Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Long and Short of a Journey

No matter the duration or the destination, a train journey to me always brings back memories of losing myself in a book for long hours, gaping admiringly at Mother Nature’s splendor, sipping hot tea from tiny paper cups, and of course feasting on deep fried savory at regular intervals. Strangely, co-passengers have never been a part of any of these reminisces, except for this unforgettable one.

It was the month of June, around two years ago. The humid spells of summer were slowly retreating to give way to the infamous Mumbai monsoons. I was aboard the Duronto Express, the nonstop superfast train between Ernakulam and Lokyamanyatilak (Kurla). Duronto meaning “fast” in Bengali was introduced by the then railway minister Mamta Banerjee. As if to add a vibrant personality to the name, the coaches were painted patches of red, green and yellow like a piece of contemporary art. This new kid on the block had managed to gather maximum attention as there were no official stops between the starting station and the destination. Hence the journey was expected to be speedy and smooth barring a few stops for filling water, cleaning, and for other technical reasons.



The door to the three-tier air conditioned compartment slammed shut a second time. I got up from my seat and opened the door to let Madame in. A look of relief crossed her face and she wiped the beads of sweat that lined her forehead using her dupatta. She balanced a leather handbag on one shoulder and an oversized airbag on the other. A Samsonite trolley lay at her feet and she clearly was unsuccessful in picking it up with one hand and opening the door with the other. I could sense the discomfort and offered to help with the trolley.

On entering, the leather handbag was placed on one side of the lower berth marking her territory and she flashed me a meek smile while uttering the words ‘Thank you’. That was probably the first and last time she smiled during that twenty three hour journey.  After that she was back to being a cold stranger.

Conscious that all eyes were suddenly on her, Madame who appeared to be in her mid forties quickly shoved the suitcase under the seat, pulled a magazine out of her handbag and sat down adjusting her expensive silk salwar kameez. She scanned the compartment and her co-passengers for a brief moment and turned her attention to the magazine. Hoping that there won’t be any more interruptions, I went back to burying my head in ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch.  

Vasudevan Nair, the elderly gentleman who sat opposite me bobbed his head up and down in unison to whatever the wife was murmuring into his ear, eyes fixed on someone outside the window. Just then a gentleman in a striped blue t shirt glanced into our compartment for a quick second and immediately moved away. As if they could read his mind, the elderly couple looked at him and then at Madame. She seemed to have missed this sight and was busy with her magazine, or atleast pretended to be.

A loud horn announced Duronto’s departure and the platform turned into a sea of waving hands. Through the bright navy blue curtains I watched it slowly recede to bare railway tracks which gleamed in the sun, narrow roads, crowding traffic and high-rise buildings. Soon the cacophony of the city slipped by as the train picked up speed and the images changed to another form of reality. Houses the size of match boxes pushed against each other for space, women dried clothes on tracks, children seated on paan stained walls waved enthusiastically.  

Next to the elderly couple sat a grumpy elderly man who held tightly onto a valise, almost as if his life depended on it. Like Madame, it seemed like he too had forgotten the art of smiling. Grumpy seemed to be making a mental note of everyone by gawking at each for a minute or two. When his eyes turned to me,  I shot him a sharp glance hoping he would get the message. That, he did.

Vivek, a middle aged executive, sat next to me. He was going back to visit his family after a long stint overseas. A loosely strapped steel watch shone on his wrist and his fingers played with the keys of his mobile phone every two minutes, lips curving into a smile. Whoever it was on the other end was receiving undivided attention from the foreign-returned.  

Mrs Vasudevan loved to chat and within the next forty minutes, pretty much everyone in our compartment and the adjoining one knew all about her sons, her neighbors, and the ancestral house in Kerala which she was longing to visit. Vivek and the elderly lady conversed like best friends who were meeting after centuries. In between they would take a break from exchanging notes about each other’s families and talk about the journey. 
Are you sure this travels through the Konkan coast, son?

Yes it does Aunty. But that may be at night, so not sure if you’ll get to see the sights that they raved about in the newspaper….

Oh, that is a pity..

If it is during the day, I am definitely taking a video for Ammu.

She would love it. I pitched in. Mrs Vasudevan smiled in concurrence.

