My relationship with the train had an unusual start, probably not so unusual for several thousands of students who went to schools like mine. It started right from my kindergarten days: I, along with others in my rickshaw had to cross a railway track to get to school. We would have to get down and push the vehicle over those ‘massive’ tracks. If there weren’t many of us, the rickshaw guy would just leave us before the track and we’ll have to walk the remaining distance (about 200 meters). I don’t know if it’s the annoying walk in the sun or the general feeling that trains can crush almost anything: we would place stones on the track for feet together, when we return, every evening. Just to see them get pulverized (with some hopes to derail the train, perhaps. Who knows?). We would curse the ‘oldies’ who come chasing us to remove the stones, moments before the train passes by. They were sometimes exciting sometimes nervous moments. When we found a crushed dead body beside the tracks one morning, ‘scary’ got added to the list.
I’ve lost so many 10 paise coins in the tracks, trying to ‘magnetize’ them. I wasn’t the worst, though. I know some 8th and 9th grade kids who would regularly flatten 1 rupee coins. I wonder what they learnt in their physics classes.
A train had all these strange meanings, and just that, for several years till I finally got on a train in my 5th grade. It was a long journey - Dindigul to Kakinada. Madras was exotic, Egmore sounded alien. Pallavan buses were, well, red.
A lot of things were new: short, non-stop ads in Sears-Elcot televisions in Central screaming "pon vandu pon vandu, potu paarunga"; shining blue Bisleri bottles that made me ask “thannikku kaasu tharanuma?”; my ‘never seen before’ gluttonous side; vomiting on a fellow passenger’s lap not being able to bear with his cigar smoke; testing my ‘learned from TV’ Hindi to attend nature’s call – “bhai saab mujhe urgent se aaraha hein;” bribing Godavari with a 25 paise coin to get the train across and a lot more.
My first train journey overwhelmed me with all kinds of emotions – joy, anxiety, unease, jealousy, confusion and even ruefulness. It took quite sometime for me to absorb these things and consciously experience what the stereotypical Indian train journey is known for – “meeting with interesting people from all walks of the society.”
By the time I moved to Bangalore I must have traveled in trains for over a hundred times. Marriages, college tours and what have you. There were very few 'stunts' that I hadn't pulled; there were few postures that I hadn't assumed - intentionally and unintentionally. But Madras – Bangalore was always special. It was the first time I started doing everything. I earned, I stood in the queue, I paid, I got to the station – all by myself. The experiences that I've had then, during the journeys, are some of the best, ever. I think I'd rather save them for a podcast.
Train journeys in 'Second Class Sleeper' reflect a very reasonable image about Indian life. Nothing is too bad, but you do to get to see the worst of it occasionally. People, facilities, everything would have a fair mix of what India has to offer. That's what makes 'The Great Indian Railways' such an excellent documentary.
I first saw it in 1998. It had been just a year after India's 50th independence anniversary. Some of the short films from the Bharat Bala's series the previous year, were still aired in DD. The pseudo-patriotism injected in our veins over a period of several months was still alive. So the documentary wasn't all that enchanting. I even felt outraged at times. I thought they were deliberately hiding the 'good stuff' to dampen our spirits (damn whites, I thought). I continued to hold the same impression for a long time.
Even though I would run into the documentary once in a month or so, later, I chose to sit through the whole thing again only in 2004 – six years after the first time I had seen it. This time I was in Bangalore. I was older, and as I had mentioned earlier, I had gained more experiences to compare and contrast (and of course, the jingoism had faded away quite considerably). The documentary, now, seemed extremely sincere, emotionally profound and unimaginably comprehensive. I thought then, and still do, that it was probably the best documentary to portray India as it is.
I was so excited to find it in 'desitorrents'. The short segment below is my favourite. The crowd rushing into the train is so typical of what I've been part of several times. It's the quintessential “kerchief culture” at work. Of course, the babu English, the “cribbing” women, the cold sense of humour, the retired "bank manager" arguing with taxi drivers – it's all very fascinating and real.
Of everything an Indian can miss, the train is what I miss the most.