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Trains, right?
Mmm… yes.
I knew it!
I remember those long journeys.
From Trivandrum all the way to Pathankot!
To New Jalpaiguri!
What about the ones to Baroda?
Not to forget those to New Delhi, Kharagpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai.
Or the time we went to Pune from Baroda?
Yes. All wonderful times that we spent together.
Just the two of us. Talking to each other without anyone interrupting…
Watching the countryside rush past…
The stories I told you…
Made up, you mean?
Excuse me, stories are usually made up and that’s what I did for you.
Yeah right.
All you had to do was write them down.
True that. You do still tell me a lot of stories.
But do you write them down, you lazy whatchamacallit?
Hey! I am doing the AtoZ thingy remember?
And lagging behind too. Pah! Now go finish writing T.
Yes, Madam Me-in-me!

*****

Most people are put off by the long hours that train journeys take. Fifty hours? A friend from outside India asked me, aghast at how long I would be cooped up in a train compartment while traveling to New Delhi from my hometown. For me though it was something I looked forward to. The long hours gave me the opportunity to read, write, watch movies (that I had downloaded on my laptop) enjoy the scenery, people-watch at the stops on the way, get acquainted with strangers sharing the compartment (optional), make new friends (also optional), so on and so forth.

My train journeys have not always been by myself. I started quite young, as a newborn in fact, traveling with my parents. The first journey I can recall is going off with father to meet my grandparents. Apparently, for the most part of that journey, I sat at the window and sang to myself, no bother at all to father much to his relief, it being the first time he was in sole charge of me. Then there were the many ones with my parents and the siblings, follwed by the ones with my friends to and from college hostel. After marrying an army officer, train travel became an even more integral part of my life.

New Delhi was the hub where we changed trains for the various destinations, either to reach home, or place of work of the husband. There were no through trains in those early days. The longest journey had been the one from Trivandrum to Pathankot by the Himsagar Express. The train itself started from Kanyakumari and used to go up to Jammu Tawi station. I am not sure if it still does that or if it even holds the record anymore.

The long journeys we took as a family were quite fun. The L&M got down at each station for his innumerable cups of chai. Children clamoured for salted cucumbers or muri or ice cream, played games, read. There was the time a policeman came to sit in our compartment. This was somewhere in Bihar or UP. When it was time for him to get off, he coolly took the water bottle that belonged to us, drank to his heart’s content, kept it back and without a word walked out. What’s yours is mine, or so it is to policemen in some places.

There is another ‘memorable’ journey we undertook. Some train or other had got canceled on the very day of our travel and we found that our train had arrived packed with passengers of that train crammed into this one though they had no reservation. No one though seemed to be bothered about this, the railway authorities least of all. There was only standing room inside. These things don’t happen in the south. Reserved compartments are for those who have reserved their tickets. So it was all new to me.

The L&M was all for cancelling the tickets and returning home, but I wouldn’t let him. We have reservation. How can anyone not give us our seats, was my logic. Little did I know about how the system functioned in those regions. There were at least six people on each berth and many more in between and in the passageways. We got our berth emptied after firm insistence that they belonged to us. But how were we to access the washrooms with people everywhere, some even standing inside the washrooms? The L&M had to force his way through the throng each time one of us wanted to use the facility.

I woke up at night to find a man of considerable proportion hogging the First Born’s middle berth while the poor boy was curled up in a corner. WTH! I was livid and tapped the man awake. What the heck did he think taking over my son’s berth? His reply made me speechless. I asked the boy’s father. Like hell he had. Now I had it in for the L&M as well. What did he mean by letting some stranger share his berth? If he was feeling so generous he should have given up his own top berth and shared with his son. The next morning he would hear from me. For now, the man had to vacate the seat. He could sit at one end, but no way was he sleeping next to my ten year old son.

But the real highlight of the journey was when I suddenly woke up at night and found to my absolute horror that the Second Born was not next to me. He was missing! The memory of that moment still gives me jolts to this day. I stared wildly around me. Where do I even start to look? How many stations had the train already stopped at? What if someone had picked him up and got down at one of those stations? How the hell could I have slept through it? Right then I could have killed myself easily.

Just then someone tapped me on my arm. A man, who had made a bed from his boxes right next to my berth, pointed at his own self. My four year old was sleeping soundly on his chest like he usually does on his dad. My relief cannot be explained in words. I grabbed him off the man’s chest without a word and held him close for the rest of the night (and also kept an eye on the man in the middle berth). It is only the next morning that I thanked the man who had wordlessly let the Second Born – he had crawled over me to the other side, the man said – sleep on his chest.

Mostly though train journeys have been pleasant and each one a wonderful experience. The changing topography is always intriguing. The green fields with different crops in various stages of growth, or sometimes with no crops at all, depending on the time of the year. Then there would be mountains, boulders strewn about, some distant, others really up close. One would have a temple or a cross, right on top, with steps cut on the sides of the mountains for people to climb up for worship. There would be treeless areas with only concrete structures here and there. The dust would be seen rising in the barren looking landscape with thorny trees scattered far and wide.

My travels by myself have been times to reflect and relax. Music, books and conversations with the Me-in-Me. Silently. That’s also when the creative juices flowed, or as the Me-in-Me would have it, stories were told to me. There’s something about the rhythmic sounds of the moving train very conducive to thought and creativity. Now travel mostly means hopping on to a flight, and frankly, it is not the same.

Picture courtesy Adityamadhav

© Shail Mohan 2020