From my childhood a train journey has always fascinated me. I remember the first time I travelled in a train. I was 7 years old and carrying a pen and paper with me to document whatever I saw. It was a condition that my insistent father had put them. I did eventually throw away his dream of seeing me complete my masters in English from Oxford but writing as a hobby somehow stuck to me.
A train journey to Delhi is always special. The famed Rajdhani travelling at a blitzkrieg speed always astounded me. I loved the Rajdhani for its speed for its food and for the people that travelled in it.
Perhaps no mosaic of Indian culture is more vivid that a train ride. So at 6:00 AM on the 19th of October I boarded the Rajdhani for Delhi. I was the first to arrive in our coach. I always liked to arrive early and watch others board the train. My seat was reserved in the upper berth, so I tucked my luggage under the seat and quickly settled in my berth. The journey and the fun had began.
The first to arrive in the coach was a burly Sardarji. Disciplined and light traveler he was undoubtedly an Armyman. Unlike the Assamese and our mishti loving cousins the Bengalees, the Sardarji travelled light. The Armyman tucks his luggage and then climbs to the berth opposite to me. He then settles, gives me a smile and sits down to read Alladin. Yes Alladin man was I shocked!
The next to arrive was a meek looking person of Mongoloid stock. An Assamese no doubt. The easiest way to find an Assamese is to look for the quietest person in a room full of people. Of course like exception to every rule I was an exception to the quiet Assamese concept!
Suddenly there is a large thud on the ground and I look down. A middle-aged man surrounded by others who were saluting him and saying “Ok sir ji”,”Ok Sir ji”. The person was pumped out, the typical Jat.A Jat and an Army man there you have your chest thumping arrogance.
So here it was me sandwiched between two Armymen a Sardarji and a Jat and a meek Assamese doing what they do best-keep to themselves. The train started and the Jat officer started his stories about how valiantly he performed relief work in Sikkim during the recent post earthquake relief operations. After a point of time even listening to heroic exploits gets boring. Scenes kept changing in the Jat’s story sometimes an injured child sometimes a grieving woman sometimes a blind an old man. The end result was however the same the Jat officer arrives to save the day. Atlast fed up of his heroics he went to sleep. Sardarji and I, his ardent audience gave a sight smile to each other relived that the ordeal had ended.
It was about an hour of quietness in the berth when the newspaper vendor arrived with the newspapers. Now another vicious cycle started of 3 men exchanging newspapers. I have never understood the fascination of middle aged men with newspapers. They can gloat at one single newspaper for like ages!!!I knew this cycle would not end so I settled down with my book.
Morning gave away to afternoon and it was time for lunch. Me being the avid foodie ordered non vegetarian food. It arrived and at best the chicken was funny. What was even funnier was that the Sardarji the Jat and the Assamese all had vegetarian food.I thought they were being foolish who would want to not have their daily dosage of chicken! In less than an hour however I realised they were not foolish I was. Post lunch I started developing pain in my stomach. I felt like puking, Sardarji came to my rescue and gave me a tablet.
I climbed down and sat with the Jat officer. He had transformed from Chandragupta Maurya to Florence Nightingale.He was taking so much care of me that I felt like I was going to drop dead in the next 10 minutes. Truely the big hearted Jats did everything king size they loved you king size and hated you king size. And then I learnt a valuable travel lesson –Never have non-vegetarian food on train.
Afternoon gave away to evening and with the advent of evening a new wave stuck our little group.It was in the form of two men Shuklaji and Dwivedi ji .These men represented the typical Indian culture –gyan-knowledge of everything under the sun and most of the time useless! In one hour they gave us a heavy dose on everything from Anna Hazare to Shri Ram’s philosophy. Infact they took pride in asking questions like “What came first the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?”As we struggled to find an answer they sat there with a contended look on their face. They loved basking in the glory of knowledge
Finally not able to hold himself any longer our Jat officer burst out “Ok ji chalo ji sona hain.”Shukla ji and Dwivedi ji looked devastated that we didn’t want to further enhance our knowledge base; they didn’t want to leave. But what choice do you really have when you are against two army men one a burly Sardarji the other a rustic Jat!
Their departure was followed by a nap and a walk which I took up and down the train. When I returned to my compartment it was dinnertime and we were in Patna. Our nearby compartment got emptied and suddenly there was scream, laughter and talks of mishti. Bengalis in Patna??You got to be kidding me! Yet true to their form the bhadraloks had arrived and with them had arrived the famous Bengali ability to scream all night and share aloo parathas ;a skill no other Indian community has been able to perfect. And there it was all night long nonstop chatter. The last thing I heard was “Can Messi play for Mohan Bagan?”Yah right I thought!
The next morning I woke up early only to find the Bengalis awake and they were quiet. I peeked in hoping everything was all right. Suddenly I saw Shukla ji and Dwivedi ji seated right across the Bengalis with the famous contended look on their face! The Bengalis too were gasping for answers that related to cosmic energy, God, theory of relativity etc. Thank God for the cauldron of knowledge!
At about 10:00 we arrived at Delhi. I exchanged handshakes and numbers with all 3 men of my compartment and they left. Since I had the heaviest luggage I thought that I would be the last to leave from our compartment. However after they left I was not able to pull out my luggage from underneath the seat it had got stuck. I was perplexed not able to find a way.And then suddenly I heard a voice asking me in broken Hindi if I wanted help! I turned to find it was the Bengali gentleman, the mishti they had always reflected in their mishti behavior! He helped me arrange my luggage and then went back to his screaming hysterical family!
I turned towards the other with a smile in my face. My friend Gaurav had arrived to pick me up. As we piled our luggage onto the auto which was waiting at the gate I realised this is India a vivid sojourn a dream an enigma truly a mosaic!