Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The things I miss when I fly

North-East India Map
Staying in the North East has one major disadvantage. Being so far disconnected from the rest of the country, it is a major proposition to even think of making a trip back to the mainland. The main problem is actually Bangladesh! Because reaching the mainland take-off point of Calcutta requires travelling first North, then West and finally South, rather than the straight line that would be possible had not Jinnah managed to persuade the British to partition this great land. This part of the journey is what consumes the maximum amount of time. Roads are dangerous, what with the conglomeration of anti-government groups who control large areas. And trains, while not so dangerous, are just a s bad, as you can never say if and when an explosion on the track will delay you for an unspecifiec amount of time! So, the best way to get to the North East is to fly, though of course, that requires a secret unlimited gold-mine to provide never-ending resources!

So the best thing to do once you come to the North-East is to stay there! Unfortunately for us, the last two years have somehow been filled with many trips back and forth for reasons including weddings, exams, courses and what-nots. The first few times we took the train. But when we found ourselves 24 hours late on a trip to Ludhiana for Amy's graduation (which we made it to, thank God!), we turned for a time to the air as our first choice for travel. Travelling by air is great - comfortable, fast and, if you book early enough, just about within reach of the pocket. But on my trip to Vellore for Dr. Aravindan Nair's farewell, I decided I would brave the dangers of the second-sleeper bogie again. And I am so grateful that I did. For as I traveled through the dusty plains and plateaus of this beautiful land, I realised that my sheltered existence had induced me to forget some of the realities of life in our country. And in doing so, I was allowing myself to be carried away by the misconception that my inward-looking world protected by my profession and luxuries from the reality around is the true India.

The second-sleeper bogie of a train is a microcosm of our country. Of course, the unreserved bogie would be the ideal place to feel the true pulse of our nation (à la Rahul Gandhi), but that is an adventure which may just be too much for me! And as the train wended its way from Howrah to Katpadi, I saw many things that I would have missed had I flown.

I saw the dirt and grime that are part of any older second-sleeper bogie. I saw the massed humanity who entered in looking to find half a square metre of seat-area on which to rest their tired bodies. I saw the ticket collector making his rounds collecting money, with a receipt for some and none for others. I saw the hawkers who peddled their varied wares, mostly with little hope of any success. I saw the children who came in different sizes and different states of malnutirtion, some singing songs in hoarse voices accompanied by frenzied beating on a plate or home-made drum, some too lethargic too sing, but all begging for a coin or a small morsel of food. I witnessed the indignity of some of these little ones who crawled along the filthy floor cleaning the dirt and debris that we, the passengers had scattered... Only to be cursed by some for having missed a spot - all for a few worthless coins. I saw the hijras (eunuchs) who wandered up and down with their characteristic mannerisms, aggressively encouraging us to provide for their daily bread. I saw the professional beggars, with their assortment of disfigurements and disabilities, some of them possibly surgically induced just to increase their market rate.

I saw many things on that journey, not just in the compartment but outside. On the stations. Outside the stations. Everywhere..... It was the country I had forgotten existed. The country which I never saw from my brick house, my protected comfort, my blinkered existence. The life of a 'middle-class' professional, cloistered within the comforts of the security his or her job provides is greatly predisposed to assuming that what is seen is all there is to see. But there is so much more to my country. So much more that hides away from the eyes of those of us who are part of 'Shining India'. So much more that is well camouflaged in the hustle and bustle of daily life in the country. So much more under the rocks that we are too scared to lift for fear of what we may find there. And so I have forgotten. I have allowed the peaceful luxury of quick travel and other 'essential' parts of my life to crowd out the truth that the majority of my countrymen face everyday. And I would have never been reminded of it had I not traveled in the second-sleeper bogie of an Indian Railways train. 


  1. Couldn't have said it better myself. I still enjoy taking the non-AC, three-tier, second sleeper once in a while whenever I'm in India. It allows me to see various faces of India which the much-prevalent media love to overlook. We often get to see either the 'shining India' or the misery-ridden 'slumdog' India; hardly ever the in-between, the most real, and the most relevant one.

    While traveling from Delhi to Ahmedabad some years after the Gujarat riots, I got into conversation with a co-passenger. He was a Muslim trader, originally from UP, but had settled in Gujarat. Since I had been reading about the sorry plight of minority communities under Mr. Modi's government, I asked him why he continued living in such a hate-filled place. His reply was an eye-opener for me: he said that not only he preferred living there (since it was good for business), he and his family voted for Modi too.

    Now I'm personally not a fan of the particular party Mr. Modi represents (nor of any other, for that matter), but I could see what my co-passenger was trying to tell.

    We, the privileged ones, indeed live in a cocooned world, where our reality is often determined by what we see portrayed by the media. Traveling like a common man allows us to see what the common man thinks, feels, and lives like.

    And I hope you get to do this more often.

  2. I couldn't agree more, there is absolutely nothing in the world that comes remotely close to the experience of travelling second class on an Indian train. Where else would you see random strangers sharing their family's food with a fellow traveller that they don't know from Adam? Or the wide variety of vendors touting their wares? Or the arbitrary conversations we have with new acquaintances? One is never short of free entertainment when travelling this way. This is the way the real middle class India truly lives.

    I would advise anyone visiting India to travel by second class sleeper at least once to experience the affability of the travelling public, as a means to see the country through the eyes of the ordinary Indian.

    Flying is for wimps!

    - The Black Mamba

  3. N.E is a natures paradise , very hostile and untouched. One of the beautiful place in the world. Best places are not easily accessible.

    You should become a very ordinary citizen while you travel never crave for luxury , always use road or rail to explore our amazing country and its people.

  4. Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa (ninjiom-hk.cwahi.net) may be another solution to hoarse and sore throat. i know a lot of people use it, its also non alcoholic, though it's effectiveness is not as good as alcohol based cough medicine, but it's still good to use on not so serious sore or hoarse throat. Hope you are getting well soon!!!

  5. This is a red-letter day in the history of this blog - TBM agrees with me!! Just kidding - appreciate your views as always and even look forward to them.

    Thanks for the comment UB - you brought out something that I did not really do in the post - the majority of India lies between the 2 extremes. As for Mr. Modi - there seem to be more and more Muslims who are saying the same thing - something to investigate for sure...

    Glad to know there are others out there who think alike on this matter - wish there was more time to do this though - for after all 3 days is a long time in the lives that we lead......

  6. Well written- makes one think