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Train Journey: Cultural memory of Indian people

By Radhakanta Barik

I was studying in the village school when I got a chance to visit Jamshedpur with a friend whose father was working there in the Tata Steel plant. This happened to be my first journey by train and naturally it created enormous excitement and for several days I could not sleep in anticipation of thrill. I studied in a school which was located in a rural hinterland without any motor-able road. We walked all the way to the nearest Bus stand which was a good twelve kms from our school. I was studying in class nine and my friend was in class eight. Both of us excitedly went to the Cuttack railway station and booked tickets to Tatanagar, but to our dismay there was no direct train to Jamshedpur.

We reached there in the late afternoon and were astounded to see the beautiful city at twilight. It was Dashahra time and we had a full one to enjoy before returning back to the school. Jamshedpur, also known as Tatanagar, is quite a modern city with beautiful roads and parks surrounding the workers’ quarters. My friend’s father was also working in the steel plant and used to join us over meals at lunch time and we used to share the same food for dinner. For every meal we used to have rice and fish curry. In the morning we used to have chapati and chai, which was my first experience with this combination. It was so tasty and delicious that I still remember it simply because we were rice eaters and tasted chapati for the first time. Every day we visited some Puja pandals which were so attractive and opulently decorated. Later, in the night, we used to enjoy Yatra in some Bengali pandal. The scenic landscape of the city is still etched in my memories. The beautiful Rose Park, popularly called Jubilee Park, is another rendezvous we used to frequent almost daily. There is a statue of Jamshedji Tata in the park which is a symbol of the fight for indigenous industrialization in the British era. Although I was relatively younger at that time, this journey taught me that life is a journey which needs to be lived to full. This gave me a lifelong passion to be a traveller in the trains and meeting people from different cultural anchorages.

I am still amazed how it appealed to my young senses while studying in the rural school which kept us half hungry for food and half hungry for knowledge. In the hindsight I realize, this passion for train journey helped in shaping my personality and, as I grew up, it gave me confidence to negotiate with people from different linguistic, temperamental and cultural backgrounds. After my final school examination, I went to my uncle who was posted in Koraput district and to reach there I had to change the train at Vijaynagaram. It was a Telugu-speaking place and with my limited knowledge of English I could enquire with difficulty about the train to Rayagarh. But this experience gave me confidence for communicating with different people and the process of changing the trains for continuing journey.

While going to Delhi for my higher studies I could get a chance to enter the first class waiting room at Howrah Station from where one can have a beautiful sight of the river Ganga. I waited there till evening to board the Kalka Mail for my onward journey to Delhi. I was going to visit such a big city for the first time. And that made me confident of travelling to unknown and new cities without having any acquaintance. Journey in a third class train compartment inculcated a lot of plebian values and an openness to converse with people from different backgrounds sharing our views, exchanging ideas and food with fellow passengers. It established a bonhomie and friendship with strangers before we reached our destination. My journey to Delhi changed my personality and demeanour and I got an opportunity to study at JNU in 1972. During my student years at JNU, I got a chance to visit almost the whole of India sometimes by taking a concession train ticket, which enabled me to visit any place with a break in journey in between. The fares were also affordable and inexpensive which helped me undertake journeys to far and distant corners of India. On one of such excursion I travelled to Jammu by train and then proceeded to Srinagar by bus. My month-long stay in Kashmir was a study in very generous and hospitable people and their unique culture.

I undertook my journey to north-east India by train up to Assam and from there I moved to Nagaland and Manipur. Since I did not have the inner line permit to enter the north-east state, I had to stay overnight at the railway station because the permit was going to be available the next day. I just walked up to the station superintendent and requested him for a waiting room accommodation. He gave me a room without charging anything. On my return journey I stayed in Guwahati and spent some time moving around the city which included the zoo and a boat ride in the river Brahmaputra which flows like a sea. I recalled a poem by Nabakanta Baruah who compared the Brahmaputra with an ocean. While travelling in the third class compartment, I found several rich Marwari people also in the coach. On my inquiry they told me that since they carried money with them for business purpose, it was safe to travel only in third class bogey which ensured more safety than the first class coach. It was a long journey to Delhi and I did not have enough money in my pocket to buy food. But I did not feel disturbed and decided not to go to the toilet as once the stomach gets empty, one feels hungry. It took almost two days to reach Delhi Station.

