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Dirtscapes

Read. Suffer. Try to Enjoy.

Locomotive Breaths

Had been to the railway station recently to drop off an aunt. One look at the general inviting atmosphere, and the whole scene in general, and train-journey-memories came stampeding back like Gujjus attacking an Udipi restaurant on a weekend. Some recollections follow...

Dropping air fares and rise in incomes is a real travesty when you can probably extrapolate that there might be an entire new generation down the line which might never experience the joy of travelling by good ol’ Indian Railways. They might pack in the odd train journey here and there because they have to, and not because they HAVE to. Know what I'm sayin? A 1000-buck price differential versus a gain of 22 hours or more? Easy decision there… but missing out on the sheer circus? Grave loss.

Back in the day, all train journeys would start with an agonizing wait for tickets. Oh the uncertainty… much before the Internet ka naya zamana, you were totally at the mercy of the travel agent or the over-friendly tout at the booking counter (heck, this is true even now…). More often than not during the summer months, you’d end up with the dreaded RAC/waiting list curse. And then you’d spend the rest of the time wishing ill on the other travellers, just so that your holy self could get a confirmed seat prior to D-day.

Come travel day, and invariably, there would be friendly crowds thronging your every step, everywhere. How a family of four can rack up a luggage load the size of a proper nation which porters would be lugging like Egyptian slaves of yore will remain an enigma till the end of time. The worst part? The family whom you’d mentally go “Tsk! Tsk!” at would invariably end up right in your bogie, and even better, bang opposite you. and then the process of 'luggage negotiations' would start.

Pointing to your small little bags shrivelling under your seat, they’d go "Yeh aapka hai? Thoda sarka lo." Then they would squash their mighty pieces, till you could almost hear your miserable little bags howl in protest. Once the baggage issues were 'settled', would come the period of uncomfortable silence. You know, generally sizing each other up, and trying to guess vocations/economic strata etc. etc.

The TC would breeze in and breeze out, always with a couple of RAC hopefuls in tow, staring hopefully at him and you, alternately.

Unlike airplane seats, the train seating arrangements would make it mighty difficult for you to avoid eye contact and keep to yourself. You’d get a crick in the neck, unless you had a window seat. But even that afforded you shelter from eye contact for a brief while, if at all.

The thin ice would gradually give way to a lot of inane banter (depending on how well you hit it off of course), with discussions ranging from philosophy, to politics, films, music, cricket, governance and what have you. At the end of it all, you'd exchange addresses and phone numbers, with promises to meet up again. Pity that never ever happened. Once you were at the end of your journey, it pretty much was it. Finito. Functional relationships, these train journeys.

And the Devil help you if you were stuck with a couple of idiotic, ill-behaved kids. What the parents found indulgent and cherubic, was sure to make you wish you could slap them (all) over and over and over again. Especially irritating would be the kids' fascination to clamber up and down to the topmost berth and down, and flash you an angelic smile every ****ing time. You'd smile back. Evilly. Black heartedly too (sic?).

One not-to-be-missed part is the whole vend-o-rama. Vendors in assorted shapes, sizes and raspiness of vocal cords materialize out of nowhere at all times of the day, trying to sell you something or the other.

"Chayaaa... Chayaaaa... Cofeeeeyah... Coffeeyah."

"Coldrinxxxx, Coldrinxxxxxx!!!! (tinkling sound produced by dragging the metal opener against the glass necks of them bottles)"

"Wada bolo wada..."

"Breadamlate, breadamlate"

"Garma garam bhajji bolo bhajji"

"Puri bhaji, puri bhaji"

"Sandwisss, sandwissss"

In an endless, deafening, jarring loop. From dawn till dusk. Rasp. Breathe. Repeat.


Then the delicacies of the Pantry car. Ahhh... sheer gastroenteritic bliss. The only thing dirtier than the foil packing would be the uniform and/or the hands of the guy (especially the grimy fingernails) serving it to you. If you're capable of stomaching this stuff, you pretty much have intestines of diamond-dust-coated-platinum in addition to certain other parts of steel. Let's just leave it at that.

Now certain families did not believe in the Pantry/Vendor deals. Instead, they would whip out steel dabbas (nay residential towers) with enough chow to feed an army of disillusioned IT professionals (am guessing that would be a metaphor for "a sizeable number of people" there, right?). And when they would finish ploughing through the 15-course contents, as you stared at them much against your refined upbringing, they would be ready for more. You half expected the matriarch to whip out a stove, and the assorted roti making paraphernalia right there and ask, "How many more would you like?". (By that time, I would be staring mournfully at my as-dry-as-Brit-humour curd rice/idlis, slightly smelly coconut chutney, Parle-G biscuits, Parle Poppins and slowly turning bitter (again like an IT professional) lemon rice and feel the tears drip down my South Indian cheeks).

Then that 'train smell'. It's unbelievably inherent, that you can even smell it on the ticket once you buy it. About half an hour into the journey, it assails your nostrils... and then slowly permeates your DNA like some sort of Ramsay-ish ghostly fog. Slowly but surely, it settles into your hair, your fingernails, your clothes, and every pore of your exposed and non-exposed skin. It's omnipresent in the sense that even the (hard) water from the rusty sinks smells like it. Till you become distinctly antsy and visions of luxury soaps, turkish towels and long cold showers start to haunt you till your pupils dilate.

"But why can't you have a shower in the train itself?!", you might ask. Cos "There is no bathroom..." says the bald kid in the Matrix. What you have instead is a fantastic pair of loos... which are so elegantly simple in human waste management, that it hurts to think how underrated this so very Indian underlying concept is (glorious pun there... there is nothing 'underlying'. Get it?). In the interests of your delicate sensibilities, it will suffice to say that you're not supposed to 'use' them when the train is at stationary (tee hee hee) a station. Go figure.

