Lina Krishnan‘s account renders a unique detailing of what one would discover in the course of Indian train journeys. Punctuated with hilarious personal anecdotes and observed practices, this essay is a constant delight.
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
In the past two years of recurrent lockdowns and the new normal that has come with the pandemic, life has really changed its beat. If there’s one thing many of us have missed, it’s travelling. In particular, I have missed the rhythms of train travel. No matter where you go in this country, trains are the most convenient, interesting and sometimes the most affordable ways to get to your destination. And they come in as many flavours as the stations they go through.
Goods trains carrying freight… Milk vans full of tall aluminium vessels and sleepy eyed milkmen… Bombay locals, which are as unique as their dabbawalas… Passenger trains carrying their daily load of office-goers from hinterland towns to big cities… The fancy Express trains that only stop at a few designated “important” junctions… The long distance trains that can take over three days to go from Trivandrum to Tinsukia! Here’s a taste of some of these journeys!
The couple next to me has been what in the south of India is called, ‘dead silent’. She comatosed through most of the ride, he standing throughout, looking out of the door at the end of the passage. Not a word exchanged between us, or for that matter between them, for miles. Suddenly, the corridor is astir with lunchtime rhythms.
They too come to life like puppets at show time and address me directly- Have I eaten? Would I mind if they have theirsthen?- I smile, nod in a go ahead fashion, then lean back and pretend to be asleep for a bit while they diffidently open their banana leaf packets.
Passenger train ride
I haven’t travelled by passenger trains very often but I can tell that the tempo is quite different from that of an express train. There is a casualness that comes from the daily commute to work. People do get a bit frantic while getting in, but that’s because these coaches are unreserved and getting a good seat, or even any seat, is crucial. How else will you read your morning paper, chat with daily buddies, or sample the vadas that come in through the window?
Oh the well-hidden charms of long distance train travel at night. At 1 a.m., a loud trio of elderly men arrives. They take twenty minutes to settle down, initially by searching for a lost phone by ringing it. Even though we can all hear it in our nightmares, the uncles are stone deaf, so the phone rings until it stops. Then they do it all over again for that eureka moment.
Finally, the lights go off. Can we now try to recover lost sleep? No, for two of them start playing videos, loudly, and the blue light goes right into my eyes. I get up, make them give it a rest and everyone around achieves belated coma. Then their snore orchestra goes full on.
Even if you travel first class, the crowding in a local train in Mumbai is quite unbelievable, so one has to sometimesgo by the ladies coach, where you are likely to find in the evening, groups of returning commuters who take out the bags of vegetables purchased just outside the station on their way home.
The ladies place these on wooden examination boards and proceed to cut a variety of shapes for the dinner they will make on getting home or even for the next day’s lunch, given that many of them leave home by seven in the morning. After all, why waste two hours in idling or resting.
Chatter about the office or about their children can go on anyway as background music to skilful hands. In the day, the mood is different depending on the time. Outside of rush hour, a ‘fast local’ can be a very good place to fold your paper and do your crossword or, in the old days, read Busybee’s column and enjoy a Mario Miranda cartoon.
The flexible time of some organisations allows its employees to choose to travel early and return by afternoon, beating the rush hour and getting some sanity before the inevitable auto ride in the crowded suburbs. Of course, some prefer to give the trains a miss altogether and ride in buses. Clean, tidy double deckers, with ‘23 standees only’. No wonder they are called BEST. Or to take the fiat taxis that scrupulously return your change to the last penny.
When people board express trains, they enter prepared for war. Some even carry weapons in the form of long chains with padlocks that they proceed to loop around their half a dozen bags, destined to trip the unwary co-passenger. The fights are on predictable lines. Who is going to occupy the coveted lower berths? Who has kept luggage under whose seat?
Can some “adjustment” be made – so that honeymoon couples, the elderly women with middle-aged sons (whose nourishment they are still anxious about), and the families with small bratty kids can sit together even if the tickets are for separate compartments? The victims of such switch-arounds are usually hapless young lads, travelling solo for their sins. The magician who can douse these various fires is the TTE (ticket checker), who is awaited breathlessly.
But once his visit gets over, and everyone allotted their final seats, a magical peace descends on the coach. Now they are in complete bonhomie with the co-passengers they were glaring at only shortly before. The sweet excitement of a railway journey permeates every compartment. People call home to inform loudly that the train is on its way, others put on radios, still others reach into bags and baskets and find snacks and home- made food, and proceed to hand them around.
Some, who are less interested in eating, start their favourite game of ‘Twenty Questions’ in an attempt – not always successful – to find out the age, income, residential location or relationship status of fellow travellers. Then there are those who seem to have found their soul mates and shyly exchange giggles and phone numbers. Alas, these instant train friendships are speedily forgotten once the station arrives and everyone goes their own way.
Until the next journey…!
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Lina Krishnan is a poet and abstract artist based in Auroville. She has a chapbook of nature verse with the Blank Rune Press, Melbourne. Her work has been included in literary journals, arts magazines and in eight diverse collections of poetry.
what a lovely read, brings back all my train memories!