In the four decades of my life, I’ve not travelled much, but I’ve still racked up a whole lot of miles.
My parents worked and lived in a small oil town across the country from my home state. And when I say across, I mean across. Their home state was in the very south west of India, and their new world was in its northeastern-most corner.
I can only wonder how my mother, one of the most resourceful women there is, undertook the journey every year with my sister and me in tow. I call it a journey, but it was more like a week-long stately progress with multiple stops. It all began with a three-hour drive at the crack of dawn past tea gardens. This was followed by an hour-long flight, a two-day train ride hurtling down the East coast, and a change of trains for a quick overnight journey, before we could finally deposit our battered, 1980s suitcases on my grandmother’s front porch and run to hug her.
This was an annual affair and I don’t remember ever being bored by it. We’d look out of the window, read books, irritate each other, eat the god-knows-how-unhygienic-they-are meals at various stations, wait eagerly for river crossings, watch cities and states dissolve into nothingness, try to decipher the strange scripts on sign boards or crane our necks to see the whole train as it curved ahead of us – the pastimes were endless and rewarding.
My mother still marvels at the confidence – or foolhardiness – with which she embarked on each trip. This was the 1980s and telephone calls in our part of the world were still reserved for important occasions. Our town only had an intercom, and making calls to other cities was not common practice. More often than not, we descended on our relatives with minimum ceremony. There was no question of asking if it was convenient for them to receive us – there would be a car waiting for us at the station, and that was that.
Unlike me, the few times I’ve travelled as an adult, she carried no medicines and packed no food to eat on the journey. But we still got on fine, and arrived unscathed at our destinations.
That’s not to say we didn’t have our fair share of adventures.
There was this time a cyclone hit the coast and destroyed the railway line that was on our route. Our train re-routed and our two-day journey ended up being a five-day one. We had no idea when our train would eventually reach its destination, and I’m sure the relatives who we were meant to stay with had no idea either. But I was blissfully oblivious to it all, and thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected joyride through new bits of the country.
I remember waking up one morning and seeing large steam locomotives at a huge train station, and being served tea in clay pots. I’m quite sure this happened at two different times but in my mind it is mashed up into one memory. On that same trip, we passed through remote forests and people on our train began pulling the stop chain and disappearing into the night, as though they were on a local bus and not on a train with fixed train stations.
Another time, the cable on our train’s engine snapped, and we were stuck for several hours on the line, ironically just a few kilometres away from our final destination.
Now before this post gathers steam and gets away from me like a runaway train, let me direct it quickly into my college years.
I went to a college just a couple of hours away from home; it became my practice to board a train after class every Friday. The adventures did not abate. There were distasteful moments (dealing with lecherous types), scary experiences (boarding the wrong train and going on an unexpected jaunt through unknown territory) and downright terrifying ones (being all alone in a compartment at 9 pm, which in that part of the world, is tantamount to suicide).
Now, many years later, trains have rolled back into my life in a big way. I take the Dubai Metro to work and back. People who drive (most of Dubai, it would seem) ask me how I can stand the tedium of the journey. While it’s not always been smooth sailing, the metro runs on time, is clean and fast, and people in it usually smell good and dress well – what’s to complain? I usually lean against a door (not recommended) and read. In fact, once or twice I’ve missed my station because I’ve been so engrossed.
Whether I’m three or 39, I don’t see the train journeys ending. Let’s hope that they will lead to new landscapes and new discoveries in the years ahead!
I regret that I have no photographs to accompany this post; but if you could see the images in my head, ah this page would be colourful indeed.