One can truly enjoy a train journey only in a third class compartment where the rich and the poor converge, people shun their ego to share space with others, where one hears many life stories and participates occasionally in the conversations. This does not happen in the first class or in an airplane as each person carries an inflated ego and the ensuing clash of egos results in eerie silence.

I have travelled to various corners of India by trains. A journey by train is a memorable experience during rains when women workers start planting paddy in rice fields. The sight is a feast to the eyes as it provides a colourful spectacle of the agricultural fields. This creates a lot of hope for germination of ideas and germination of new plants, a cycle which sustains civilization. This experience is still fresh in my memory from a journey undertaken in day time from Vizag to Delhi during the monsoon.

Once when I travelled to Hyderabad from Bhubaneswar, the train passed by the Chilika Lake. The scene from the window brought to my lips the famous song of Gopabandhu Das that says, “O train! Please wait and I want to see the colourful lake of Chilika, I have never experienced a pageantry of beauty in my life, I want to experience the beauty” and another one from a poet of nature Radhanatha Ray, who praises the beauty of the Lake. There are a dozen poets who have written on the Chilika Lake; many such songs kept coming to my heart and mind. The sights from this journey remain as a part of my cultural memory which inspire me to visit the lake again and again, whenever I get a chance. It is the lake of lagoons, birds and dolphins that bring to us the softening of sea into the lake. Wonderful sight and landscape of the lake attract millions of people every year. On an earlier occasion, I visited the lake on Makar Sankranti during the festival at the temple of Kalijai. There is a melancholic poem written by the poet Godavarish Mishra wherein a girl used to wade across the lake in a boat, which capsized in rain water ending her life. Her unsatisfied desires get expressed in the temple of Kalijai. It is a small temple over a hillock. While coming back we were late and we requested the line man to stop the express train by directing the train to slow down and we managed to get in. In the management of railways, the hierarchies between the small and big do not matter as each one has a role to play. It teaches us that the smallest man can help if he is so disposed. Friendship with an ordinary person helps us in improving the quality of our own life. I experienced this when I reached Delhi without having any acquaintance in such a big city. I went to Odisha Bhavan and requested the manager to give me an accommodation but he refused me a place in the guest house. It was already a miserably hot summer night. Then a person working there as a peon came forward to help me and after knowing my problem offered me to stay in his one room house. I spent my first week in Delhi happily because of a humanitarian gesture from someone unknown to me.

Once while coming back from Hyderabad to Delhi, I experienced how things work when a friend of mine helped me in getting a berth in the unreserved bogey by paying ten rupees to a coolie. I do not call it corruption as I see the coolie as a facilitator. I have travelled on three occasions in an unreserved compartment. There is a remarkable humane feeling among passengers for others, who can be seen helping and accommodating people by yielding to others whatever little space one can manage. Moreover, the coolies also play an important role by guiding you about the platform from where a particular train is departing. In the given circumstances when everybody around scurries, this is a critical information for any journey.  Their biggest help comes our way when they manage to squeeze us in an unreserved and overcrowded bogey. It is always a very great help when they carry our luggage to the compartment. I always find them key actors on the platform making our journey hassle free. They are registered by the railways and they are provided a big hall to sleep, rest and relieve themselves.

