Friday, June 06, 2008

7 - Highway Star

The end of the platform at Zurich Brunau slopes down to merge with the highway’s service lane. A footpath fringes the highway up ahead. After a moment’s hesitation, I decide to cycle along the footpath, and see how far it goes. A short distance on, the highway acquires a cycling-lane - a one-metre-wide space at the far-right.

So the highway does indeed allow cyclists, unlike what I'd been told. When I notice my formals-and-tie clothing, I wonder whether I should go ahead and cycle on the highway. I hesitate, but only just, before I decide to take the plunge. Sights of other cyclists in shorts and vests, and of cyclists on super-fast geared bikes make attempts to dissuade me, all of which I resist.

**

My slow, ungeared city-cycle ambles on. I’m naturally apprehensive at first, because there’s just a line-painted-on-the-ground separating the car lane and the cycle lane. A couple of minutes’ riding is some reassurance – cars stay put in their lanes, refusing to swerve an inch on either side. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Swiss cars never ever overtake. They’re fast alright, but they aren’t in a tearing hurry, there’s none of what Bill Aitken calls the ‘animal lust for speed’.

The ones who are possessed by the said lust are the few motorcyclists there are on the road. Heads down, clad in jackets and tracksuits and protective gear like you see on TV races, they rush by furiously. Bigger, faster European bikes do nothing to ease the feeling that these guys might careen out of control at any moment. The insistent whining of their engines isnt a reassurance either. Yet the roads are empty and unclogged, so motorcycling looks fairly easy.

**

Leimbach station is a single cottage lost in time-and-space as it lies at the edge of the forested hill. The forlorn cabin and station building remind me of some solitary, lovely railway stations on long journeys on the Indian railways. Thereafter, the highway worms its way between two factory walls on either side.

The railway track and the river Sihl flow on the left. Deep green mountains tower on the right. High amid the mountains, metallic presences jut out, as cranes claw into vegetation. The Sihl narrows at one point to reveal a stone bed with picnicking families parked thereupon. The vegetation lying across the Sihl is much closer, more discrete – so you can make out its closely packed trees and shrubs.

**

A side road branches out from the highway and points towards Adliswil. I decide it’s perhaps a different experience to check out a small-town instead of keeping on the highway. I park the bicycle upon the overbridge and climb down to the railway platform. I take a walk along the open-air restaurant-lobby, past the couple of coffee-sippers lazing there in the sun.

I stand upon the arched bridge, looking at the steady, clear water of the river Sihl. Vehicles are infrequent on the road – there’s one car every few minutes or so. The town road is empty, pedestrians are few and the water below sprints quietly by.

Wooden cottages of a school look like fairy-tale huts in an orchard. There’s a white-flower-blanketed playground, beside a board with childrens’ drawings. Tis Sunday, so there’s an eerie, deserted look about the school. Under a playground-tree, two teenage girls gently hold each other as they kiss tenderly, unmindful of my passing-by.

**

On the other side, a cycling path runs parallel to the Sihl. A young man on a bench tells me it goes all the way from Zurich to Zug(some 30km away) and beyond, all along the Sihl.

Families cycle by on the grassy riverside path that glows in the gentle sunlight. Mums and dads go slow enough to allow accompanying little bicycles to keep pace. Most cyclists go slowly, looking around, taking in the view of the valley and the river, some of them spotting a distant church-spire that looks dissolved amid the forested hillside.

Mats have been spread out and food hampers unpacked as families laugh and play together on the banks. The entire town seems to be picnicking today – the banks don’t look too crowded since people disperse themselves all along the length of the Sihl.

**

The main street is boarded up, all businesses are closed. Tis lunchtime, and the three riverbank restaurants have their garden wicket-gates closed. Behind the river is a one room police station, and a food place that is thankfully open. An old couple and a younger woman are sipping beers in a corner of the corridor of Café du Jeannette.

I tentatively peer inside and find no one inside the dark, wine-bottle-lined wooden interiors. The younger woman, presumably Jeannette, springs up and almost sheepishly says,”’morning. Would you like some beer?”

