Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The express train was soon cruising.

About twenty minutes out of Howrah, the pretty young woman on the seat opposite me exchanged her assigned berth with the middle aged housewife gazing disinterestedly at the world outside. Right upper berth gained, she hauled herself up to its privacy. The housewife on the left lower berth put on a sick expression; the sort that requires no hospitalization, merely attention, a little fussing over. Her husband, a businessman bound for Bhiwandi, rubbed his sleepy eyes and worked the cell phone. The morning sunshine on the side lower berth – the short one parallel to the aisle, if you know the anatomy of a typical Indian railway coach – bothered him. It was settled quickly. There was an exchange of berths with a less tired middle aged man, owner of the right lower berth in the main coupe. Within the air conditioned compartment, the latter immediately spread out railway bed sheets to mark his new acquisition warmed by sunshine. He sat on the compact berth with his back to the aisle, cross legged, staring at the passing landscape like a trader in his shop awaiting customers. I wondered what he would sell; sunshine perhaps? Bottled sunshine to cure the world’s problems; a shop laden with shiny glass bottles flashing by in an express train. All this – exchange of berth and setting up shop – happened in five minutes.

The Bhiwandi bound-husband was now seated next to me.

He gave me pleading looks.

“ Which is your berth?’’ he eventually asked.

“ I suppose you want to sleep,’’ I said, trifle annoyed at this rapid collapse of people around me.

He nodded like a neglected child.

The wife, probably angry with him and his cell phone, had already gone to sleep, blanket over her head.

I knew it was my turn to move.

I was on the Duronto Express; non-stop from Howrah in Eastern India to Mumbai on the west coast, save a technical halt at Bilaspur in the country’s middle. The train had just been introduced. It was fast by Indian standards but certainly not so by standards elsewhere. The Indian Railways meant a lot in India. It was one of the world’s biggest railway networks with portions – like the Mumbai suburban system – ranking among the busiest worldwide. The Railways meant so much that they struggled to keep pace with the demands India’s huge population heaped on it. Right now as I edit this piece, relentless inflation, unstable oil prices, the depreciation of the Indian rupee leading to costlier imports – all have conspired to make road and air travel expensive for the average Indian. Under such circumstances, the country counts on its government owned-railways to guarantee affordable transport. It may be over two decades since economic liberalization started and we may be now trillion dollar economy. But if you want to meet India, you still have to take a train. On busy routes, tickets are usually hard to find unless you book early. Speed can’t be a priority on overcrowded rails. What could be done instead and which the Railways do despite protests, is reduce halts en route for semblance of super fast and express travel. My Duronto Express was unique for its single halt, that too, technical. The train was painted in strange fashion; its facade sported illustrations of meadows, forests and trees as though a child had sketched it. At that time, if I recall right, it was the only Duronto in the country. Now there are several.

It may be over two decades since economic liberalization started and we may be now trillion dollar economy. But if you want to meet India, you still have to take a train.

Non-stop rail travel made the experience a bit like an intercontinental flight minus pretty air hostesses and luxury. You felt trapped in a long, air conditioned tube of an ecosystem. Half an hour from Howrah, with me now on the left upper berth, our coupe settled into the pattern it would hold till Mumbai next day. I read the biography of Slovenian mountaineer Tomaz Humar till my eyes ached; then I listened to rock music till my ears throbbed, after which I tested my left leg to see how long it could bear the cold blast from the overhead AC duct. With people genuinely asleep or lazing around on the lower berths, tea, breakfast and lunch – everything was had sitting in C-shape on the upper berth. Bored, I looked towards the pretty young woman who had occupied the right upper berth. She was busy talking on her cell phone. I began praying that the instrument would conk off forcing her to seek conversation elsewhere. She was the only one around doing anything more than eating, sleeping, eating and sleeping, even if the difference was endless whispered nothings to her boyfriend over that phone

My mind drifted to the Kamrup Express. Two weeks earlier, life aboard that train had been as different as alive from comatose.