As a student I travelled by Toofan Express to Delhi. On the way I found that the train had reached Baktiarpur station near Patna. Something flashed in my mind and I immediately got down there. I went to the station superintendent and requested him for the waiting room which he conceded to. My younger brother had absconded as a young boy and we were not able to trace him for three years. Once he sent a letter home but it was without a proper address. I remembered that it had a postal stamp of Baktiaarpur and that is why I decided to get down there. While taking my meal in the night, I spotted a group of local people in the canteen. I approached them and sought their help in finding my younger brother. On the basis of the sketchy description I gave them, they revealed that a young boy matching the description was staying in the house of one Chuahan family. I hired a rickshaw to the address and started immediately in the night and found him there. I brought him back with me to Delhi the next day. After some days he went back home to start a new life and resume his studies. Today, he is well-settled in his own business.

A similar thing happened to me while travelling with my wife and two children from Delhi to Cuttack by train which starts at 6 a.m. We hired a taxi and reached the station to find that our names were missing in the reservation charts. We did not panic and decided to go ahead without any hesitation. This journey also turned out to be a memorable experience of empathy and courtesy for fellow human beings, which is best displayed in a journey on Indian Railways. A businessman, a complete stranger to us, travelling in the coach left his berth to accommodate us and another young man left his seat showing utter graciousness and respect towards us. We all came back to Cuttack knowing each other. After a long gap I saw this young man on the platform of Cuttack on his business trip. Again I met him at a platform in Jharsuguda while travelling by Kalinga Express. Every time we met like long lost friends and exchanged pleasantries like our friends and relatives. Train journeys bestow love and affection not so common in many other human activities. The human bond thus transcends linguistic, cultural and regional borders, where small and big share the same level of human relationships.

Once while going to Chennai, I overheard a beautiful aphorism about the nomenclature of trains between Chennai and Delhi. Two direct trains run on this route: one is TN Express and the other is GT Express. The two trains are like any teams or legends having an ardent fan following and an enviable passenger loyalty which is referred to with passion, love and belonging almost like a cult. A lot of prestige is attached to both the trains enjoying high track clearance. Both the trains are loved for different reasons. The two fellow travellers, who were research scholars suggested the difference. It is like one of them getting a job as a lecturer in Tamil Nadu and the other telling that he would wait for the next chance. Here he said, “We both have the same destination but either one is going by GT or TN and which explains the philosophy of not losing anything but time. One has to be clear about his or her destination than the goal of reaching faster.” Travelling in the third class one remembers Gandhi’s own words that if there was another lower class he would have preferred travelling by that. Human behaviour is wonderful and people accommodate and adjust with others when they are in a no man’s land and fluid in their movement. Group behaviour changes with rise in the class. It is best seen when one travels in the second AC where people do not prefer to talk to each other and remain busy in their own works. In the third class AC which is in heavy demand, one finds that the people become quarrelsome as class changes and they cease to be well-behaved. But one finds that the third class, which was renamed second sleeper class after 1977, represents the golden behaviour of the crowd.

With reference to crowd behaviour, two incidents come to my mind. The first instance is of 1984 when I was travelling to Calcutta by Kalka express. This was the very next day Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the atmosphere on the platforms everywhere was tense. One could feel something ominous. People hardly communicated with each other on the trains or on platforms. The platform at Delhi had an odd and eerie silence as the news about the identity of the assassins got published in The Times of India. I reached the platform around 7 a.m., an hour before the scheduled departure at 8 a.m. from the Old Delhi station. The roads in Delhi had started looking deserted and desolate for that time of the day. A group of seven eight armed youth entered the bus in which I was going to the railway station, abused the Sikh Community and finding none there, immediately went down. However, no untoward incident happened on the platform before the departure of the train on its scheduled time. The atmosphere inside the compartment and outside on the roads and platforms on the station along the way was totally stunning. There was hardly any movement. Some passengers in the coach, mainly seniors, took the risk of closing all doors and advised everybody against opening these for outsiders unless somebody has a proper ticket. This made the journey somewhat safe and secure. Near Etah in UP, a motley crowd of about 50 people on the platform demanded opening of the compartment doors. Nobody relented to their shouts. They abused and threatened us. Our concern was about the three elderly Sikhs passengers who were sitting in different places in the coach. They were requested to shift to the upper berths.  As advised they went up to the upper berth and other co-passengers managed to keep them safe and away from any threat. The mob outside behaved badly and shouted and abused the community but we did not open the doors. Fortunately, after ten minutes one brave police Inspector appeared on the platform and waved his pistol and to scare away the miscreants. For the first time I found that by a collective action life of the people belonging to the minority could be saved. If the crowds could show brute force of its collective action, how the well-meaning collective action by society can thwart it. There was no further disturbance on the way to Calcutta in this journey by Kalka mail.