“I was looking at something to eat, lunch perhaps.”

“Uh oh. I’m afraid I havent anything – there’re some old sandwiches, that’s all. I usually have no customers on Sundays, so I don’t really make anything. I’m really sorry.”

**

I walk beside a closed pizzeria and electronics shops on what’s one of the two main roads in town. A side street reveals a grand stone building that is another school. Cyclists occasionally disappear around a far corner, seemingly into a hillock lying across the town. I enter another side lane, and sit down on the steps outside the closed doors of the stately, serene stone structure of the town chapel. I take in the empty, open, tranquility of the place, as I sit unperturbed by any external stimuli, refusing to even consult my watch.

As I look at the deep, dark brown leaves of a nearby maple tree, a football flies across the street from a house down the road. Three kids run across the road amid an abrupt burst of chatter, which sight and sound puncture the uneventfulness around.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

6 - Fringes of the town

Tis evening. I lounge around the clean, almost-polished-looking lobby of the Youth Hostel. Most publications on display, tourist guides mainly, are in German. All else that is for sale, to my amazement, is out in the open and not in locked cases – chocolates, knives, souvenirs et al.

Two of my roommates are from Azerbaijan. I tentatively fish around for common ground, mentioning the three Azerbaijan-i men I know of. Before we know, we’re in excited conversation about the game. Gestures-with-swaying-arms, broken English and alien-words manage to come together to give all of us a general idea of what we talk about, even though we don’t quite get everything word-by-word. The 9pm summer sunlight slants down by our porthole-like-window, as we look out on the vacant, sleepy street.

**

I’ve borrowed one of the public-bicycles that are lent out for free by the city. I plan to cycle some way out of the city early on day 2, since I only need get out of Zurich by evening.

On the evening walk, I notice a wide, neat highway some way from the hostel, so am much reassured. Unfortunately, the youth hostel receptionist isn’t so sure – she tells me cyclists aren’t allowed on the highway. I give myself a ‘such-is-life’.

**

Still, when the morning arrives, I decide I’ll at least go see the highway and will loll around the railway station next to it. I deck the self up in formals-and-tie, having decided to get out of the city right after the said stroll.

**

When I’ve pushed the cycle up the incline, I reach the top of a small knoll. Down below are the plain-grey-sheets of the two empty railway platforms of Zurich Brunau. There are two halves of a highway that unroll themselves next to the station, split into smaller roads that go on to intertwine themselves into a series of flyovers that look like contorted octopi. The side of the hill facing the track has a bright splash of yellow across it. The hillside is smothered by yellow flowers that softly, gently move in the cool, sun-suffused morning breeze.

I wade my hands across the surface of the bowl at the base of a small fountain. The steely chill of the water vibrates across my hands. There’s the constant whizz of the highway cars in the background. The platform down below is vacant; the streets behind me atop the hillside aren’t awake either.

I steer the cycle onto the top of the railway overbridge. The pairs of metallic threads below me emerge from amid edifices, and swing outwards to curve around the side of the hill. I carry the bicycle downstairs, and cycle across the length of the platform.

There’s no one else on the platform. I sit down on a bench underneath an ad, with the cycle parked next to me. Around me is the steadiness of the highway and the stillness of the flame-hued, almost-alive hill; as the plain, bare tracks quietly snake past.

Friday, May 30, 2008

5 - The station again, and another part of the city

I go down to the station in the afternoon, mainly to be able to catch a sight of the train of great speed that, rather imaginatively, is named 'the train of great speed'. I watch the sleek, earthworm-like, phallic shape pull out, even as it desists from doing so at great speed. I walk around the by-now-much-more-crowded Zurich Hauptbahnhof. It turns out there are additional platforms underneath the ones I've seen in the morning. Around the underground platforms is sprawled a massive shopping plaza that's almost hidden out of sight when you're upstairs.

**
The Toblerone arena that was being set up in the station foyer in the morning has much more action and bigger crowds by now. Screens show videos of the story of the founders of Toblerone, the history of the company, and the process of manufacturing chocolates. People help themselves to chocolates from bowls placed around the arena - I do too.