Ammu was Vivek’s five year old daughter, the apple of his eye. Two years ago when his second born Anirudh was six months old, Vivek had left for Doha, Qatar. It was typical during my childhood for most Malayalee men to travel in search of a job to the middle-east leaving the wife and kids in the care of the parents or in-laws. In fact they say that the economy of Kerala runs on “Gulf money”. But I had not realized that the trend still continued. He was visiting his wife and children after two long years of sweat and toil in a foreign land.

Distracted with the chatter, I looked up from my book to take a sip of water and my eyes moved to the magazine in Madame’s hands.  She was holding it upside down! To my astonishment, a teardrop flowed down her cheek and she wiped her eyes with the edge of the dupatta and quickly looked around to see if anyone had noticed.  I looked at my watch pretending to be checking the time.  Through the corner of my eye I continued to observe her. Call it human nature if you will.  She turned to examine her reading glasses and gave them a quick wipe. She put them back on and stared at the same page of the magazine which she had been pretending to be reading since the past thirty minutes, but this time she turned it around realizing her folly.  After a few minutes, she put the book away, leaned against her seat and closed her eyes. Another teardrop started to flow but she quickly dabbed it with the edge of her dupatta, and once again leaned back with a sigh, her eyes closed. Her body language clearly implied that something was definitely amiss and she was struggling to come to terms with it.

The ticket examiner’s visit was closely followed by lunch. After a simple meal of rice, daal and pickle, I climbed onto the upper berth hoping to finish my book and probably start with the next one. But a fully fed tummy and the rhythmic movement of the bogies rocked me to sleep within a few minutes. An hour or so had passed when my eyes flew open from the commotion that was at my feet. I could see a bit of Grumpy’s balding head, his tone of reprimand waking up the fellow passengers from the nearby compartment as well.  I peered down from the topmost berth to see a young lad starting at the man, unable to come back with a quick retort in his defense.  After a few seconds, the lad mumbled feebly “ Sir, I am sorry but you didn’t mention that the tea was cold when you bought it. Now that you drank it, I have to ask you for the money………..”

“How dare you talk to me like that? Do you know who I am!!!” Grumpy gave the young lad a shove and the pile of plastic cups in the young attendant’s hand lay scattered on the floor. The lad bent down to pick them up and then abandoned the effort mid way and walked away in gloom. Grumpy grumbled something under his breath about being cheated and walked away in the opposite direction.

Wide awake and desperate for a cup of tea, I took my place on the lower berth.  Mrs Vasudevan, eager to fill me in, spoke in a hushed tone. “Poor boy… It is not his fault. If the gentleman had a problem with the tea being cold, why did he drin……!” She stopped midway as Grumpy came back to his seat. He cleared his throat as if to make his supposedly superior presence felt. I nodded my head in agreement with the elderly lady and decided to call the same boy back in and buy a cup of tea. But in his place, a uniformed attendant walked up to our compartment and spoke to Grumpy in a polite yet firm tone.

“Sir, it is not the boy’s or our fault that the tea became cold by the time it reached your seat. We have not received any other complaint. Since you drank it, I request you to make the payment please. ”

A good boss always stood up for his team. What followed was an altercation with the boss finally making Grumpy put the five rupee coin in his hand. The latter grumbled under his breath continuously but realized later that he was fighting a lost battle.  Boss ended the matter with a closing line. “We request you not to misbehave with any of our staff.” As the duo finished their debate, I raised my hand for a cup of tea and Boss smiled at me. “Sure Ma’am, in a minute.” Grumpy turned around and gave me a cold stare. I could not care less.

Around 5:00 pm, the train stopped at a non-descript station, a name which I can barely recollect and I was informed by an attendant that it would be fifteen minutes till we depart.  Feeling peckish and eager to get some fresh air, I stepped off the train and walked towards a snack cart hoping to pick up a packet of potato chips.  Many others also stepped off the train and soon half the passengers inside Duronto were seen on the platform. The cart was seated next to a cement bench and while I rummaged through a few magazines which the cart also stocked, I heard a feminine voice, tense and agitated.

