Friday, 6 July, 2012


Rocking movement,  dim lights, warm nourishment, an uncommon selfless camaraderie. There is a reason why traveling on a long distance train in India affects the soul in fundamental ways. 

Firstly, there is the time disconnect. There you are, moving at an even pace across fields, villages, towns and rivers. After a while you get so used to the sights that space detaches itself from the continuum and time is left to fend for itself - and hence loses all meaning. Morning turns to evening when you least expect it. You might see the setting sun and for the first time in your life be awed by it’s magnificence and yet not be affected by the transience of life. Then again, you might not see the setting sun - since you’re up on your berth slipping in and out of sleep as you read that book in your hands; It doesn’t really matter what book it is, since in this alternate universe, even the most inane of texts will coax you into a state of helpless intoxication and sleep.

Sleep. Unhindered, unadulterated sleep. And lots of it. Without any sort of guilt to dampen the experience or the need for alarms to remind you about some pressing errand that needs your attention. Anything that requires attention will be attended to, by others. Or not. It doesn’t really matter. Two days of sleeping will clearly have an effect on your sense of reality. You will do things that you normally wouldn’t. Like wake up bleary eyed at an impossible hour amid sounds that please and yet pull at your nerves - and drink a cup of hot, sweet, milky tea. You’d think the sugar in the tea would keep you awake for hours, but no - just as you saunter back into the carriage from the platform as the train pulls away from the town (with such a beautiful name, you think) and see your fellow passengers in various poses of extreme repose, your mind delights at the possibility of climbing back into your berth and stretching out - as though at the end of a long hard day of work in the fields; like those that are beginning to make an appearance at the windows on the outskirts of the town - detaching space from time again. Until the next meal begins to make its appearance.

After the slight flutter created by the stoppage at the station, things settle back to the usual pace and everybody gets some much needed rest. Yes. Rest. After a while though, some stomachs start to rumble and as though on cue, the catering crew starts transporting food from the pantry car to the bogies. It’s a hard job to do - navigating the reckless vestibule while balancing 20 trays of eminently spill-able food with hardly any rest is no mean task. But the waiter will be bullied. After hours of having nothing to do, a growing hunger and limited communication with fellow travelers, a simple complaint about the missing bowl of curd ends up sounding like a raging fit - probably the stickiness of the vocal chords after prolonged periods without speech have something to do with it - And every attempt will be made to extract maximum empathy from anyone who will provide it. A minor foible by the normally fawning waiter is made to look like a cause for harsh and continuing rebuke. Of course, since the same waiter will serve you your coffee in the morning, you want to keep him in good cheer, so after the meal you make it a point to pat him on the back and maybe even slip him a tip - sometimes just a smile will do.
Space detaches itself from time, but it does still exist - as a bogie. A bogie is a chunk of space, carved out of the surrounding hard metal to keep the harsh weather, and even reality of the outside world, at bay. It is a mobile sanctuary. When you are in it, it is as though you are in a capsule destined for another galaxy, accompanied only by the ones in your bogie. The disconnect from the outside world breeds a benign sense of friendliness. Strangely, the space inside an airplane is more disconnected from the outside, but it breeds contempt. I think the irregular rocking motion of the Indian train is what makes it so appealing. An Aluminum box floating in the sky and fooling your mind into thinking that it’s not moving is just not as comfortable as a noisy steel carriage clattering on steel tracks and bouncing irregularly. Sorry Boeing. 

Perhaps the rocking helps with the digestion too - because there is no other activity that could explain the regular and timely visits to the train loo - which is yet another marvel. The loo orifice is not a static entity unlike your loo at home. On an Indian train, you let go and nature sweeps away all that you wish to discard - in a flash. And there you are perching on your pedestal, far from the mess. It is as though there is an unseen hand that is interested in your staying clean. That the loo could become soiled with abuse only makes continued access to the orifice even more precious. Unparalleled then is the sheer lightness that the spirit indulges in while performing what in the outside world is nothing more than a mundane chore - a chore like countless others that vaporize gently into a comfortable mist when on a train. 

Normal everyday tasks need to be done differently on a moving train in India, if at all. Like the calisthenics of feeding oneself on a train . The runny Sambar and the colorful Biryani cannot really be attacked with the spoon provided for the purpose - the neck of the plastic spoon being too weak to bear the load that the bowl is capable of shoveling up. So, you need to use your hands. Which means you need to first locate a safe haven for your plate of food, head to the wash basin to wash your hands, wading through a sea of humanity in various phases of hand washing and eating, return via the same sea to access your plate - which by now might have been jerked around prompting it to spill some of the food or even drop an egg on your neighbor’s shoe - place it on your berth, climb up after it, crouch into the shape of the bogie’s roof and enjoy your meal in exquisite privacy. Once you’re done, you of course need to repeat the actions in reverse order - literally getting down from your berth in reverse - and end with patting the waiter on his back.

Such habit alterations reset reality and remove the connection between experience and expectation. Rather than think about what you will do after your meal, you just enjoy your meal in splendid innocence. 

A series of such everyday activities, elevated to a realm of pure experience can take you to only one place.

The same place you get to with the timeless-ness, the copious sleep, the license to complain freely and loudly with no long lasting bitterness, the easy and innocent friendships, the guilt-free calorie filled midnight snacks, the rocking, the rhythmic sounds - Your infancy.

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