Umbrella ManEvery time I embark upon a journey thousands of kilometres on parallel tracks of steel glazing in the blazing sun or the soothing whiteness of the moonlit night, I think. The monotonous yet gradually changing landscape rushing rearwards from the 1 1/2′ by 4′ glass windows separating the chilly insides of the bogey from the sultry heat outside gives me company on such lonely long journeys. The newspapers, the magazines and the books provide temporary breaks from the endless gaze into the real India – the India that is Bharat. The air-conditioning doesn’t allow me the smell of the wet fertile soil or the manure processed from grass through the digestive system of bovines. Far away from the glossy pages of the magazines, but the songs are the same. Where ever I find some signals and tune into my miniature two-band radio, it is the nasal mosquito-like irritation of the capped unkempt Himesh Reshammiya – distinct from the hiss of the MW radio – that pierce my eardrums and my fingers instinctively reach for the OFF button.

Another beep, another SMS announcing the arrival or departure of a mobile phone service provider’s network. My fingers instinctively select the delete option.

It is monsoon, but not raining. The clouds just hover around, threateningly. Kids stop from grazing the cattle to look at the passing train. They must have seen thousands cross the tracks dividing the waterlogged fields, but to us the looks seem to be of novelty. Some wave at the invisible passengers and some of the kids inside wave back – unseen through the double layered glass windows. Reminding me of my childhood, whenever there was a roar of a jet or the distinct whirr of helicopter blades (or man-bird as Phantom comics added a synonym to our vocabulary), we would frantically wave at the flying machines, and never got a return wave. The waving continued, until the day I saw for myself from a passenger jet window that you can hardly make out the people down there. The waving perhaps has something to do with our childhood want to experience first hand the marvels of technology that we see everyday, and once we do that, the waving stops. The innocence is lost.

The train crosses yet another bridge, the distinct change in the rhythm of the wheels signal the arrival. The remnant expanses of off-white sand slowly give way to the expanding breadth of water. The last symbols of a hot and dry summer.

The long queue at the railway-road intersections – sweaty rickshaw pullers in chequered lungis, bikers with three open shirt buttons proudly displaying a glistening gold chain, white Tata Sumos number plates declaring the ‘official’ status of the owner, an MLA or the district president of an obnoxious regional party. Displays intended to provide the right of way. School girls with oiled and plated hair, tied in place with red ribbons, bicycles by their side seemingly oblivious of the lecherous gaze of the gold-chained bikers. All wait. Because I aboard the Indian Railways have THE right of way. Unless of course, in guise of some protest they all plan a rail-roko. Making the possibility of me reaching home in time to catch that football match on TV a little more distant possibility.

The change in the script of wall graffiti and advertising indicate that that the train has now entered a different state and another SMS welcomes me to West Bengal. The bilingual boards announcing station names have added another language to them – now it features Bangla in addition to the official language Hindi and the unofficial working language English. But it is a little more difficult to ascertain the passage into Assam, especially to an untrained eye, given the similarity between the Bengali and the Assamese scripts. The landscape doesn’t also lend any clues.

Another crossing. School kids crammed into a box pulled ahead by the pedals of the rickshaw puller. It is the same in Delhi, only the wood and tin boxes are replaced by a similar box-like Maruti Omni. And we pity the chicken being transported to their ultimate outcome.

A kid’s wailing in the next compartment in jugalbandi with some snoring in mine. The easily irritable father admonishes him for the nth time with the hoarse query, “Yeh kya kar raha hain? (What are you doing?)” Momentary pause. The wailing commences. The snoring too continues unabated.

During my initial years of travelling alone, I couldn’t sleep in peace. No, not because of snoring pot-bellied middle aged men or irritable infants, but the endless anecdotes of thefts. Every 15 minutes I would check for my stuff – all doubly secured with thick steel chains and Chinese locks. With experience the fears have waded away. I even forgot the lock this time, but the sleep was as peaceful as in my own bed.

Lunch time. Vegetarian. A break from the chicken in the last two meals. But the paneer gravy tastes the same as last night’s chicken curry. I’m not what you’ll call a gorger and my physique reflects the fact, but I’ve always found the qualities served by the catering services on India railways inadequate to meet even my limited wants.

The bottle of mineral water that I was provided with on embarking at New Delhi Railway Station has a quarter of liquid left 28 hours later, but I’ve already made about a dozen trips to the loo. Wonder where all the water is coming from?

Cows at the StationThe media’s darling Railway Minister, who boasts of the looks and mannerisms of Dilip Kumar and a hair cut resembling Sadhana’s has heralded a turnaround for this nation on wheels. The bogies as ad space is one of the emerging money making avenues for the world’s largest employer. One unbeatable location for ads that came to my mind during my younger years is the toilet window. The train toilet is permanently occupied and the occupant can’t help but read the ad over and over again as he/she goes about doing his/her job. No switching channels here, not moving forward. Unadulterated attention is what this prime space demands. The only caution would be against who have this habit of scratching and peeling surfaces. But that shouldn’t be a major deterrent, the ads can be placed in between the glass panes. Shit happens. And while it is happening, what’s the harm in getting some money flowing.

Like Chetan Bhagat (in One Night @ the Call Centre), I too undertake the mandatory check of the reservation charts looking for interesting company (read F18 to F30), but in the long years of train travel, I almost always shared my compartment with shrieking and over-active kids (not adorable infants), complaining middle-aged women and porn-preoccupied soldiers. Good in a way I say. Some unread books get read and some long blog posts get written. And I think…

[This post was originally drafted enroute Guwahati from Delhi on June 30, 2006. A little change in the last paragraph happened during the return journey. There was a F24 in my compartment who in her eloquent voice sang karaoke to the instrumental music emanating from the train speakers. Nice soothing voice. The downside was that my extra heavy mobile charger slipped from the charging socket and hit her mother right on the nose.]

Categories: India