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.