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Tales on rails
Bonding with fellow travellers on an Indian train journey teaches you that in life only the present counts.
On the rare occasions when you find yourself alone in India, it is never for very long. Like a heat-seeking missile, someone will appear by your side. While this can be interpreted as no more than a simple act of friendliness, more often than not, the truth is that you are considered a walking opportunity. Less than a minute will pass before an attempt will be made to peddle wares, ask for money or pens, offer a ride in a rickshaw, extract seemingly banal information or exchange contact details. Even if you are stranded in the desert, rest assured a boy will appear over the dunes selling bottles of water.
During the four months I spent travelling the Indian Railways these encounters were a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. At the beginning of the trip, I saw them as an irritation to be swatted away, but as time went on I grew fond of the interruptions and grateful for the intrusions. Guidebooks and blogs were useful in offering information on where to go and what to see, but the shiniest gems were gathered along the way. My Lonely Planet was chucked to one side when I realised that the best recommendations came from the passengers in my compartments: "Don't stay there, stay at the Adarsh Palace around the corner where the chicken biryani is superb and you are less than two minutes from the station", or "find the Golden Pagoda and ask for a room at the back of the hotel where the morning view of Kanchenjunga is spectacular".
These offerings were taken with a pinch of salt and a surge of excitement as the discussion inevitably ended up as a verbal tussle between other passengers keen to throw in their tuppence worth and argue for the sake of arguing. Within minutes, a quiet dialogue would erupt into a free-for-all with passengers poking heads around curtains, swinging down from berths and making phone calls - all for my benefit. As I scribbled down notes I soon realised that the book was writing itself;I didn't need to seek out information, attempt contrived conversation or go looking for my stories. The people were my stories.
I have a policy of saying "yes" to everything - as you can always say "no" later but you never know when that opportunity will present itself again. Living by this notion, I found myself in Assam being offered eight cups of tea in eight different homes, Arun from Kochi taught me how to understand train numbers and guess an engine by its horn, George D'Souza and his wife cooked me rockfish on the island of Diu and invited me to sleep on the roof of their home in an old church, and an elderly Sikh gentleman manning the luggage house at The Golden Temple gave me his own packed lunch and refused to take no for an answer.
While I was touched and indebted to many of the people I met along the way, I was under no illusions that this was a wonderland of generosity and perfection. My radar was switched to high alert to detect con artistes, creeps, and the corrupt, who serve to tar the rest of the country with their behaviour. But they were few and far between and I was fortunate enough to be welcomed into homes, fed, watered and accompanied by people who were just as curious about me as I was about them.
When I first decided to come back to India I had no interest in trains. I was simply curious about the country and its people, but I knew that the only way to get close to them, to live with them, sleep above them, sit next to them, eat alongside them and listen to their intimate chats was to immerse myself in the railways. The trains allowed me to develop an affinity for poking my nose into strangers' affairs, a habit less sustainable in taxis and buses. An Indian train ticket was a permit to trespass on the intimacies of other people's lives and certain improprieties became instantly acceptable: tearing strips of chapatti from a man I had known for five minutes;sticking my fingers into the masala potato his wife had lovingly packed that afternoon;lying in bed watching a dishevelled stranger mutter and twitch in his sleep;eavesdropping on boyfriend troubles and mother-in-law disputes;or joining a wedding party, clapping and singing along as their gifts of glass bangles slipped over my elbows. Finally, my destination would tap at the window, rudely interrupting and heralding a curtain call on the show.
This was the beauty of train travel. Travelling companions come and go. Some stay for the duration of the journey, but others hop on, then hop off when they need to. We enjoy their company while they are there and we wave them off when they leave. We do not pine for them, or stay angry that they snored. We sit back, enjoy the scenery and wait to see who fills their seat. People come into our lives and they always leave. But the railways made me see that what counts is the present. The greatest lesson I took away is that it is the Indian people who make the Indian Railways and no other railway in the world comes close.
'Around India in 80 Trains' by Monisha Rajesh is published by Roli Books
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