Saturday, 26 August 2006

Journeys and People: Together in the beehive

The train journeys used to take for ever and the preparations started days in advance. Letters were written for the friends on the way, who were going to host us in their homes for a night or two. Holdalls were prepared with blankets and gaddas, thin mattresses filled with cotton, and we pulled on the straps till they all rounded up like footballs. Biji, my grandmother, prepared a big basket of puris and fried potatoes along with mango and water chestnuts pickles for the journey.

Going to Hyderabad needed two nights and we stopped on the way in Bhopal. Going to Alipur Dwar in the north-east took three nights and we stopped on the way in Lucknow and Siliguri.

In the second class compartment of the train with three tyres, train seats were wooden planks and best was to have the top berth, because then you could go up and forget about the others. The bottom berth was where everyone sat while the middle berth was kept closed till it was time to go to sleep.

As you entered the compartment you immediately measured the others sharing the space with you. Were their faces smiling or were they sour faced? How did they react to, "Uncle, can I put this here?" And then soon everyone beamed with relief since the companions of our journey were as anxious as we were to find friendly faces.

Before you knew, everyone was talking to everyone. Children sharing comics or playing ludo or exchanging stories. Women together chatting as long lost sisters from a Manmohan Desai film. Men looking with understanding nods at their wives, and talking about their own things. Didi, bhabhi, bhai saheb, dada ji, aunty ji, soon everyone had found the right words to address the others. From the open window of the train, on a curve you could see the steam rising up from the engine and specks of charcoal came inside the compartment and coated all the faces, got stuck in the hair and went down the neck into the shirts. Chuk chuk chuk, the train went, with the compartments swaying as everyone spoke to everyone else.

And by the time the shared journey came to an end, we knew lot of things about each other, and saying goodbyes was like we were leaving friends. "Write to me", "If you come to Delhi, come to see us", were exchanged with addresses. Of course, we never saw each other again, those other lives were soon forgotten, the memories of faces and names fading quickly with time.

Every time I stopped to think about it, I could see the round ball of earth buzzing like a beehive, hundreds of thousands of small cells next to each other, each with its own family and relatives and lives, each family facing ups and downs, each with children growing up, persons dying, persons getting married. Even if I didn't know about them all, I could imagine them, each family like our own, a little different in somethings, but underneath every thing else, quite similar.


Now even in India, there are no steam engines. Those long journeys have become shorter. Here in Europe, even when I do travel on train, mostly I avoid eye contact with others, I almost never offer to others the food I am eating, I hardly ever (actually never) take puris and fried potatoes with me and anyway, most persons have a sandwich and a paper glass with some drink. On the planes, people sitting next to me, some times smile but it stops there. Talking to others that you don't know means "disturbing them" and so everyone looks out of the window or reads or closes eyes and feigns sleep, all lost in their own worlds.

Instead, when the urge to "meet" others comes, I do blog hopping. Like, going to a site like Desipundit and clicking on a blog.

Blog-hopping makes me "meet" other persons. That boy with the red scarf around his neck and his graduation at some IIT, his face full of hope for the future. That lady next to him must be his mother, she looks so proud of him. The girl he is looking at with so much adoration on his face, is she is wife or his girlfriend? There is no picture of his father in that album, why, what had happened? After the pictures, I want to read about the things that boy has written in his blog. And then I click on a link on that blog, then on another link, hoping from one person to another. That girl, she went to India for the first time. Her name is south Indian, perhaps she was born in USA? How does it feel to be surrounded by all Indian faces for the first time in your life, when you realise that you are like everyone else? Jumping between cities and continents. Looking at photo albums and reading about the persons is so much fun. In half an hour, I have gone through three blogs, looked at their pictures, read about their profiles.

Tomorrow, I won't remember them. If not tomorrow, perhaps next week I will forget them. I never remember their names any way. And I never tag them. I like them as they are, random, unexpected, like ships crossing and the passing glimpses into other parallel universes. Sometimes interesting, sometimes ordinary. Sometimes, I don't like them so much.

They are like the companions on a long train journey from my childhood. And I think of the giant beehive, all round the world, every where people with hopes, joys, illnesses, memories, sadness, visting beautiful places, missing places and people. It is good to be part of that beehive.



  1. Well said! I do miss those train journeys!

    But even by blog-hopping, you don't get that personal touch, do you?

  2. Thank you for a very nostalgic blog. I went to boarding school in Bangalore and I have wonderful memories of my trip home to Kerala where we lived on a tea plantation. I have lived in the US for so many years now, but I will never forget those fond memories on our train trips. I remember the word "holdall" and it did hold a lot of stuff, mostly bedding I think? Thanks again for the awesome narration down memory lane.

  3. Beautifully written. 'Holdall' is a word familiar to all Indians from a certain generation. :)

  4. Hi Sunil! This is wonderfully instead of reading, i was feeling what you were narrating. i was actually a traveller in the train in those good old days u remembered. Or one of the folks surrounding that south indian girl who had come to india. This was really wonderful, and hope to read more from you. Cheers!


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