Sunday, December 30, 2007

Train of thought 3.5 - Water everywhere

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**
Tiredness brings about a dreamless, quick sleep, and with it a calm, clear-headed wake up. So much so, I dont quite mind or resent the slightly clouded window to my left. I raise myself slightly, and still half-reclining upon my berth, look out the window.

The squeak-to-a-halt provides a good excuse for getting off. Barauni, the boards tell me. I immediately recollect the Gwalior-Barauni Mail of a few years ago. If your're the sort who'd like to sample the messiest, filthiest train ever, you'd need look no beyond the Gwalior Barauni Mail. Still, the platform at Barauni has no evidence of squalor-levels that would befit such a legendary train. There's a coat of mist all over as I peer out from the door over the length of the platform. The hot-water+tea-bags+milk-powder is being distributed, so, the 'tea' is slowly imbibed on a stroll on the chilled platform.

**
I'm on the Eastern-UP-and-Bihar belt now. Everything there is is drowned out, literally, by the floods. The entire landscape is a huge water body occasionally pockmarked by land patches. There're stretches of water in every direction. Houses, or parts thereof, peep out like gyroscopes. Huts, and parts thereof, float atop the water. Occasional temple spires stand out, as if to reassure people that there is, indeed, a steady divine presence in all this upheaval. The railway track looks terribly frail, perched as it is upon hardly-adequate-seeming ledges amid water on either side.

The towns, when they do come, are hardly reassuring. Washed-away houses are lumped together now. Decrepitude is wholesale here. What emphasises the direness of it all is the fact that you can see the human cost of the flood. Every railway platform is brimming over with refugees from the water. They're camped upon the railway platforms, they arent quite waiting to go off on the next train. They're waiting for they know not what - there're makeshift tents and huts, cramped, stuffed amid the limited space there is. The railway platform affords the advantage of being at a slight elevation compared to the rest of the town. However, those who are unfortunate to get pushed to the edges of the platform find themselves getting shoved closer and closer to water levels by the upstream crowds.

It's a bleak, foggy, sunless morning. The rains, thankfully, have ceased today. The mind's eye is dimmed by the sights around. The makeshift tents are just feet away from where I stand at the door. People line the tracks outside the stations, in the countryside just as well, in areas where the track but is a temporarily safe bank from the advancing waters. The track is a thin line, almost like a tightrope, with water all around it. The train almost seems to tiptoe on it, hoping to get it over and done with.

**

There are, as you may have imagined, fellow passengers around my hardly-occupied seat. There's a young Army jawan, hardly 22 or so, there's a young lady with her dad, and a couple of other middle aged men. The jawan asks if I've friends in adjoining compartments. No, I tell him, I dont park at my seat because I'm at the door, that's all.

So, does he get to actually fight, shoot people, I ask, with more than a hint of sarcasm that he doesnt quite catch. Oh yes, says he, he's headed to either Sudan or Afghanistan, right after the vacation for which he's headed home. The UN forces, he adds. I remember Heller writing something like - "Young men out there figting for what they've been told is their country". It just seems way too cynical to actually quote the same, so I desist.

So, has he killed any man so far? Nopes. But he's had plenty of target practise, and workout with guns. But does that prepare him to kill a flesh-and-blood human being? To exterminate a life? The instinct of self-preservation, he is sure, will take over, so what he does need do is have his reflexes and skills ready. When it's him-or-you, you'd rather it's you than him.

What if you get cold feet? Killing isnt easy, I suppose. Well, you can back out before you get sent. Once you're there, you have to go out and fight. If you back off on the battlefield, folks on your side have orders to shoot you. The fear of death can infuse great quantities of courage into you, he adds.

Death is an occupational hazard, aint it? Well, he's had only a modest education, and this, fighting is his only chance of being of any significance in life. This is the only way he can rise above himself, he adds. He is a big man in his town because he's a soldier. If people think wars arent necessary, well, too bad - someone's got to do the job.

Somehow, speaking of death in the specific seems strangely, eerily different from speaking of it in the abstract, armchair-expert way.

**

The train wades onward. The water slowly, agonisingly recedes, subsides. The trackside crowds steadily thin down. In an hour and a half or so, all that remains is the wetness in the air. There is impoverishment around, you see the villages and houses are still ramshackle - even railway stations have shriveled down to one-chamber shacks with single-track-no-platform. But it's almost a relief to see that this is the normal course of affairs, that it's not an abrupt fury of nature that has afflicted these lands.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Train of thought 3 - Entering the cow belt

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**
Delhi passes by in a haze. The crowds at Hazrat Nizamuddin are perhaps only milling slowly, in a gooey slithering flow. But when a long things-to-do list is flashing through your mind, when you're rushing through the 14 hours you have in the city, you can be forgiven for thinking that the entire capital is as frenzied as the almost-panting insides of your head.

One meet-up happens late in the evening, over French-fries-dipped-in-honey and jasmine tea. The friend is good enough to offer shelter for the night in his room. The already small room, being packed with books and cutlery and cooking vessels, has just about enough of a clearing on the floor to harbour the two of us. The other meeting is pushed to the next morning, when a young lady has to be woken up to be reminded of the said meeting.

So, it is after a good couple of hours of agitated activity that New Delhi station is rushed into, minutes before the half-past-9 departure. Soon, I am hovering around the platform to stock up and try to fulfil the morning's nutrition needs. A sandwich, a cool drink and my bag all vie for the patronage of my hands.