Another incident of similar nature is related to 1992. On December 6, the disputed structure of Babri Masjid was demolished by a crowd of hoodlums. Incidentally, during that time we were travelling in TN Express from the New Delhi station. This was the last train to leave from that platform. I reached almost ten minutes before the scheduled departure but the platform was desolate and deserted. The atmosphere was so tense that the people present there hardly talked to each other. Only those people who were travelling in that train were there and, sensing the trouble, many people seemed to have cancelled their tickets. The compartment had virtually half the number of passengers to its capacity. When I entered the compartment, I found everybody was quiet and the obtrusive silence was powerful and momentous. I felt surprised at this frightful silence. People expressed their own premonitions and abhorrence for the turn of events. The silence was more as a disapproval of the ensuing communal hatred. In silence the crowd manifested their collective condemnation of the unlawful act of a handful of people behind the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Crowd behaviour and mob mentality can be disruptive but it is inconsequential as compared to silent and collective action as a social response. This silence can be more formidable and deciphered as a more powerful phenomenon than the commotion and disruption. The silence in the compartment of TN Express continued till the train reached my destination, the Bhopal city.  But, remarkably, people showed their collective behaviour in a form which explained the politics behind their collective actions.

Train journey helps in understanding social edifice of different parts of the society and different interpretations to acceptable social norms given by people travelling together. One needs to be a good listener and interact with strangers in a friendly and appreciative manner. Recently I was travelling from Pondicherry to Bhubaneswar, where a young woman was also travelling with two children from Vizag to Berhampur. Another person working in the Railways was our co-passenger in the same compartment up to Berhampur. It was a four hour journey. The elderly man, to strike a conversation, asked the young woman, “Nowadays, families prefer two sons and you have one son and one daughter.”

She replied, “It happened just like that.”

The man asked, “Did you not go for termination of your female foetus?”

She answered, “No, my first child is a daughter but after giving birth to a daughter my husband started beating me. If you do not get a son next time, I will kill you.”

This was shocking and startling for everyone around. The elderly person coaxed and consoled her further and asked her which caste she belonged to. She said that she belonged to the Gauda or Yadava community. The elderly person said that he belonged to the Brahmin caste and was unable to get a suitable bride for his son since almost every family had two sons. Brahmins are an educated a lot but they go for female foeticide.

From such conversations one finds the truth behind the patriarchal orientation of society, which is typical as an institutional behavior in the Odiya family structure. As the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir says, to understand a woman one has to understand the society to which she belongs. There cannot be anything nearer to truth than what emerged from this conversation regarding social structure.

A train journey gives one confidence to handle one’s affairs which appear casually while travelling. It helps in improving our capacity to judge people. It helps us to relate and communicate with people from different sections and walks of life. This is a learning process about the society which we live in. It broadens our vision and it encourages us to be sensitive towards other people by fostering an understanding for different linguistic and caste groups of the society. There is a joke that a Fascist can be allowed to read the books and a Communalist can become secular by travelling, as their vision gets expanded. This is true, as it provides knowledge about communities, societies and the world at large. It gives a panoramic view and world-vision of Indian landscape and beauty of nature. This happens when the train moves across the jungles and over the river and one sees the elephants walking in the jungles while travelling through hills and forests. One finds the deer grazing on the land and the virginity of the soil and forests gives us a very fascinating and edifying experience.

Photo: Construction Week Online

Mr.  Radhakanta Barik is a teacher and a writer. He is a playwright in Odiya and writes poetry in English.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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