When you travel in a train in India, the journey is always replete with many challenges, events and experiences. The biggest challenge, according to me, remains that of luggage. Indians tend to carry a lot of luggage, unnecessarily so, though an alternate belief is that we carry our town and state wherever we go. It’s a tough task to enter the train when the doors are all stacked with tons of bags and suitcases of those whose journey is coming to an end. It reminds me of that commercial floating on the TV during the Commonwealth Games, Indian Rail, Desh ka Mail. If you are fortunate, you board the train on time but a bigger challenge awaits you inside – where to put your own luggage? By some sheer stroke of ingenuity, some people manage to fly their luggage in and chain them to all the luggage hooks in your compartment before even you can locate your seat. When you ask them to make some room for your luggage, you get to hear the famous line with Indianness imprinted all over it, bhaisaab, thoda adjust kar lo na. They invariably have kids with them for whom they do not need to buy the tickets, meaning they are going to share the seats with the little ones. Most of us do adjust, out of our generous nature or out of the fear of inviting frowns from fellow passengers. It’s impossible to fathom what is more stretchable – our tendency to ask to adjust or our tendency to adjust? When adjustment is not an option –if you are one of those who wanted others to adjust – we piled the luggage on the seat, eating out the sitting and sleeping space.
Another frequently asked favor is to trade your seat with someone. The great Indian family is so big, and the births are allocated in such a way that not all family members get seats in same compartment. We love to travel with kins of our family and friend-circle, even if the journey is only going to last overnight. And there is no limit to how much the family can extend! During one train journey, I exchanged seats with 3 different people within 10 minutes of boarding the train. One family was so huge and their seats were so widely scattered that they took another two hours to gather their clan in one place. I settled in my seat, finally! So did I think! I saw a kid sitting in the seat opposite to mine. Her brown hair was tied in two little ponytails behind her head. The deep-set eyes and curled lips made her nose look bigger than it actually was. She glanced at me with that look when you are not sure if you can trust the other person. I smiled, just enough, and she laughed. The friendship was established. Before I could dwell more into that newly-found affinity, her father came calling, asking me if I could exchange seat with his relative. The trouble was that his relative was in coach S1 while I was in coach S7. I hesitated since it involved walking inside 6 full coaches with luggage. Besides who knew how many more such requests awaited me there. His pleading continued. I had to yield in the end and one more family was united, what if only for the journey. By then I came to know that the kid in the opposite seat was not a girl, but a boy! These days you cannot tell the difference really.
But for all their shortcomings, the Indian train journey provides the most conducive setup for a mind which has some inclination for philosophy. As Mihir says, saari duniya ki philosophy books ek taraf, aur bharatiya rail ek taraf. If you think deeper, the reason for it is that Indian trains are so slow! You are sitting idle, you keep looking at hamlets, towns and farms, mountains and rivers, all patched up in the fabric of this multi-cultured country and sewed by the network of thousands of stations. Compare that to the trains in European countries or US or China, which run at 150kmph or more than that. You can only see those blurred images floating past in jiffy and crowding your mind with more images. Philosophy feeds on an idle mind and idyllic scenery. Once I was just looking outside the window. From behind the window, it appeared that the world was divided by artificial lines drawn by the horizontal iron bars of the window. The sky was separated from the hills, which in turn were separated from the trees. The trees were separated from the grass on the ground. We humans are given to divide the world in our quest to classify and simplify everything. At that moment, the train stopped, waiting for a signal to turn green. I stepped out of the train, and the picture presented itself in the whole. There was no division. Everything was connected. The world became one grand orchestra where everything and everyone had something to play…and sometimes you just have to play nothing. That day onwards, whenever I encounter myself in a hopeless situation or find my role insignificant in an event of life, I relive those moments and rescue my mood from deep slump.
No journey is complete without giving a thought to distance. I always feel that distance is more when I am going to a destination than when I am coming back home. Perhaps like time, even the distance -and space -is also relative. Einstein famously defined relativity as, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.” I guess our notion of distance is entangled with notion of time. Otherwise why would you have a unit of distance with the name light year? In the matter of hearts though, the concept of distance is even more fascinating. Sometimes the distance brings people closer to each other. Conversely, at times, too much closeness separates them beyond any hope of reunion. Like a Bolywood song’s line goes, jyada najdeekiyon me hote hai dooriyon ke ishaare. Poets are, in a way, scientists whose research topic is the human heart and emotions.
Then you always meet some people who inspire you in some way or make your day or simply introduce some good side of humans which you failed to notice till now. In another journey, I was waiting for the train to start. A beggar suddenly showed his face from outside the window and asked for money. His face evoked pity in me. As a matter of principle I do not give money to beggars because there are even business racquets running around begging and you can never tell if someone is a genuine beggar or in business of begging. I turned away from him. Just then I saw the person in the opposite seat taking a 10 rupee note out of his shirt pocket, making rounds of it on his son’s head and giving it to the beggar. By no means it looked as if he was from a well-to-do family. He was there to see off his wife and the child. From his khakhi shirt, I assume he was an autowala. He was laughing and playing with his son and making light fun of his wife. He was happy and loving. I did not understand what drove him to such generosity. May be love makes people generous. Or he just understood the value of 10 rupees and how it could help the beggar. Poor people are rich in hearts anyway.
On the same journey, I was fiddling around the next day. It was afternoon and I had no intention of having lunch inside the train. Though the train food stops short of it sucks, it is never tasty to call for second eating. A waiter came asking if I needed food, and i just glanced above, all prepared to say no. But the words escaped my mouth! The broad, innocent and unpretentious smile he carried over his face was overpowering. The grin was so wide, I thought even his grey moustache was also smiling along with it and it made his eyes sparkle with delight. It was kind of smile which made you believe the world is in perfect order. I ordered the food, not for the sake of food but to see him smiling again. Remembering that face makes me smile even these days. Some faces have that positive effect on you. And that is the promise and potential a train journey always holds.