When I had to make a 2,000 kilometre journey alone in a train, it raised many an eyebrow. But my experience on trains has always been pleasant. In fact I have learnt more about the kind of society we live in from a train compartment than I have from a classroom. My journey began from New Delhi railway station and I was scheduled to reach Bangalore in a matter of less than two days.
I sat quietly by myself, while the people in the berths next to mine struggled to keep a conversation going. A gentleman with a strong Punjabi accent asked, “Aap kahan jaaoge?” to an elderly person next to him. The immediate reply was “Kai?” (Marathi word for ‘what’). The lady next to me, clad in a traditional sari, was (I later learnt) a Gujarati, brought up in Bangalore. The other two men in our compartment were students from Delhi University but originally from Bhopal and Guntakal.
Even for someone like me, who is not unfamiliar with the composite culture, it was astonishing to see the ease with which the six of us got along — we dined together (despite the fact that two of us were vegetarians) and chatted away until late into the night. The topics of discussion ranged from ‘Agre ka petha’ to the Indo-Pak dialogue, from Sachin Tendulkar to speed breakers.
It was evident that if something holds this country together, it is not the institutional structure or common history. It simply is politics, cricket and Bollywood. However, there were hundreds of disruptions to our dialogue that spanned almost 20 hours — the tea vendors, the pantry staff, and the beggars (also representing another reality of India). But the talk was too interesting to divert our attention.
There were disagreements on almost every issue but they all ended with somebody buying coffee for the rest. Trains provide an excellent platform for the expression of one’s opinions. With long distances to travel and nothing to do, it is natural for anybody to strike a conversation.
Whatever the British did, the railways are certainly a gift they gave us. Travelling by train doesn’t have an artificial sophistication. I can say this because, at the end of the journey, none of us remembered each other’s names but we were familiar with everybody’s views on politics, economics, sports.
I don’t know if I can say that this can happen only in India. But such co-existence despite a vast diversity is certainly India’s special legacy.
Published in: The Indian Express
Published on: 07 April, 2006