At one long table, people put their heads down and fill stenciled outlines of the words 'Toblerone' with colours. Many others huddle behind them to watch. 5-year olds happily spill colours outside the lines, sitting beside grandmothers who fill in slowly, easily; even as twenty-somethings rub the crayons back and forth in brisk, smooth motions. People who finish make way for other passers-by who start on another sheet. A bearded man is watching his wife and kid daughter bent over the table, immersed amid their crayons. He smiles at me, points at the '100-years-of-Toblerone' balloon, and exclaims 'Magnifique chocolate, monsieur'.

At another set of tables, people take opened-up-Toblerone-wrappers and fold-and-stick them into the characteristic triangular-prism-shape of Toblerone packs. A tower is being made of these prism-packs. A crowd cheers as it expectantly looks upwards at the tower-top where a volunteer atop a ladder adds new packs. An electronic counter reads 7571, indicating the number of prisms already in the paper-tower.

I watch at one of the tables as two women and an old man are intent in their folding-into-prisms act. One of them, a girl with flaming lipstick and pierced chin flashes a radiant smile and invites me - "Why dont you join in?". A young mother who's doing the folding-and-sticking while balancing her toddler adds - "Yes, please do." After much struggle with the cellotape and gum-stick, I wish I had a few more hands to keep the folds in place. I finish my first pack with an exultant sigh, in the time the young mother's done three. The old man at the table and gives me a "'Tis okay, you only need to get used to it". My second pack is much faster, though it looks like the folds will burst apart any moment.

**

Sometime later, as I exit the station, the mum-with-toddler-at-Toblerone passes by. She spots me amid the milling crowd , lets forth an exuberant smile and does a "Hello again. How've you been?". A couple of pleasantries later comes the "Have a nice day". It's fascinating to see the warmth and affability of the people I meet, and more so when it's put in the context of prim, formal localities I see everywhere.

After being in India, you dont quite expect uninvited greetings or good wishes - it's pleasantly surprising to be able to return compliments to people you hardly know. Even random people I strike up conversations with show an unprepossessing warmth I've hardly seen elsewhere. It's all the more surprising since most people, like their city, drape themselves in formal starched-plain exteriors that can make you feel underdressed.

**

I find a part of the city that doesnt look like it's dressed up in a suit-boot-tie. In a narrow lane behind the Limmat river, there's an open square that you could call the city's flea market. It's a counterweight to the culture of the rest of the city, even though it is very insignificant in size.

Here's everything that Zurich city would shudder at. Just outside the open-square quadrangle, there're cobblestoned pedestrian-only roads; there're Asian, Mexican and Turkish food stalls; there're cloth shops that have shelves packed with clothes, unlike the spacious designer-display-shops in the rest of Zurich. Inside the quadrangle, there're vendors in t-shirts, sombreros and long beards, people who look like they have no qualms about skipping a bath. There're also Ganesha statues, necklaces made of strange beads, jewelry made of feathers, stones that are a world apart from Zurich's primary-colour-identity.

Friday, May 23, 2008

4 - City rounds and stumbing upon black sheep

Across the Limmat from the Hauptbahnhof, there’s a swarm of boards announcing cafés and restaurants. There are three cyclists parked atop the Limmat bridge ponderously looking at the placid, flat stream. A dad-son-dog trio looks into the water. A preteen in dark glasses and helmet whizzes past atop her skates.

The restaurants and cafes lazily unroll themselves, spilling their tables-chairs-clientele onto the road on the banks of the Limmat. Behind these, a hill harbours a road that shoots upwards, along which a massive hoarding advertises Lindt chocolates.

**

I pass a movie-memorabilia shop, and stop to look at a wayside board listing theatre and opera performances in town. Almost all are in German, and none fits my budget or time.