I had the lower berth on the left. Seated opposite was an elderly trader headed for Guwahati. In half an hour he found devoted following in a young man from the same community, employed with an engineering firm. An extended family tree was discussed; shared branches located. They conversed like two cozy birds on the same branch dipping into that tradition of centuries of unchanged sunrise and sunset. Somehow Indian conversations – especially those tinged by mercantilism – drift to endorsing unchanged society. I suspect money likes to keep everything else the same so that it multiplies undisturbed. That’s why, if you sit in on it, conversation among traders can seem depressingly mono-cropped. It’s shaped to single dimension. Knowing the state of my purse, I end up feeling that I have no future. Not that other Indians make it any easier; money is obsession everywhere here. The compartment’s aisle stayed busy with soldiers visiting coupes hosting friends. It was probably their last socializing before dispersal to far flung military camps. The army had a strong presence in North East India. The lone person from the air force sat tracking the stations to his halt; it was his first time in Assam. A cell phone blared Malayalam film songs from the next coupe, while not far off Tamil held forth. The Marwari engineer sat reading a book called Making Breakthrough Innovation Happen by Porus Munshi. It fetched a strange visitor from the next coupe. Taking charge of the book the man said, “ I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the army. Promoted out of turn; all my batch mates are still major.’’ I remember that introduction for its utter strangeness. Later, he kept calling up people – I suspect from the conversation, they told him to spare them the trouble. Past midnight, he was still getting ticked off, offering a quick, “ okay, ta-ta, bye-bye, good night, sweet dreams, ‘’ to every person slamming the phone down. The last time I saw him, he was sitting alone on the coach attendant’s seat near the wash basin, cell phone in hand, train’s rhythm on rail for company.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Early next morning from New Jalpaiguri onward, the train became a bazaar. It was an invasion of vendors. My favorite was a man selling popcorn, peanuts, roasted green peas and a whole lot of similar eatables. His signature call was, “ ta-ta-time, pa-pa-pass.’’ Put together that became `time pass,’ the Indian solution to tackle many things in daily life – from delays caused by gargantuan bureaucracy  and the queues of huge population to a moment of restless standstill in cities of constant rush. He also had soft items for “ old men with no teeth,’’ crunchy ones for the young and peanuts, sold as catalyst for conversation between lovers. The sales pitch in the latter attracted questions. “ Nowadays people overlook peanuts and talk on the cell phone. With phones you need towers and signals to talk to your lover, peanuts need none of that, ‘’ the vendor explained before moving off to another chant of, “ Ta-ta-time, pa-pa-pass.’’ What amazed was the array of goods sold by these vendors – there were pen drives, flash lights, film rolls, mobile chargers, mobile batteries, cameras, watches, track suits, massagers, foot pumps, flasks, jackets, hand held sewing machines, DVDs, carpets. China had changed even vendors on trains; their talk was now peppered with megabyte, cyber, digital, MP3, I-Pod and like. Some of the vendors were dexterous; the gamcha vendor was a heap of clothes on two legs, as was the carpet seller. The soldier from the upper berth, traveling to Dimapur, struck a deal with the young engineer to buy DVDs. Using the engineer’s laptop, they scanned disc after disc for good, pirated prints till it drew loud protests from the vendors. “ You are scanning all my discs and buying only one. I would have sold ten by now,’’ a vendor remarked as a coupe-load of people helped the soldier bargain down DVD price from Rs 60 to Rs 20. Half way through the exercise, the engineer, mindful of new found uncle nearby, reduced his involvement to pure technical assistance with no say in film selection. Curious, I thumbed through the soldier’s selection. It ranged from 3 Idiots and Avatar to Emmanuelle and riskier beyond. Uncle looked stoically into the distance. The engineer buried his nose in his book.

The train was now two and a half hours late and politely making way for every other train to pass us by. Occasionally, when we had the benefit of a platform nearby, we got off to stretch our legs. “ That’s the Amritsar train, that’s the Rajdhani express,’’ the ticket inspector would clarify oblivious of our self-arrest. He was like a railway historian giving us a guided tour of the why, how and several other qualities of a journey disrupted. Standing so, on the platform at Barpeta Road, I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that said, “ Japan-US at war, 104 die in Hawaii raid, McArthur in Australia.’’ It appeared topical for the only region in India to have experienced real fighting in World War II. The Battle of Imphal and the Battle of Kohima were major turning points. As the crow flies, Imphal and Kohima were not hugely distant from where I was although actual travel along hill roads meant distances in the North East were often deceptive. The T-shirt also appeared topical, given the purpose of my trip to Assam and from there to Arunachal Pradesh to write about the Stilwell Road. The train crawled on. A harried coach attendant arrived muttering, “ people give me thousand rupee-notes and demand a bottle of water. What am I to do?’’ The matter was giving him a headache. As if to soothe his headache, the China connection made itself heard once again; a blind vendor produced three different sized-vials of “ China Vicks.’’ Meanwhile, the upper berth bearing the DVD obsessed-soldier, emitted kung fu shouts, bomb blasts, machine gun fire and full throated passion. The laptop stayed up there with the soldier through the day; the engineer sat reconciled to Porus Munshi. At night, our coupe converted into a cinema theater, laptop on the small folding table with soldiers from nearby coupes converged there to watch 3 Idiots. Film over, a bizarre incident occurred. A passenger woke up from deep slumber inquiring why he was on the train. Co-passengers comforted him and hushed him back to sleep. Morning brought mist, winter chill and Tinsukhia. As with several stations before from Barpeta Road to Guwahati, I got off the train to `set foot’ on a platform I may not see again. It was my little conquest-of-Everest act. It was also perhaps a measure of my meek character for the truth was I was still in India. Yet these were parts I hadn’t been to before. Indeed one of the things I discovered as I grew up was how little I knew of anything in India; I didn’t even know my neighborhood well. In the desperate Indian life, we reach other countries before we discover the places we were born in. In middle age, I was doing what I should have done earlier. After Tinsukhia, we moved on tracks bordering a road beside tea estates, to Dibrugarh. I remember looking at those tea estates on vast, relatively flat ground and wondering how different they seemed from Kerala’s tea estates situated on hillsides. Somewhere out there, not far, lurked the architect of Assam’s geography – the mighty Brahmaputra; a river wide enough in parts to seem a small sea.

As with several stations before from Barpeta Road to Guwahati, I got off the train to `set foot’ on a platform I may not see again. It was my little conquest-of-Everest act. It was also perhaps a measure of my meek character for the truth was I was still in India.

Luckily for me, the young woman on the Duronto Express was as bored as I was. She was moving to Mumbai on work. Conversation served well to distract her from the approaching huge city she had transited through before but had never wanted to live in. Now she was going to live there. She seemed happy to talk. I missed that vendor on the Kamrup Express. He could probably teach a marketing lesson or two to the Railways on the real USP of the non-stop Duronto Express.

Introduce peanuts for a start?

(The author, Shyam G. Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A smaller version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)