“Yes Ma, why are you asking me the same thing!!  I told you I have made up my mind. Iam moving out this week. Sunita is fine. I dropped her at the hostel. The college formalities went off well. …

Yes, Anil is on the same train……..Ok Amma, I have to go now… “

Madame cut the call, obviously annoyed and not in a mood to answer her mother’s twenty questions especially about ‘Anil’, who she ‘claimed’ was travelling on the same train.

The train began to move and we quickly jumped in. Inside the compartment, she was back to her pensive self.
Vivek on the other hand was in high spirits as he had just finished a conversation with his wife. His new found friend was eager to start their next round of discussion about each other’s family.  

“You know, the first borns always feel jealous when a new member arrives in the family. It is natural…”

“Yes very true. In fact Maya was telling me that Ammu has already started showing signs of that.”

“ Don’t worry too much about it…. just a matter of time. Do you have their photos?”

Vivek opened his wallet and took out a photograph of his wife and little Ammu. Then he showed us a second one on his phone, one that of a baby. “ Ani was just 6 months when I left”

He looked at the photos fondly and added “You have no idea… this is really the longest twenty three hours of my life”

At that statement, I noticed Madame turning to look at Vivek. It was as if his words had stung her. She opened her bag and reached for her phone. It seemed like she was checking for a message or maybe to take a look at some photos.

Twilight caught up with us pretty soon and after a brief spell of playing hide and seek between the clouds, the sun decided to call it a day. Specks of light from here and there shone at a distance as night fell and I too decided to retire after a light dinner of fruit and juice.

By 6:00 am the next day, sunlight came blazing through the window, and I was greeted by the Vasudevans and Vivek.  The scenery had shifted to coconut trees, paddy fields and vast stretches of water bodies.  Breakfast comprised of piping hot dosas with mildly spiced sambar which I wiped clean along with copious amounts of tea. As I continued reading my second book, familiar roads and buildings appeared in quick succession and I was overjoyed.  Finally, I was nearing home. The train pulled into Ernakulam Junction and the rhythmic beats slowed down as the Duronto came to a complete halt. Madame continued to lean back against her seat and she showed not the slightest bit of enthusiasm on having finally arrived. Clearly, she did not want the journey to end.

She reluctantly stepped out with her luggage in tow walking briskly as if there was another train waiting for her to board. I got off after her and turned around to help Mrs Vasudevan out of the bogie. We both began to count our bags when we noticed the same man in the striped blue t shirt peer into the compartment again and walk past us.

The elderly lady frowned as he walked away “That is her husband. He was on the same train but in a separate bogie. I think they are having problems. They were arguing when we both were waiting for the train to arrive at the Kurla.” As always, Mr Vasudevan nodded his head in unison.  I purposely did not mention about Madame’s conversation that I had overhead and quickly changed the subject “ Ah, look who all came to receive Vivek. There is Ammu!”

We noticed that Vivek’s entire family had come to receive him. Little Ammu clung to her father while he spoke to her mother.  Vivek’s parents seemed naturally elated and his father spoke in a loud voice.

“You must be famished, Come soon. Let us go!” Vivek quickly introduced us to his family and we wished him a great holiday before parting ways. His daughter smiled demurely and waved goodbye, still glued to her father.

The Vasudevans soon met the relative who had come to receive them, and I walked to the exit wheeling my trolley. My father was to meet me in the next ten minutes. At the exit, I was amused to see Madame and Mr Blue Stripes, or shall I say Anil, waiting at the exit of the station. They stood with their backs to each other, waving to the auto rickshaws that passed by.  Both did not speak a word to each other in those ten minutes that I watched, seated next to the exit. I could see Vivek and his family crammed in a car, making a quick get-away. Little Ammu looked happy to be squeezed from both sides as she sat on her father’s lap. There was no sign of Grumpy, not that I cared.

 Madame managed to wave down a rickshaw and got in. She said “Girinagar, Fourth Block”. Anil also said the same thing to the next auto driver who stopped. Clearly they were two divided souls forced to live under the same roof, apparently not for long.


A twenty three hour journey becomes the longest for a man yearning to be reunited with his family and the shortest for a woman who is about to separate from hers.

As for the rest of us, it becomes a fleeting memory. 

(This post was earlier written as an entry for Railonama)