“Your sister just promoted you to the next generation,” was the excited announcement from Nagpur. It is a happy late evening on the 21st August in 1996. I am alone in the metropolis and all my family is with my sister at that maternity home in Nagpur. Dad is supposed to leave for South Africa in four days, and since he will not be able to see his grand-daughter, he is in Nagpur to see his daughter. My train tickets to reach Nagpur on the due date are booked. Everything is planned. But my niece has something else planned. She wants to see her grandfather before he leaves for South Africa. The guy who isn’t supposed to be there when she is born, calls the guy who is supposed to be there when she is born, and gives him the news. I call the airline to check if I could get that expensive ticket which I cannot afford, to Nagpur. The next available flight is day after. I call all private bus operators. All of them have left or were leaving in a few minutes. Not a chance, not a seat.
All the frenzy of finding a convenient passage to Nagpur came to a naught, and here I am, twelve-odd hours later, 22nd August already, at Bhusaval Junction waiting for Maharashtra Express, and out of the blue it strikes me that there is actually a feature film named after a railway junction, or perhaps sleep deprivation is making me imagine things. As I await the train’s arrival, I think I should write as I have nothing else better to do. As I look for paper to write the events of last night I wonder if I am the only one who has had this sudden enthusiasm to write in between a journey. Not a single railway counter or any of the A.H. Wheelers sell a notebook or any thing that resembles one. I rummage through my hastily packed sack, if I am carrying anything that can be written upon. I find a pocket diary and make the ink and paper come alive with my thoughts:
I think this is a very apt place to write what I am writing. And I hope I have enough enthusiasm to put this down – maybe just tear these pages and stick them in the travel book that I propose to keep.
Well, the pocket diary was an apt place because it is titled “Voyage 1996” and has a travel theme all over it with quotes about travel on all pages. One of them, by St. Augustine, put appropriately in the month of August, says:
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
And I stopped writing because I didn’t know how much I wanted to write and what if I ran out of paper? More so because I was determined to make a travel book – NOW!
The Maharashtra Express is consistent in its delays. Rarely is it ever on time – anywhere. On this 22nd August it is late and living up to its reputation. I am told by the friendly porter that it’s about ninety minutes late. The ‘coolie’ on any railway platform in India is a mobile enquiry office.
I walk out of the station and a few steps out in dusty Bhusaval I spot the Trivedi General & Provision Store. I scan the store and imagine that it had seen better times. Senior Trivedi is in his pyjamas and a vest that has aged and coloured with his birthdays, which I doubt he ever celebrated. There is no colour in the store save for some glass jars with bright coloured candies that I had stopped eating long ago. It is dark inside the store, even on a sunny afternoon. The store is lost in time and isn’t aware of a liberalized economy and the rupee becoming convertible. I wonder if Sr. Trivedi cared, even if he was aware. The store did make sense for me, because it sold notebooks. Nine rupees later I would have my own travel book. I only have to decide if I want Salman Khan or Sridevi to adorn the cover of my notebook. I finally settle for Salman. The junior Trivedi probably wondered what city boy like me was doing out his comfort zone buying one school notebook, maybe he even wondered why I didn’t choose Sridevi. I ask him for a sheet of the old newspapers he uses for packing the loose grain and sugar that he sells. He isn’t amused – why do city people need to wrap their notebooks? As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a fan of the movie star adorning the cover of my notebook.
I neatly cover the notebook, as I walk back to the station, with the quarter page of the newspaper which has an obscure tender advert sourcing steel pipes for a government agency I didn’t know existed. I am very excited now. I have my travel book. I should give it some fancy name, I should define a genre of writing my travel escapades, and the handwriting should be neat, unless of course I am writing in the train or a bus. More thoughts race through my mind than trains through Bhusaval Junction. The Refreshment Room on Platform No. 1 would be a good place to start my travelogue. I was nearly smiling to myself on the acquisition of my brand new travel book – how easy it is – just wish hard enough and act on it – and sure enough anything can be yours. As I approach the Refreshment Room, I wonder how long I will be able to sustain the heavy smell of mustard oil. My shallow breathing betrays my olfactory stamina.
On Platform No. 5, there are six drinking-water taps and all of them share a common sink. Four of them are labelled “Cold Drinking Water”, in the standard stencilled Indian Railway font. The other two provide “Fresh Drinking Water”. When a larger percentage of your life is based on assumptions and intuition, it did seem to make sense to me that the “Fresh Drinking Water” was, water at room temperature. I, however, am amused as I imagine what a foreigner would make of this odd instruction. Was the cold water not fresh? I may have looked odd to my fellow passengers, smiling my way away from the funny water sink.
