No Reservations- Train Journeys in India

10 years ago Shaili Desai 1

Something that was waiting to be heard, somewhere in a corner of my laptop hard disk. After all, this blog need not always be about just books!



Train journeys are boring, especially when travelling alone. More so, when you are travelling in an air conditioned coach. The windows are closed, with dark film pressed neatly on them to give passengers some respite from people gawking at them at every station. But privacy comes at a cost. You cannot enjoy the serene countryside or marvel the beauty of the landscape. Even the passengers are not very interesting. All that people do is eat, sleep, eat a little more and go to sleep again. And snore. A lot.

I am sitting in a compartment in the Swarnajayanti Rajdhani Express. The train is wheezing past small obscure stations, showing the middle finger to them. It seeks to remind them of their triviality in this vast, seemingly endless scheme of things. This time, I have the lower seat on the side all to myself. Having finished with the ‘delicious’ dinner (Paneer, as usual) provided by IRCTC, I am calm and comfortable, with a book in my hand.

 This would be a good time to write. But I am not in the mood. Somehow, I guess I think better when the wind rushes in and fondles my skin. And also, I think there is much more to write about in an overcrowded unreserved compartment.

There’s nothing much for inspiration here. There’s a hyperactive kid constantly roaming about, climbing to the top most berth and then down again. It’s like he’s a playlist programmed to keep playing the same music over and over again. His parents are sitting near the window. They look like they could be the most boring couple on this planet. There’s a middle aged man giving advice to a younger co-passenger about job hopping and career decisions. I wonder how successful he himself is. The younger man seems to be listening patiently to him. Or, at least pretending to listen. After all, in India, we respect our elders.

There is a smart looking guy sitting opposite though. He seems to be close to my age. And looks delicious. Maybe something dramatic will happen and we both miss our trains. Since he’s the hero, he would come all the way to Ahmedabad even though he had to go some other place. And not to forget, we would discover that we were made for each other and fall madly in love.  At this point, the intelligent person in me seems to take cognizance of that undisputable fact that I am not Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met. And there are no dashing heroes in real life. So much for unoriginal day dreaming! I turn my attention back to my book. It’s a book that I always carry with me during journeys like these but never quite manage to finish because I get so distracted by my surroundings. I am not much of a talker but I like observing people travelling with me. I spin crazy stories about them as I wonder about their lives, how they are with their friends and family.  And the most eventful journeys have always been during my under grad days.

Travel was almost always spontaneous then. No reservations. The Gujarat Queen was usually the train that I travelled in. I would rush from hostel to catch the train in the nick of time, hop on into the ladies compartment. And then would start the rush to find a seat. Berth after berth would be occupied by women. Some of them fat and motherly, ready to offer you some space. Some others probably had had surgery to position a permanent stick up their behinds. They would occupy the whole seat, not nudge even a teeny little bit so that you could rest at least one part of your behind, if not the both. There would be other college girls travelling daily in the same train. They would chatter about cute professors, bitchy professors, the heavy studying that they would have to do in the next month because of the oncoming season of exams. Older ladies would talk of their domestic troubles and how their sister’s daughter-in-law’s cousin’s son married out of caste and what a shame it was. You don’t need to travel the whole of India really. To discover the soul of India, all you have to do is travel in a train.

Sometimes, there would be baggage kept on the seat where people should be sitting. If you want to learn the art of war, forget about Sun Tzu. A train journey can teach you more. You learn to stand up for yourself. I remember requesting a lady politely to remove her bag from the upper seat so that I could sit. When she refused, I removed it myself, put the heavy bag on her lap, much to her disbelief. You learn about resistance when you stand for the most part of the journey, pushed and thrown about constantly at every station when people get out of the train. You feel relief when you see so many people getting ready to get out. But then you realize that double the amount are going to get in. You learn from other people, especially how to avoid cat fights where there is a lot of scope for serious injury. The golden rule is that you should never mess with women who board the train with those big cane baskets on their heads, carrying their wares for selling them in the big city market.

I have always been entertained. I never needed a book or an ipod to carry me through those journeys. And the best time I ever had? That was on a two hour journey to Valsad from Surat in a compartment that was so crowded that I had to sit on the steps. My mother would have freaked out if I had told her where I had been sitting. But it doesn’t matter. I can still remember the wind rushing past me. Cute, dirty, half naked children would wave at me as the train chugged along the slums near the station. You could see the whole train as it would bend its spine at a laborious curve. I saw brinjal fields and paddy and some other crop that I couldn’t guess. Scarecrows standing watch and buffaloes working hard in the fields.

As I come back to the present time, I feel a strange sense of dissatisfaction. Why did I stop travelling like that? There are no answers.

I think the delicious looking guy is staring at me. He seems interested. But it no longer matters.