There are a couple of buildings with flat, towering glass facades that stick out amid the prim, ancient looking residences elsewhere. They havent the subtlety that marks the rest of the city - no statuettes and decorative motifs, not too much careful attention to detail - just one monstrous sheet of glass that rises up and spreads sideways.

These aren’t ostentatious or brash. There is only one small board near what could only be an entrance, mentioning, almost reluctantly, that this is the Marriott.

At a zebra crossing ahead, four cars line up one behind the other and wait for a young father to push a pram across the road.

**
I walk through residential areas, streets harbouring apartments. The houses, while neat and proper, offer hardly any sign of life. You see no people milling about, no one on the balconies leaning out of houses, hardly any clothes hung to dry, hardly any windows or doors open, no one out in the flowerbeds and gardens. There are no kids playing about, no teenagers roaming the streets.
In commercial areas – Bahnhofstrasse and their ilk – crowds potter around, trudge gently, sit back as they populate the roadside chairs-tables of brasseries.

Life is unhurried, there’s no bustle or haste anywhere in the town. But sometimes you wonder if it's the relaxed, retiring pace of life that has conditioned people to stay within their private worlds. The extraordinary level of organization and maintenance, the trim localities, blooming gardens, avenues, and the level of public attention that seems to have gone into the city, all seem a little incongruous with such unwillingness to go out, experience the city, engage with the world.

**

At first, I tell myself the insulation really is some form of refinement – perhaps some variant of ‘I shant bother my neighbour’. But seeing this poster sprinkled all over Zurich city(including, ironically, the vicinity of the airport) makes me wonder if there is something deeper:

I was a tad surprised at the bluntness of the message, bespeaking some desperation. A little less paranoia perhaps could have led to a more tactful(not to mention more convincing) ad. The one below, incidentally, was another ad in the same campaign.

You’d think that a city with so much to enjoy, contemplate, appreciate would give its denizens nothing to worry about. Still skeptical, I told myself that surely this was not really representative of the entire populace’s opinion – maybe a far right fringe bunch(for the posters were a part of a poster-and-mass-media ad campaign by the Swiss People’s Party). It turns out that the Swiss People’s Party(SVP) is the biggest party in the Swiss Parliament, its rise over the last twenty years being largely founded on its anti-immigrant rhetoric.

I think back, and realize I’ve hardly seen any non-whites in Zurich. Sure, there’re some Asian tourists, conspicuous by their bag-carrying and hesitant awkwardness – but hardly anyone black or brown who look accustomed enough, comfortable enough to suggest they reside here.

A pub owner I meet a few days later, a Kosovar immigrant, mentions how impossibly difficult he was finding it to get a Swiss passport, even though he’d stayed here twenty or so years. The process is crazily drawn out – you’ve to take language tests, and in what looks an almost medieval practice, the residents in your town have to ‘approve’ of you by a vote.

**

Understandably, the ad campaign set off alarm bells in Europe. Doudou Diene, the U.N. special fact-finder on racial intolerance said the campaign was "advocating racist and xenophobic ideas". People have remarked how eerily similar the rhetoric is to that of Nazi Germany (and if I may add, to present day Mumbai, Gujarat, you name it).

The SVP, of course, has much to say in its defence. Ulrich Schueler, the man who created the sheep campaign said, "That's nonsense. It's not against race. It's against people who break laws. People are fed up." Another party member, Bruno Walliser had to say, “The black sheep is not any black sheep that doesn’t fit into the family. It’s the foreign criminal who doesn’t belong here, the one that doesn’t obey Swiss law. We don’t want him.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

3 - First steps in town

I exit the station towards the Bahnhofplatz. There’s a statue of Alfred Escher, one of the founding fathers of the Swiss Railway network, and a fountain and a trough under the statue. The crossroads isn’t too busy this early in the morning. The glass roofing and sides, along with the early-morning-emptiness give the tram stops a newly-washed look.

To take my tram to the Youth Hostel, I turn into the Bahnhofstrasse. This one-and-a-half-kilometer long avenue is said to be one of the world’s most expensive shopping areas. I can see why – on either side are shopfronts with labels like Chanel, Armani, Cartier and their ilk. There’s even a huge Davidoff store. These facades are wide, spacious, like they’re firmly saying they don’t need to be miserly.