So here I am, defeated by the mustard oil, and amused by the six drinking-water taps, on the other end of Platform No. 1, on a doughnut bench that surrounds a massive multifunction pillar. It is painted in an unknown colour between sky-blue and cyan, and holds together the asbestos roof of the platform, provides the support to hold the tube lights, holds signage and small billboards, carries more wires on its two metal branches than the sixty-four thousand kilometres of rail track in this country, and logically divides the platform in two. And we were told the trees are more giving. Man just imitates nature and imagines himself to be God.
I drive off a half-naked underfed kid who insists on giving me a “butt polish”, because my shoes are fine as they are and I want to start my travel book. I see the diminishing anticipation in his eyes of earning a couple of rupees after I have driven him off for the sixth time. Not many passengers there wear leather footwear – he settles down beside me and waits for more city people wearing leather footwear to come to Bhusaval Junction.
The railway sweeper is in full flow, ridding the platform of all that we didn’t need and decided to leave on the platform. His actions are almost robotic – with extreme and complete lack of concern for your feet on the platform, forget your presence. The moves are standard and practiced, the pattern is predictable. The platform is clean. His conversation with the porter continues, his work undisturbed, he doesn’t need to look at the porter or disturb his conduct. I get myself another cup of tea in one of those heavy white chipped cups. The cup weighs thrice as much as the tea that it carries. The tea is lukewarm, watery and definitely enjoyable.
There is a definite promise in this journey.
Yesterday night, VT Station. There isn’t a train to Nagpur from Mumbai at ten in the night. There is one that goes to Gorakhpur at half-past eleven which went through Bhusaval Junction. Incidentally, the Indian Railway (IR) is undecided about the English spelling of Bhusaval or Bhusawal. So I jump in the unreserved compartment of the Kushinagar Express and decided that I’d find the best way to get to Nagpur from Bhusaval. Now, in spite of the meticulous planning to be in Nagpur on the appointed day, I have no plan. I have a mission. I also decided that I would find out why the Gorakhpur train is called Kushinagar Express. Also somewhere, I was challenging myself to prove to me that a good life in the city hadn’t weakened my adventurous spirit.
If you’ve ever done what I did, you’d know that the unreserved compartment of any train is Little India. In complete chaos and least resources, everybody manages well for themselves and becomes comfortable as the journey progresses. All my efforts to cajole the TTE to get me a berth, bore no fruit.
Everyone has favourite seats. In an airline people ask for the window or the aisle, for example. When travelling in the Indian Railways, my favourite seats are the two single seats – they face each other; each has a window – I call them the RAC seats. You often get wait-listed when there is great demand; the IR allows for something in between the wait-listed ticket and a confirmed ticket. The RAC seats – Reservation against Cancellation. I think it’s innovative, if you really have to make the journey and are willing to spend the night sleeping in a seated position – you have the RAC seats. So here I was on a single RAC seat with a senior devout Muslim gentleman, who seemed uncomfortably content. Somewhat like me, perhaps. Little India, like I said. We share seats as we share faiths.
The train exits the station, and the unreserved coach takes on a new life, for the journey.
There is smell of cheap scents, sweat, the coach metal on everybody’s palms, beedies, and food packed in the afternoon, being opened. The smells meet each other in the air; play their ballet on a stage close to my nose. There is more skin contact with a stranger than you would have with a loved one. The coach becomes one soul for this journey. A blind musician looks at three morose yellow lights separated by a blue light on the arched ceiling of the train and plays an instrument that is in an intermediate mutating state from a sarod to a violin. It probably has a name; for no particular reason I feel ashamed I don’t know that instrument. Elsewhere there is the familiar click-click of a pocket comb coaxing the DC powered fan to begin its rounds. My co-passengers will eventually shut the yellow lights and in the blue night-lamp, I’ll remain. Shirts come off and non-chalant bellies protrude through vests as their owners relax for the twenty-odd hour journey to Gorakhpur. The father in front of me balances two overfed kids on each of his thighs. As we move out of Mumbai, people start finding their comfort zones and pass into peaceful interrupted sleep. I am too excited to sleep. My first own niece ever; what a feeling! My thoughts are interrupted as the kid in front of me stretches his legs, seeking space, even if it is mine. Excitement and young co-passenger’s comfortable feet on me deny me sleep. I fantasise I am Paul Simon, on my way to Graceland. I even have a travelling companion who is (somewhat) nine years old. I am awake and chugging in my own thoughts – planning my day ahead from Bhusaval. I am unable to formulate a plan. A thin cloud of anxiety starts building over me. I ignore the cloud. I see humans precariously placed on seats, luggage, gunny bags, and overhead luggage racks. Happy humans these, when you look hard, their eyes closed in proud achievements of having secured a place to rest, serene expressions hopeful of a better onward journey tomorrow, and relaxed bodies preparing for the inevitable struggle tomorrow. It seems to me then, there can’t be a plan for everything – I will find options – I have to exercise them when I encounter them.
I didn’t realize when, but somewhere after Igatpuri, I fell asleep.