**

There is, surprisingly, a diesel engine up front, as the train shrugs past Delhi's outskirts. These arent the high rise, prosperous locales. Small matchbox-houses in rows of Lego-blocks are packed in a tight fit. Most have red-and-grey exteriors of raw, unpainted walls. Occasionally, patches of agricultural fields pop up, sometimes chimneys jut out, bang in the midst of a sea of unpainted concrete.

Sometimes, the compact, packed rows of houses yawn, revealing clearings of black fluids in still lakes or flowing rivulets. Buffaloes look like rocks jutting out of the water. Green rotting vegetation blankets nearly the entire surface of the water. Soon, the sea of dusky black that is the Yamuna wallows beneath my feet.

There is this state of uncertain urbaneness throughout. Locales dont quite seem very sure as to who precisely they are. Must they live up to an image of posh, upmarket citizens of a capital city? Are they almost-slums, the stepchildren of a grand metropolis that really is a world away? UP-villages like they were a few decades ago? Sooty, intent industrial areas like those that fringe every city? Hinterlands like they were before Delhi began its monstrous growth?

Sahibabad, Ghaziabad and even far exterior towns like Hapur seem to harbour a confused mix of all these identities. The bare, rugged neighbourhoods look impoverished but not frail. There's the weariness and disarray of the greying, bare buildings, but there's also the ambition and wannabe-ness of occasional isles of swankiness. There're expanses of aspiring industries, there're flashy, pervasive billboards that annouce upward mobility to be.

**

There follows what what your high school textbooks would tell you is the 'fertile Gangetic plain'. Wispy blue-white skies up above, swaying sugarcane and paddy and tufts of green. Open horizons that stretch on, unblocked by edifices. Innumerable canals and clear water streams tempt you to dive right in, right out the train door. You try in vain to recollect the poem - all you manage is to weed out two lines - 'All in the golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide' and 'beneath such dreamy weather', which more than suffice to send you into a warm, contented tizzy, as you lean back against the door balustrade in a comfortable recline.

**

Most towns are tiny oases of habitation amid vastnesses of agricultural land. The green of the fields wades into some of the towns too. The black water bodies and buffaloes are ubiquitous in the towns. Most towns have houses sprinkled liberally, comfortably spaced. Moradabad, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly and their ilk know there's plenty of space to go around for the entire town and more.

At Shahjahanpur, there's an ancient, ornate, deep brown bogie, one that was exclusively used by the colonial masters in another era. This rusting bogie is in apparent disuse for decades, and is parking in a just-as-aged shed. There're families that have made this shed their home, with this relic of the British Raj grandeur for backdrop. Their cooking for the day goes on in the underbrush-clad ground nearby.

As the diesel engine squeezes through rising sugarcane fields on each side, it flits through an empty, unpeopled station - Kakori. I momentary expect so see something to signify the events of all those years ago. What was I expecting to see, anyway? I realize there really shouldnt be any expectations that I should be having of the place. The Shahjahanpur - Lucknow down train remains blissfully in 1925, knowing it doesnt quite have a need to pop up in public consciousness now.

Kakori lasts maybe a minute, with my train rushing on to make up for the one hour delay. There's the town railway gate, keeping out the raring-to-go autos and carts and rickshaws and ramshackle vans - the fields and open skies begin abruptly, right after the railway gate.

**

Most stations have a barrack-like stiff-upper-lip spareness and minimalism - nothing extraneous or extravagant in their structures. Collectorgunj flashes by, a tiny single-room-single-platform station that is a faint but sweet memory of all those years ago. It's not been too hot, the sun's been gentle all through. Still, the evening makes the slanting golden sunbeams quite pleasant. Lucknow station is profusely bathed in mild honey-orange sunrays when the train squeaks in.

Post Lucknow, more sugarcane fields, more farmlands, more open spaces. Only, the skies' shades of blue deepen. Slowly, imperceptibly, a blanket is spread over the sky upstairs. I come back to my seat - the white lights inside the bogie are slightly jarring after an entire day at the door. I stare away at the darkness through the cloudy, muddly glass window - content in having to do nothing whatsoever at all.

Dinner happens. Tis tempting to go sleep, though it's just 9 or so. I decide to get to the door to get some fresh night air. There's plenty of that, yessiree. "Bhai saab, yaha pe bahut stoning hoti hai" the TTE attempts to dissuade me from door-parking - I wave him away. I stare into the darkness and up at the white pinpricks that are the stars, taking deep breaths of the cold night air. Varanasi is a while away - that'd be a good place to sleep off.

There's a mild flash outside, like a cigarette lighter. Tis not the stars, I see. There's another flash outside, and yet another. Before I know it, there're tiny, glowing lamps all around me outside the door. No, there're no houses or human presences. I wonder if I'm dreaming, if I've been transported into a fairy tale.

I take deep breaths - I cant believe this - there're seas of fireflies flickering atop trees along the track! The row of trees, lit up in mild flourescent glows, stretches on either side of the two doors, like rows of glittering Christmas trees - tis a 10 minute long performance. This isnt a biting glare, but a gentle, warm flickering and twinkling. The momentary frenzied I-dont-believe-this excitement slowly gives way to a peace, a gratitude - an ah-I-m-lucky-to-have-seen-this feeling - that leaves me thankful to the universe for having served me this surprise.