Following a train of thought

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.



Tea with milk and sugar? Yes, please!

I’m deeply uncool.

Also deeply unhealthy, it would seem.

Now that I’m in my late thirties, my two cups of tea a day are indispensable. Others can have their lattes and mochas and filter coffees, but I need tea as much as… well as much as I need tea.

teaThe tea world is not immune to snobbery, however.

The kind of tea I like, is apparently, Builder’s tea and it is preferred by construction workers on their tea breaks. This is when you add milk and sugar to your brew. Specifically, it’s the kind of tea you make with a teabag, hot water and milk. I may construct words and ideas rather than apartment blocks, but it’s the type of tea I make for myself in my office cafeteria.

The tea I make at home comes in for its fair share of snobbery. It calls for a little more effort than throwing a teabag into a paper cup and humming tunelessly while the electric kettle steams up – but not much more. I measure out milk and water together into the pan, wait for it to reach a near boil and dump the tea leaves right in. I then boil this concoction some more, stir in sugar and strain it.

This restricts my washing up to just three things; which is key if you’re as lazy or rushed as I am.

Going back to my office cafeteria – figuratively – when I go in to get my tea, there’s usually someone there fiddling about with spoons and cups, brewing a healthful cup of green tea or a trendy decaf.  These people watch in fascination as I proceed to add sugar (a teaspoon and a half) and milk (usually a dairy whitener).

As their cups froth, they can’t stop the words from spilling out of their mouths, “What, milk and sugar?”

For milky tea does not have the sophistication of black, green, oolong or jasmine. It’s mundane, pedestrian, expected.

Then they add the clincher: Milky tea is unhealthy. And sugar, why, that’s unthinkable. And so they judge me on my one-and-a-half-spoonfuls, right before they go down to the food-court and order themselves a quarterpounder and fries.

In defense of my unsophisticated, unhealthy habit, I sometimes bleat that I have barely any vices. I seldom drink, do not smoke, eat very little junk food, avoid too much oil or salt, have cut down on colas, sweets and starchy foods, and I’m vegetarian too.

What can I do but sip my sweet milky tea, and smile?

But before I go here’s a steaming cup of something beautiful – this wonderfully curated blog Once Upon a Teatime, that’s full of gorgeous textiles, decor vignettes and pictures of pretty teacups and tea.

Growing up

My kids are 13 and 12, discovering the world, and themselves.

Their 38-year-old mother is discovering the world, and herself.

Sometimes, I think the clock stopped when I was 24. Books stopped. Movies stopped. Music stopped. Opinions – well they could not possibly stop, but they were less expressed.

I wrote. I dreamt. I read.

But everything I wrote was to serve other masters. To sell homes, holidays, happiness.

I dreamt about packing lunches, bus stops, report cards. I did. I woke up in the morning relieved that those were just dreams.

I read but everything I read just filled my head and made it spin and took me far away and brought me right back.

Make no mistake, it was a fulfilling life in itself.

Then suddenly my children were older and did not need my hands, my lap, my thoughts every minute.

Now what?

I find my feet again. I invest in friendships again, and give more time to those I already have. I walk my city and explore: it’s like being out in the sun again after a long winter. I read to develop my opinions, and learn to talk about non-parenting issues.

I’m more than ready to leave my children’s protective embrace.

I discover time has not really stopped at 24. I feel less passionately about some things and more passionately about others. I’m wiser and more confident, and yet, sometimes I feel like it’s all new and different.

How would I have grown, if at 24 I had not become a mother? Would I have grown differently?

Thoughts on the train #21

I really must start using a fountain pen again, she thought. A classy black one with a handcrafted silver nib. Engraved with little curlicues and monograms. I must buy a beautiful notebook with handmade paper, and fill it with profound scrawlings in gleaming black ink.

Just then, the phone beeped. Quickly, dexterously, she typed out a response, thumbs flying.