Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crawling through India.............!

I'm reminded of many similar journeys undertaken all these years. And with those journeys are entwined innumerable bitter-sweet memories. But maybe, this is the first time I'm traversing almost the entire length of India--South to North--by train. And all alone.

Evening platform. Lively. Noisy. A young couple, maybe newly-weds on a honeymoon trip. Their seats are far apart. The husband walks up to me and requests for an exchange of berth, so that he can be near his wife. I politely refuse--I can't afford to spend two days on this train, stuck up between noisy families. My seat is aloof and distant.

The train slowly chugs out of Bangalore. I pull out a book-- a compilation of literary essays, written with more life and lightheartedness than any best selling novel I've read. As I try to grasp a poet's dilemma and conflicts, my mind drifts. A recent exchange of emails with friends over a trivial matter--the bitterness still lingers on within.....Tejas is 6 months old now. I've missed nearly 3 months of his childhood. Maybe I won't send him away for such long durations until....until he's into his teens. Maybe!.....Mom's arm is healed now but she's sullen and detached. I'd asked Guruji about this, about how one suddenly loses interest in things after retirement, after old age sets in-- when a feeling of purposelessness dawns upon you....Fayaz is upset because I've taken a 10 day leave in the middle of an important project. Would I be relaxed in his position..... Moments escape into eternity and a poet watches them helplessly. From the womb of that helplessness, poetry takes birth....Janaki column. Who the hell is this Janaki?

'Are you alone or is there anyone travelling with you?'

She's an elderly lady travelling with her husband. You might've seen them anywhere, in any town, any neighbourhood. They're your typical next-door neighbours.

'I've a sore knee, my berth's up there, difficult to climb. Would you mind if we exchanged our berths?'

Refuse now, let me see. With a gesture of magnanimity and false smiles, I pick my bag and climb up, trying hard to subdue a grumble.

Nightfall. The compartment rocks gently. Two kids nearby chatter. An infant bellows at a distance. Most of the people in the compartment are lulled into a deep slumber.

Early morning. Glowing tree-tops. Forceful breeze from the open door. The train trods on a long bridge creating hollow echoes--the riverbed deep down has all but dried. Wasn't it that journey long back when you stood at the door, gathering courage to jump into the river below? What stopped you? How many times did you approach the door, ready to jump, holding back at the last moment? Looks funny....from here.

Two books keep me company. Osho defines Trust beautifully in his book on Intuition. 'If you accept that there are things beyond reason, beyond what your senses can perceive, then you are a believer. You have trust. If you refuse to accept the things beyond logic, you're a non-believer. You're closed!'

Atheism was and is fashionable. You're an intellectual, a man of scientific temper if you're an atheist. A rational man! Rubbish. You're plain stupid. Not allowing mystery, holed up inside your ego, you're a miserable idiot!

A short story I once wrote comes to mind--about a woman on a train journey who loses her purse and then pockets a dying oldman's money and begins to justify her actions. It was an amaeturish story but ambitious, with just two people, time-shifts, character build-ups, attempts at subtle nuances, changing view-points, compelling settings...Where would I be now if I'd stuck to writing and not decided to test code? A dozen published short stories, a couple of novels, booker-list---freedom and money. Or on the streets, depressed, lost in oneself. Or worse, stuckup somewhere in between. Or maybe at peace with oneself and ones art. I'd give anything to know about the road not taken.

North Karnataka. Maharashtra. The Sun bakes these parts though you don't feel it--the compartment is air-conditioned. Read somewhere--the climate defines your attitude, your behaviour. Sun-scorched, harsh climate breeds aggressive, arrogant mentality. Cold atmosphere makes you peace-loving. Maybe true, no idea. Islam originated in the sands. These parts are desert like; the people, harsh and rough.

I'm in the corridor, talking to the hot breeze of the afternoon. At a distance, I spot the guy with whom I'd refused to share my berth, reading a book on 'hacking'. I'm tempted to walk up to him and borrow the book for a while but he might just snap. People move through the corridor, chattering, laughing. Vendors stream in and out continously. Inside, some are dozing, a few reading, a few staring nowhere. A kid nearby plays chess with his grandpa. He's sharp--after a while he shouts, 'Mummy, check-mate!' If my sister had seen this, she'd first chide her son and then put him into a chess school once she got back to bangalore. No, archana won't do that, I hope!

The lady on my seat smiles.

'We're from Calcutta, now settled in Bangalore.'


'You said you're from Bangalore. How do you speak such fluent hindi?'

'Picked up a bit by watching hindi movies'

'By the way, what's your caste?'

How I love to tell her that I don't belong to any caste, or any religion. Watch her squirm. Out of politeness I mumble something.

She smiles uncomfortably. What would be her response if I'd told her that I was a brahmin? Or a Muslim? And then told her about the delicacies prepared out of beef?

