Train Journeys – Always Memorable

In a train all adults are seriously busy and frowning at smart phones when I notice the only two non-serious people, both kids, watching cartoons or photos on their parents’ smart phones. At least they are laughing. But nobody is looking out of the train windows– only into the virtual ones! Trains are not what they used to be. With advances in other areas of travel, combined with more and more cheap flights and cars ever increasing, trains are dying out.

How it should be, how it used to be

End June I found myself on the non-stop Duronto Express from Delhi to Kolkata. As I took my window seat in the 3-tier compartment, I noticed a young man nattily dressed opposite me. On his side were two children with their mother, apparently from Haryana. The children smiled coyly at me by which time another young man came to my part of the coupe and took his seat. The children couldn’t suppress their giggles. The young man who had just arrived had long hair rolled into a bun, like a woman’s. The kids were whispering to their mother, ‘Is it a man or a woman?’ In a mock chide I put my finger to the lips. They giggled even more. The English-speaking man, from South India I presumed, took refuge on the upper berth and hid himself in the pages of a thick book by Kafka.

‘I can urge him to buy my book,’ I thought, ‘author-signed’.

Just then a young woman arrived and asked me if she could hang her bag against the window.

‘It’ll block my view..!’ I protested. Offended, she flung her bag on the top bunk giving me a dirty look. She was teary eyed I noticed. Just then the train began to move and her young escort ran out with a brief, incomplete hug. He ran along the train for a while, waving good bye to his girlfriend. I hate travelling in a train without conversation. So I began with the young man opposite me, ‘Visiting Kolkata?’

‘Yes. My first visit … for a friend’s wedding.. Can you tell me what places to see around Kolkata?’ he asked. I began listing the places one by one….Kali Ghat, Park Street, Chowringhee, College Street, Jora Sanko. In the meantime, I learnt that he was a practising lawyer with the Supreme Court (SC) of India. How could such young fellows practise in the SC? I wondered. ‘You have to pass certain exams,’ he assured me. As I listed more places the Kafka man on the upper bunk leaned out and said, ‘Don’t forget to see the Howrah bridge …And Rajarhat…It’s the new happening place,” he offered. So he was a Bengali!

In the meantime, the young lady, who had been insouciant some time back, asked if I could lend her my mobile phone. “My phone is not working…I’ll insert my sim card,” she explained. She looked so desperate I had no option but to give her the phone. Meanwhile the SC lawyer kept on jotting the names of places he should see . I asked him to visit Digha, Kolkata’s poor answer to Goa, to which he warmed up since he had never seen the sea. Finally it turned out he had just two days, including the wedding, to spare.

The young woman who had just taken a break from her marathon phone call intervened in our conversation that had now shifted to food. ‘I’m from Park street…Go to Shiraz if you want good biryani.’ When she handed me back her mobile I asked her, ‘You speak Bengali?’ No, she said, ‘I’m a Muslim and though I was born and brought up here, I haven’t mastered the language.’ She also handed me her visiting card.

‘!’ I exclaimed, ‘You can give me a job!’ The others who had overheard me also began asking her for her calling card that had apparently exhausted. That didn’t stop them from scribbling her name, number and email. Suddenly she was in much demand. And she was perfectly happy with the attention she was attracting. From jobs we moved to her first visit to Delhi.

‘Most of the day I was holed up in my room too terrified to get out alone,’ she explained. The boy who had escorted her and was waving to her was a distant cousin and her fiancé she revealed. Then she went on to explain how she felt much safer in Kolkata, which lately, according to her, was acquiring a bad reputation.

Then somehow the conversation veered back to jobs. I got this feeling that all my fellow travelers were looking for jobs. Could this woman really give me a job? ‘Send me your CV’, she said confidently. The others were not so open in asking her for a job, but it was apparent they all hated their jobs. Why, even the girl from Naukri appeared unhappy. Every now and then she had work-related calls from office. In a way her phone became her workstation. But as the train rolled into Bengal I realized she was making discreet enquiries with the IT geek, the man-woman, about possibilities in IT. The man-woman readily offered her advice that I pretended not to hear. She was interested in SAP. The man-woman confessed he did not know much about SAP. But his cousin knew. ‘I can give you his number,’ he said. She jotted down the number. At that point I had to interrupt the Naukri girl.

‘Hello…! Are you sure you are working for, the one giving jobs! I have a feeling you are searching for a job yourself…!’ There was a loud burst of laughter from everyone including the young woman. The SC lawyer put it philosophically, ‘Life is all about that dream job that you never will get.’

I added my bit, ‘It’s better to be unhappy in a job that to not have one at all!’

The naukri girl promised, ‘Uncle don’t forget to send me your CV.’ I would have done that but my nephew, on searching my pockets (he always does that) discovered her card and said, ‘! I’m going to keep this!’ And to think of it he was just a year into what his friends thought was a ‘dream job’!

Several weeks later, I was remembering Nazia Hussain, that lively girl from Park Street. It was Eid. ‘My mother makes wonderful biryani,’ she had said. ‘So you’re inviting us?’ I had retorted. And all of us had had a good laugh. Unlike in the good old days, talking and socializing in trains with strangers has become rare these days, particularly in AC compartments. We are becoming more and more like people in the West.