This week I read a wonderful collection of short stories related to Indian Railways edited by Ruskin Bond . I know several other movies, novels and real life tales where trains played an important role in the happenings. Satyajit Rai used trains as a metaphor for modernization in his movie Pather Panchali. Ruskin Bond wrote the most incredible love story ‘Eyes are not there’ on the chance meeting of two persons in a train and who can forget the charming Devanand singing 'Hai apna dil to awara ...' in the Bombay local train . In many Indian movies the climax scene of separation or reunion was played on a railway platform and no wonder ,it is difficult for me to imagine how people lived when there was no Railways in India. Come to think of it…it was just a century and half that railways come to India and it seems that they were always part of us. Paraphrasing the popular ad of SAIL I dare say –There is little bit of railways in each one of us.
My first clear memory of a train is when I was 4 year old and my father was transferred from Pantnagar to Jhansi. We traveled by a inter connected train (which was a novelty for us kids) . My dad took me for a walk inside the train and at each joint between bogies my heart skipped a beat with excitement . That journey was also my first long distance train journey and hence for the first time I was acquainted with first class coupe, pantry inside the train and even sleeping on berth. Each of which was exciting beyond description for the child of four .
Train travel has come of an age since then. Trains like Shatabdi express and Rajdhani Express are much faster, comfortable and technically superior. We even have designer trains like the famous Palace on Wheels which is almost luxury of wheels. During my stay at Shimla I fell in love with the quintessential chuk-chuk gadi …the steam engine toy trains . They may be slow , may not be that luxurious but they are what was our childhood imagination of the train . Its difficult not to wave when you hear the familiar sound of these trains coming out of a tunnel or entering into another .
All kids are fascinated by trains, their tracks, their whistle and even the not-so-clean platforms . Railway platforms are a hub of activities. Some of them like Lucknow's Charbagh station, Chennei Egmore station or Mumbai CST are architectural beauties and others are just functional buildings. With vendors , booksellers, beggars, passengers ,pickpocketers , passengers and the entire paraphernalia of Railways, these stations are always game for some or the other stranger than fiction real life tale. . Some of these of course are also tales of horror , specially with foreigners ...like this one funny (but I am sure true) picture drawn by a harassed tourist -
"I thought I was intrepid
Flying 'cross the world
Till I met with Indian trains
That thrashed my bod and bashed my brains
And rendered me to curled,
pathetic Urchin-like remains
Ne'er again will I set forth
"Intrepid be my name"
I'll worry 'bout which platform
And how to step 'round rat swarms
And when to wake
And how to make out
Hindi station names"
But being an Indian and thus familiar with the rules of the game , I have received people/boarded trains at oddest of hours and even the small stations never failed me on unusual people and scenes.I feel perfectly at home in trains .Though I must confess that I have not travelled in unreserved compartments or passengers trains much. I enjoy the luxury provided by trains in terms of their swing like gait, their slow but tolerable catering and the variety of interaction one can taste during train journeys . I was therefore not surprised that so many writers chose to write stories with railways at the backdrop. While travelling across country for 'Bharat Darshan' we witnessed the variety of life at the railway stations. With every hundred kilometers the nature and attitude of the station changed dramatically. Changes were not only in the building style, the snacks available or the language but also in the behaviour of porters, interest of the onlookers and even the mood of the place .
I firmly believe that to see India in its true colours one must travel with Indian railways . It may not have the comforts of air travel and may even lack the ease of road but this is the way India travels to work, to home and to holidays .