Evening sets in. The nearby family is going on a North India trip. They discuss Agra, Taj, Hardwar...Baba Ramdev. The woman on my seat is also going there, to get medication for her knee from Ramdev's ashram. The next hour's talk is all about foodhabits--pancakes of millet and besan, fried fish from native villages. About daughters who went to Canada for higher studies and settled there. The atmosphere is richly family type. A bit comforting. A bit nauseaous.

The train halts at some station. An urchin lumbers in. He removes his shirt, cleans the floor with it and then extends a hand. A few drop coins. He's skinny and jovial. He wades to the other end of the compartment, gets up suddenly and comes back running and sprints out of the door. A policeman comes walking by, lathi in hand. What if he'd caught the lad and beaten him up in front of you? Would you've protested? Asked him not to do it? Face up to him? Recently someone caught on film a policeman thrashing an urchin and pocketing his money, in a busy place. Nobody protested.

Dinner. It's awful. No choice. Two weeks back, I was dining with Karthik and Guruji. 'Spirituality means wiping away all that you've accumulated until now and starting afresh,' Guruji said. 'An elderly person, who's finished all his responsibilities, who has learned and gathered so much over a life-time will find this difficult. For a young man, the spiritual journey could be easier.'

Munching the half-baked rice, remembering the sumptuous meal of that evening, I ponder over those words. Easy? Arduous? Takes a life-time to unlearn and begin ones journey into light-- afresh?..... Worth the challenge!

Midnight. Noises. Someone has forcefully occupied the adjacent berth. Soon the TC arrives. Negotiations and threats. The rightful occupant tells the TC: 'Look, I'm a goverment employee and I'm going to lodge a complaint against this fellow. And if you support him, I'll lodge one against you too.' After a while everything settles down.

Dawn...... Mathura. Reminds me of Jayanth's experiences here. The inhabitants consider themselves as the descendants of Lord Krishna and they emulate his qualities (stealing and promiscuity). Because the Lord stole butter in his childhood and courted 16000 women in his teens. The dungeon where the Lord was born 5000 years ago is now a temple. Just adjacent stands a mosque built 300 years ago by Aurangazeb and the site's now controversial--communally sensitive. Divine mischief. Sick people.

Agra..... Early morning. The landscape is bathed in a golden hue. The lady on my seat sits in a lotus posture and practices Ramdev's pranayam. In between, she gestures a hundred times about various things to her bored husband who's browsing yesterday's newspaper. Maybe it's her day of silence, but I have a hard time controlling myself from bursting out laughing!

A caterer stops by with a heavy bucket of bottled cold water. He's from Bihar and his family lives in Delhi.

The lady reads his badge carefully and decides to break her vow of silence.

'What's your name? What's written it...Mum...'

'Mumtaz,' he says.

'How much do earn a day?'

'Depends. Commision system hai. 17%. If I sell goods worth Rs.100, I get 17. If I sell a 1000, I get 170'.

He's resting on a nearby seat. Half of the compartment is still asleep and the others, half-awake. A portly man and his son brush teeth near the tap on the platform. Sipping hot tea, watching the brightening surroundings, I listen to his exhausted words.

'How's the temperature in Delhi?'

'Very hot madam. Crosses 42 degrees.'

'Do you get free food here?'

'Yes, in the pantry. We get to eat something.'

'And you travel only in this train--bangalore to delhi and back.'

'Mmm. When this reaches delhi today, it starts back by evening towards bangalore. I'll be travelling again.'

I interrupt. 'Do you have an off on sundays?'

He chuckles. 'Saab, kya holiday? Have you seen a donkey? That's our life. Sometimes we take an off. But need to ask the manager. He may agree or may not.'

New Delhi. The train crawls into the station slowly. People get down without much of a farewell. They're busy finding coolies, ringing up waiting relatives. A few urchins outside on dirty tracks pick up used bottles and rummage through leftover food.

Boiling air. The station blisters with crowds. I have another train to catch in the evening before I reach Jammu by next dawn. It's a long way amidst pushing men and women before I stumble into the reservation counter.

Ticket's yet to be confirmed--my name's still on the waiting list, and the reservation chart will be pasted an hour before departure. I find my way into the upperclass waiting room. The hall's spacious but seems to house almost twice its capacity. People are sitting all over the place and many are standing, with their luggage suspended in space. I spot a vacant place on the floor and as I sit down, a man on the nearby seat taps my shoulder.

'That place's taken. The lady has gone to the washroom.'

'Fine, I'll vacate once she arrives.'

She arrives too soon with a bewildered look. I get up, make way and she squats hurriedly.

A comfortable corner which many of those standing on one leg have missed. I jump, swerve, trudge, hop and reach the corner,dump my luggage and sit on the cool marble floor. This must be heaven!

Delhi is hot and humid. But there's a dust storm and lashing rains by evening--adding all the more to the chaos at the station. A huge crowd begins to gather at the reservation chart. People jump on top of one another and nearly tear apart the chart, desperate to find their seats confirmed. When I'm beginning to think of leaving the station, brave the heavy rains to the nearby bus-terminus and hop onto a bus--I spot my name in the confirmed ticket list!

