely defines India: carrying in its 600 m elongation representatives from different socio-cultural backgrounds. Aloo puri one-day gives way to idli sambar and upma the next day. The Hindi of the North now almost unheard on platforms once the Krishna is crossed. Amidst this babble and cultural kaleidoscope the journey continues; loosely structured around the passengers’ intermittent periods of meals, conversations, reading, sleeping, playing cards, tea or coffee breaks or simply looking outside at the apparently mobile and changing landscape. I observe the vast desolate emptiness and quaint structures, which seem possible remnants from the Mughal days, I guess, since they remind me of certain pictures I’d once seen in History books. I’m surprised at myself for making the juxtaposition, which perhaps seems a little far-fetched. But then, as I mentioned earlier, these far-fetched thoughts and imaginations are but natural effusions when you have enough time at hand. Sadly, this time factor has become more of a luxury in today’s fast-paced times, depriving us thus of many a beautiful and profound mental sojourns, our very own private prerogative.
The reasons for journey vary from one person to the next: to attend a wedding, to join a son or a daughter and their spouses, to celebrate the birth of a grandchild, or perhaps an official visit- events that form the fabric of human existence. The journey is occasionally punctuated with an argument or two, regarding something to do with tickets or placement of luggage. Concerning the latter, an elderly Sardarji, a retired army officer was reprimanding a young man for not knowing how to behave with elders and that even his caddie would have shown more courtesy. This called for some amused smiles from other co-passengers, who were briefly provided a few minutes of entertainment in this long north to south traverse of India.
I resume with Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’. A slight shiver runs through me as I read the part where the protagonist is thrown out of a moving train, an accident he somehow manages to survive though many others lost their lives in the tragedy. However, this event continues to haunt him for years afterwards.
The train becomes a moving rendezvous for people of various characteristics and idiosyncrasies, which sometimes find scope for clash but luckily they are within harmonious barriers. I realize that the scenes and hues outside begin to play upon my mind; my mood ranges from thrill and tranquility to wistfulness and longing. The constant influx of thoughts entering and leaving the mind runs parallel to the passengers boarding the train and departing at various destinations. Eating and munching become something to look forward to, more as a means to pass time rather than to satiate hunger. The sight of some gastronomic delight on the sundry platforms captures my attention. I decide to forget imminent health hazards one keeps hearing about, for the time being and go ahead with my sister. Like all concerned parents, mine too did not forget to tell us to hurry up lest we be left behind. The vada pav, a favorite and common snack native to Maharashtra, was one thing that stimulated my taste buds and also broke the monotony that creeps in long journeys.
By the next morning, there is a sense of desperation to reach our destination. A sense of claustrophobia, or you could say, some train sickness begins to bother me. I look out and lo! Overnight it seems the external vision has been transformed to what is a pictorial delight. All pervasive lush greenery, thick groves of coconut palms standing upright as if to claim their ownership of this fertile piece of land in the Western Ghats, and thickly nestled amidst those sentinel like trees were slightly raised houses having crest shaped roofs, bordered by emerald green paddy fields immersed in pools of water. I also realize now why this is the most densely populated state of India. However, leaving statistics for the time being, we are now truly in God’s Own Country, our destination, after having traversed through seven states of the vast melting pot that is India.
Within a couple of hours, it’s back to the noise of typical Indianrailway clutter and the haggling that follows with porters. Prior to that, polite smiles of goodbye are acknowledged with those who have cohabited with us for the past two days, faces that will soonfade into the recesses of memory as more such transitory encounters occur. As the passengers continue to disembark, emotional scenesof reunion are witnessed as loved ones unite, some probably after a very long time.
Railway stations, like airports, are often the settings for some of the most emotional moments in our public lives, whether in partings or reunions. With the first phase of the journey over, I still have a week of mental and geographical indulgence to occupy myself with before I return to the world I’ve left very far behind, geographically and mentally.