I have often wondered what compels me to write about trains. I just went over some of the material I have written, mainly prompted by this, and I realized that they seem to pop up in the strangest places. Odd enough as it may seem to you, it has never been a conscious choice.
If i delve a little deeper into the weirdness that lies within, I could probably come up with flaffy psycho-analytical explanations for the railroad theme – like feeling a constant sense of displacement, of always anticipating the next time I will move from where ever I live, and so on. However, I honestly think that is not the case, for then my focus would not have been exclusively restricted to trains (why not flying? or road-trips? or bus journeys??) . It would also not explain my obsession with abandoned railroads. I think there is a much simpler explanation. I like trains and railroads because they represent a very nice period of my life – a time when I thought that being a railway engine driver was the coolest job in the world. Like most other things, the obsession with railroads has to do with memories.
When I was little, there was a show on Indian TV. I think it was called Yatra, but I cannot be sure. It was about the stories of people who made this train ride along the Jammu-Tawi express from Jammu to Kanyakumari. To this day, I believe that it was one of the most awesome TV serials to have ever aired on Doordarshan. In any other country, the premise of basing an entire show on a single train journey would have been laughable – it made perfect sense in India.
I have many memories of trains. There are childhood memories of walks taken on the platform at Bhusaval station on the Bombay-Howrah line with the father, as they changed engines from Diesel to Electric. I remember getting anxious about the train leaving and being assured by Dad that it would not. Or, more closer in time, eating cold vada-pav (with gunpowder) at Igatpuri on a winter morning on the way home for the winter break from college, and watching my breath mist over as it rose in the cool air, and feeling good that I was only three hours away from home. Then there is the odd evening spent in a railway waiting room in Jolarpet, waiting for a connection to Cochin – and having my first full fledged south indian meal (mainly consisting of a heap of rice and lots of sambhar). Bribing cops and ticket collectors (“Bees rupaye se humaaraa kya hoga sahab? Kam se kam pachaas to dene padenge na?”) while making a two day journey across the country without a reservation. Memories of being ragged on the way to college, of a girl who sneaked over with me to the upper berth, of an argument amongst friends long since scattered to different parts of the world – an argument that eventually came to blows and was stopped by the railway cops, and of the sikh gentleman (from Patiala, no less) sharing his booze from a water bottle filled with vodka (there – the obligatory reference to a stranger and substance abuse, all at one go).
It’s been a while since I traveled on an Indian train. Things were quite busy the last few years I lived in India, and flying was the preferred mode of transport. And honestly speaking, the two day journeys from Bumblefuckpur to B’bay and back had made me sick of the concept of traveling second class. The last few times I did take a train somewhere, it was in the antiseptic environs of an air-conditioned compartment – no vendors, no noise, and only a muffled awareness of the clickety clack of the wheels. In short, no fun.
But I never quite took to flying – I never enjoyed it. Even long distance flights feel too short. Planes are very businesslike, trains much more personable. You make friends on a train, you get to know people, and at the end of the journey you part ways, in all probability never to see them again. Unlike the hurriedly cool professionalism of flying, trains are messy, raucous and interesting. Like life.