Shalimar express. Reminds me of the novel-movie 'Shaalimar', by Manohar Malgaonkar. And Zeenat Aman. The epitome of beauty and lust.

Another noisy family. And an old man beside me, from hyderabad, visiting the hill-shrine, Vaishnodevi. Outside on the platform, a man hobbles on one leg. How did he lose his leg? Road accident? Mine blast? Maybe he was in the army? Or got into an altercation with the local toughguys. Two sadhus in orange robes walk briskly, silently. I'm one of them, I know.

I rest back in releif as the train leaves New-delhi, which is now washed clean by the sudden evening shower. But soon the old man next to me goes to another seat and a woman, maybe his daughter-in-law, arrives. And soon enough, there's a plump man in his mid 30s, standing nearby.

'Your seat is also alloted to me,' he grins. 'We may have to share the berth'.

Three of us on a mid-sized seat. The lady's not happy with this plump guy. He's a don't-care brutish-mannered jovial person. And she's reserved and seems to think that this fellow's making passes at her. As I rush through the final pages of Osho's book, I try to enjoy their strange chemistry and non-verbal duel--all the while worrying about having to sit the whole night, without a blanket. It's getting colder.

'We'll talk to the TC,' I suggest. 'Maybe he can arrange an extra berth and we'll get separate bedding.'

'I'll talk to him,' the plump guy says, munching a chocolate bar. The lady plays a stupid game on her mobile and every 15 seconds, the mobile sings a 'game-over' tune.

The man gets up, vanishes and returns after a while. The noisy family is from Maharashtra--typically upper middle-class--happy and josh. One of them farts and they begin to speculate and guess who did it, and there's an uproar of laughter. It's a nasty fart! I feel like getting out and stand in the corridor for 15 minutes until the odour subsides. But if I leave now, they might just guess that I'm the culprit.

Soon enough the TC arrives. The Plumpy collects his baggage. The lady is enormously relieved. I ask him. 'Got a berth?'

'Kya yaar! This is India. Throw money and you can get this train itself. What to say about a berth!'

I call up Archana. Talk a bit. Call up Mom. Tell her about my whereabouts. Wait for dinner to arrive. Feeling sleepy.

The old man comes back to his seat and the lady returns to where she came from. This guy begins to bother the TC and the TC is on the verge of losing his patience. The old man says, 'My nephew's in the second class compartment and there are four army men sitting along with him on his seat. Can't you do something about it?'

'What can I do?' the TC explodes. 'They're armymen!'

We pierce through a never ending dark space. A million stars doze far above. The silence of this landscape is tremendously overpowering inspite of the deafening whistle of the train. There's a slow glow at the horizon.

Jammu! Waiting at the car-park for Archana, who said half an hour ago that she'd be there in 10 minutes. A lazy morning. There's a heavy presence of the army here. Just a few hundred miles across lies Kashmir. And then Pakistan. Life, death and dignity have different meanings and newer shades over there.

She arrives. Gets out of the car with the little angel! He looks different. Completely! I hug him and he slaps me. Chubby cheeks. Pure eyes. 'You've become thin,' she complains. And breaks into a broad smile. He blinks at the new arrival.........


  1. Absolutely fantastic, Vishwa!! I was unable to tear myself away from reading this wonderfully intimate and enthralling account of crawling through India. It is so atmospheric, and amazingly descriptive - especially to someone who has travelled through North India, but never on a train. This writing deserves a wider audience.
    Enjoy Jammu and the company of Archana and Tejas!

  2. Val....You travelled in North India? Then you must blog about it, whatever you remember about those travels.
    Thank you for your appreciation

  3. Quite an adventure, Vishwa!Please share more.

  4. Vishwa, I ditto what Val and Saintly Nick said. Wonderful! I truly enjoyed what you shared.I hope to read more.


  5. I'm waiting for more on the journey too Vishwa..... b/w reading your older ones .....

  6. Anna... Thanks.
    Btw, sometimes your blog goes private and I miss your articles at such times. Your writing surely deserves a wider audience than the ones you chose to reveal them to:-)

    Ash....You're too mysterious. One never knows when you come back to blogging, as if out of the blue. Hope you're having a great time :-)

  7. Hi vishwa,

    Thank you. I've been like a hermit crab. Sometimes I'm out and sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I try different shells. I've been going through a process of some thing.

    I do so enjoy what you are writing! :)

  8. Vishu, i have read your post many times and like to reading them again more so because , it gives magical nostalgia and you also have mentioned about my life episodes in your blog posts , thank you so much.
    I used to read your post after we got married and used to insist you to write light and loving post rather than those ones were you used to mention low moods, your loneliness, etc, i used to feel kindda depressed not because we should't express our not so expanded self but i used to get same vibes from jammu when dad's health was getting bad each day . Now, off late your writing has newness of self worth , self love,and can make out you no longer feel lonely ! I don't know why you feel that you want enlightenment, when you already have it ? Feeling good and happy , ... for you are completely a new person now ! Good wishes to yourself. . Keep writing . Archana.