India on the Rails
If life is a journey than, in India at least, it chugs along on two parallel steel lines… the railways. No reference here to the local trains of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, where citizens spend a substantial portion of their waking hours commuting increasing distances within ever expanding city-limits.
This one is grand - a vast rail network criss-crossing the length and breadth of the country, spanning over plains and rivers, through forest and deserts, reaching out to the obscurest of villages and connecting them to the rest of this immense, wonderful conglomeration of people, towns, animals, history and culture, that is India.
While air travel saves you time and driving by road lends flexibility to your schedule, there is really no better way to know India than by train. The general compartment especially is a startling microcosm of the multi-caste, multi-lingual eclecticism of the country that immediately disarms you with its robust back-thumping welcome. No formalities here as you are expected to roll up your sleeves and join in the abundant overflow of food, drink, conversation. Personal details are unabashedly pried into, common ground or acquaintances traced over a maze of memory, addresses exchanged and promises to visit, made…
A long Indian railway journey is an unparalleled display of the lay of the land. As the train traverses across different states it unfolds a fascinating tapestry of gradually changing landscapes, people, houses, shops and signboards. From my favourite perch, on the steps at the door, I have never failed to harvest intimate glimpses into rural life: a peasant tending his field or enjoying a meal under a shady tree, a young cowherd driving a boisterous herd to pasture, women transporting water over a parched terrain, a herd of deer peeping nervously through dappled afternoon shadows…
And then there are the numerous wayside stations, bustling centers of busy activity. Often no more than small shacks, these centers of village activity can be refreshingly beautiful, shaded by trees and with small well-tended gardens around them. But even more poignant are the isolated rail cabins or outposts that occur, seemingly in the midst of wind swept desolation, as a lone railway official holds out a green flag to give each train an all-clear sign as it hurtles by.
It’s then that it strikes you how this gigantic organization, the Indian Railways, the world’s biggest public sector employer, is so critically dependent for its smooth everyday functioning on all the various little cogs that keep its wheels turning, right down to the guy who covers an allocated distance on foot daily, manually checking the screws in the fish plates to see that everything is right.
A humbling thought really…
This article was posted on December 06, 2004
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