Sunday, December 29, 2013

"There isn't a train I wouldn't take" (from Selected Poetry)

If you like appreciating life’s leisurely pace, are not in a mad hurry to reach somewhere and follow the adage that the journey is more important than the destination then trains, according to me, are your best bet when it comes to mode of travel.

Train to sunset (Image : Google)
 I have often wondered what makes train journeys so fascinating.

Large windows (I am talking AC class here) that offers unlimited stretch of sky looking down indulgently at you while you sway to the gentle jhik-jhik rhythm? The memories of childhood when the entire family took vacations together which cannot be recreated again? The new friends one made over the long, unhurried journey - co passengers with whom one shared biscuits, bhujia and other savouries and opened those parts of their life which otherwise is suitably masked? The lazy afternoons when the sound of wheels touching the fish plate acted as the perfect lullaby gently rocking a compartment full of restless humans to doze off peacefully? The smiles one exchanged with co passengers on spotting a chaiwala at some ‘junction’ halt right at a time when there was a nip in the air and the soul craved some warm liquid? Or was it the childlike enthusiasm with which everyone asked each other ‘which station’ as the train stopped unscheduled at some lonely one horse town middle of the night? 

Photograh courtesy : Sudipto Chakraborty

For me train journeys by default mean new books; the wheeler company’s stall has acted as a pilgrimage site prior to the start of all journeys. Yashwantpur Railway Station (Bangalore) somewhat disappoints me; it houses Gita Press ONLY in the platform that I frequent. In spite of my spiritual inclinations, I prefer reading different genres while on train. Once upon a time my regular quota was 2 fictions – 1 crime thriller + 1 Mills&Boon and 1 mindless film gossip magazine. Crime thriller has stood test of time; I still devour them with gusto while the landscapes change outside my window.

Photograph courtesy: Soumyajit Chakraborty

Each time I travel by train I feel much at peace and alive simultaneously idly munching on chocolates, finger loosely placed on the page when the murderer is still at large while soaking in rural India at its picturesque best – soothing endless green fields, cows meditating in groups, crows accompanying  me in my journey, slightly unkempt but very happy looking kids returning from school (how different they look from the activity class laden city kids), women cleaning clothes perched on the  steps of the village pond,  gently rolling hills at a distance – everything and everyone looks so unhurried and rooted.

Image : Google
I believe that train journeys have the capability to take us to places otherwise unreachable - places that can only be appreciated from the door or window of a train. 

There is GOD and he is looking out for me. 
Out of the blue we got upgraded to 1st class as we were to board the YPR – HWH Duronto for our impending Calcutta (yes, yes I will always address it so; name change be damned) visit one clear blue skied morning 1st week of December. 
Ah the blinding colours!
 "Duronto" means "restless" in Bengali.These trains do not have any ticketing stops between the origin and the destination though they have technical halts for change of crew and catering.  Now, while I love train journeys and undertake them on and off I have never traveled first class. 

There is something rather old world exotic about it. The moment you perch yourself in those wide berths inside a coupe you feel as if you are wearing a vintage lace gown, your maid waiting diligently with your vanity case somewhere close by and you badly want to start commanding in a soft, ladylike voice. Okay, I admit. I have read far too many Victorian novels. 

Cut to present tense. It was sheer luxury. As soon as the train started an IRCTC representative introduced himself and handed me some nice smelling tissues.

And then the super efficient catering service guys took over. They were polite, helpful, made us feel really well looked after and served freshly cooked, delicious meals!  Tea, soup, dinner, breakfast and lunch before you roll out are served with alacrity, courtesy and yes, a smile; the mismatched crockery did not matter. I had the best roast chicken, spaghetti and cheese balls of my life; if I had the money I would have hired the cook. And for the quintessential Bengali who ordered Indian Thali, they even served crispy aloo bhaja with dal.  Heaven on earth I tell you J
FYI: Jhur-jhure aloo bhaja * with dal is like fresh oxygen, get the drift?
Jhur jhure aloo bhaja (Image : Google)

I secretly wished for a murder or at least a romance that one can witness wistfully (remember Murder at the Orient Express and Before Sunrise and our very own Ray’s Nayak?) but alas all that did not happen.

Nayak starring Sharmila Tagore and Uttam Kumar.
There were of course the regular culprits – cute kids, one of them even offered me his plastic animal kingdom to play with and two fidgety, severely black hair dyed aunties who complained about floors not being spic and span. This, in spite of floors being cleaned at regular intervals with a nice smelling liquid! My curiosity was met with “Madam lizol ke saath ek phenyl jo bas Mumbai mein milta hain usko milane se yeh khusboo aata hain”. What TV and print ads and my maid’s incessant nagging could not do, this confident statement did. I am now a Lizol convert. Very soon I will source that Mumbaiwala phenyl too.

Inside a coupe (Image : Google)

I interacted with the guys who made the journey so memorable. Some slog out the long hours because they need the money to marry off unmarried sisters, some because their old parents need financial assistance and some because train and travel seems to be their calling. Next time you are on a train kindly do not take them for granted. As part of an outsourced team, it is a tough job with hardly any job security, very few sanctioned leaves, not a high pay and less hours of sleep. 
High handed passenger behavioural stories include one passenger who asked (not requested) for tea at 3.30 am in spite of being aware that these guys go to sleep only at around 11.30 – 12 in the night! Reason given: I have tea at that time in my house. Someone needs to realize trains are not what you call your own house.

Lush landscape as train chugs along (Image : Google)
Biswajit Chakraborty, from Konnanagr, is someone I will look out for when I take the Duronto again. 
A perpetual smiling face and concern for his colleagues and the passengers who he is duty bound to look after makes him stand out among others.  I saw him fetch medicine for a middle aged lady who was slightly skeptical getting down on her own when the train stopped suddenly at some station around 11.30 in the night. 
Having studied till 12th standard he managed a pan, cigarette shop for a few years. While at it he also sculpted religious figurines.  He took up a half security-half admin kind of post in an insurance company where he felt rather exploited as he was asked to do things which were not ‘honest’ according to him. He joined this job five years back and the sensitive artist in him is hurt with all the politics that is played around him. During the cyclone Phailin ** he and his team worked non-stop for nearly a week; they were stuck in Chilka for 25 hours while the passengers were ferried off in another train to their destination. His middle elder brother’s (whom we traditionally refer as Mejda in Bengali) wedding was upcoming and I did ask him to enjoy himself in the much deserved 5 days leave. One hopes the dreamer in him stays alive, always.

To do list in coming years: A leisurely journey in the Konkan Railways, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels and the Trans-Siberian Express 

Inside Palace on Wheels (Image : Google)


* Recipe for Jhuri aloobhaja  that can serve 2 -3 hungry souls :
 Ingredients: Potato (Big) – 2, Salt - As per taste, Turmeric powder – 1 tbsp, Vegetable / Mustard Oil  for deep frying
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Method: Peel the potatoes and grate them in juliens. Put them in a sieve and wash thoroughly under running cold water.
Once water drains put of the sieve, take a paper towel and soak all the water of the potato.
Place them in a bowl and add 1 tsp turmeric powder, salt (tastewise) and mix well.
Heat mustard oil in full flame. Lower flame and fry the grated potatoes in batches .Do not add too much at one go otherwise they will stick together.