If you have a window seat (you blessed soul you...), the best possible thing to kill time is just stare blankly out of the window. The scenery as it rolls by can be hypnotic and breath-taking, once the urban hideosities are out of sight of course. The rural areas with lone straw houses in the middle of nowhere, lush green fields, parched wastelands with baleful straw covers, plodding bullock carts, village folk washing clothes at water bodies, livestock feasting contentedly on god-knows-what, urchins grimacing and pulling faces at you as you whizz by, a lone cyclist on a dirt track, oblivious to everything save the rhythm of his jangling contraption and probably the voices in his head. The whole thing is so surreal, and you genuinely start to think about the kind of lives they lead. Such a glaring contrast to your existence... It's even better in the rains, and when you are standing at the door, just soaking it all in.

But probably the best thing I have seen to sum up the entire experience is as follows. A guy was sleeping while the usual 'Chaaya, Coffeeyaa' vendors were seducing the gentry with their 'quality' wares. He woke up a little late, and just missed these guys. It was time for his morning fix, and he was kinda desperate. Along came the friendly official Railway chai-waala. Money given up, a cup of nectar poured out.

The guy takes one sip, and goes "Pfffttttt!!!!!" like a character in an Asterix comic. Fine brown tea-smelling mist settles down on co-passengers' faces who wipe it away, murder in their eyes.

"This is AWFUL!!!! You call this tea?!!! It's more like pee!"

The chai-waala flashes his pearlies, bats his eyelashes and retorts,
just before fleeing like the wind.

"What to do saar... Railway ka chai hai. Aisa hi rahega."

The guy is stunned speechless. Then slowly but surely, the entire compartment bursts out laughing. I was too.
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10:44 PM, April 02, 2007
Blogger arpana said...

:) worth the wait i wld say    



11:03 PM, April 02, 2007
Blogger Richa Bhardwaj said...

Incredible!!

LOVE your blog! AWESOME!    



12:50 AM, April 03, 2007
Blogger Richa Bhardwaj said...

Btw, linked your blog to mine. No issues, I hope. :-)    



12:50 AM, April 03, 2007
Anonymous Supremus said...

"What you have instead is a fantastic pair of loos... which are so elegantly simple in human waste management, that it hurts to think how underrated this so very Indian underlying concept is (glorious pun there... there is nothing 'underlying'. Get it?). In the interests of your delicate sensibilities, it will suffice to say that you're not supposed to 'use' them when the train is at stationary (tee hee hee) a station. Go figure."

-- It took me two minutes to go through this one line - couldnt stop ROFLING - excellent pun, sire!

Man, u bring the memories of train journeys so vividly - All this is not possible though if you are travelling "AC coach" hehe; the fun of second class travelling is quite unparalled in my opinion.

And oh, u forgot "Pardesi Pardesi Jana Nahi" kids :D

Suyog    



11:15 AM, April 03, 2007
Blogger SEV said...

Ah.. 'Chayya Chayya'.. suddenly I see the reason for that song :D

Brilliant post. I tried to write something like this, ended up becoming a short story :)    



11:58 PM, April 03, 2007
Blogger Tapan said...

Arpana,
touched. :)

Richa,
Thanks! And regarding the linking?
Likewise... :)

Suyog,
You're right! Clean forgot about the 'pardesi' kids. People would pay them just to shut up. :)

SEV,
Is that short story up somewhere?    



12:59 AM, April 06, 2007
Blogger Woodsmoke said...

Hi
Came here on Richa's recommendation. And read the tremendously awesome post called The Temple of the King. It brought tears of joy particularly because I once wrote a review of a Mithun movie myself. The movie was Chingari, and here's the review...if you have the time for it. Take care.
http://kirrinisland.blogspot.com/2006/04/friday-night-entertainment.html    



1:07 AM, April 06, 2007
Blogger Woodsmoke said...

"Incensed by Tandya’s insouciance, Lukka has Tandya’s sister’s ‘advantage taken’, post which a broken, hollow Tandya comes to Lukka, and begs for mercy and a job."
Sorry for leaving comments on this post like this...but I wasn't sure how else to quickly let you know that this is the best sentence I have read in a while.    



8:20 AM, April 07, 2007
Blogger shamanth said...

nice post dude...
btw...inspired by u i tried my hands at short-story writing...so i wud be glad if u read it and comment on it...http://dimaagkoshot.blogspot.com/2007/04/routine.html    



12:04 AM, April 12, 2007
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hahaha brings back memories of the 5 day journeys from Kahtgodam to Tinsukia on metre gauge trains in unreserved compartments. They were the most memorable journeys i ahve ever had.
BTW you missed describing the sights in the mornings. :)    



11:36 PM, April 20, 2007
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You outdo yourself in this blog man..!!! I couldn't control myself with laughter on this one !! Great going..    



6:50 PM, June 22, 2007
Blogger Tapan said...

woodsmoke,
Thank you... :)

Shamanth,
Keep the stories coming...

anon1,
5 days? *shudder* :) The morning sights would have been too gross man... evidently, people with finer tastes do visit here... (VERY few, but they do... :) )

anon2,
Thanx man... :)    



3:56 PM, October 13, 2007
Anonymous Manpreet said...

really fanstatic..awesome..    



2:12 PM, October 28, 2007
Anonymous Phantom said...

Extremely Good reading for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Read the other piece about bus-journeys before this. A career as a travel writer beckons if ever you decide to give up writing software ...    



11:13 PM, November 12, 2007
Blogger Tapan said...

Manpreet,
Thank you...

Ghost Who Walks,
One more career to that ever burgeoning list eh? :)    



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