Cyclists, skaters and walkers have begun to crowd the sides already – there are hardly any cars. The lanes that cut the Bahnhofstrasse are half occupied by chairs and tables of brasseries. These have begun to fill up with breakfasters poring over newspapers.

I need to figure out which of the stops I need to take my tram from. I ask an old man, who says he’s headed the same way. He walks me to the tram stop, and helps me with the electronic ticket dispenser. As he gets off the tram a couple of minutes later, he gives me a warm smile and a “have a nice day!”. During the course of the day, I get this pleasantly surprising greeting from the youth hostel staff, random neighbours on trams, shops where I merely browse but don’t buy - from pretty much everyone I come in contact with.

**

The first tram ride takes me through two impressive platz-es(squares, plazas) – Enge and Paradeplatz. Both are broad, open, with a couple of stalls in the centre and imposing castle-like buildings on the sides. Enge has a majestic railway station to one side and tables-chairs of cafes on another. The railway-station front has tall arches spread out in a semi-circular shape, with a teeny clock on top, almost like a white bindi.

Paradeplatz, no less ambitious, pulls off its special effects with a little help from palatial corporate offices - UBS, Credit Suisse and the rest. Both Enge and Paradeplatz still manage an air of being relaxed, let-hair-down hangouts, due to the by-now-ubiquitous roadside cafes and brasseries.

I need to make plans for the day. There are close to 40 museums in Zurich – the Kunsthaus is among the most prominent in Europe, the Musee Reitberg is fairly close to the youth hostel where I will stay. But then, I’ve only a day and a half, very little money, and everybody wanting to be my baby. I tell myself that roaming the city streets will let me pack in more of local flavour into the limited time-and-money than an art trip or, *shudder*, an organized tour.

I get myself a day pass. This will let me travel on any tram and bus in the city for an entire day. The plan, therefore, is to take random trams-buses-walks all day and explore the city.

**

I find Zurich pleasantly old-fashioned, carefully crafted. Everywhere there are sloping roofs, chimneys, intricately carved mythological motifs on house fronts, usage of lots of stone, of dark brown wood, and hardly any high rises. Occasionally, there are stone statues on porches, flower beds between houses and gargoyles atop them. There are fountains and water bowls sprinkled across the city, all of them spouting drinking water.

Each house in the city seems individually crafted, with a distinctiveness of its own, with no locality designed en masse. Yet the design is understated and anything but loud. Zurich’s architectural charm comes from it being firmly rooted in the past. It seems to tell its beholders what Messrs Carl F Bucherer announce on their ads – ‘for those who do not go with the times’.

**

PS - None of the pics are my own. All are off the 'net.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

2 - A station far away.

The train is silent, glass-windowed, footboardless. As it does the short trip from the airport to the railway station, I try to get used to the novelty of the train, of the experience.

Zurich Hauptbahnhof(or Zurich Main, if you please) looks eerily like Mumbai VT. The station is an expansive ancient-looking stone building. Like VT, you see trains gently wedge themselves into dead-end platforms, like swords into scabbards. As platforms roll outwards from dead-ends under glass roofs, outlines of the tracks dissolve into a frantic mishmash.

I walk to the front of the platform, and go past the dead end. There is a corridor and a high-roofed hallway housing railway offices and restaurants and shopping areas. These stretch some 60 meters from the dead end within the main building. I walk around the arena and look about, lugging my two big bags along.

The first sunrays work their way past the pillars and outer walls of the hallway. Early morning commuters begin to trickle in – and not all on foot. A schoolgirl wades in on skates. A disheveled young man wheels a cycle in. Two electric scooters glide through. Two old men peer out of their jackets at the ticket vending machines.

In the middle of the foyer, a massive triangular balloon gets slowly inflated. The balloon reads “100 years of Toblerone”, and bears the said brand’s insignia. Young men and women in Toblerone t-shirts form a huddle, presumably to chalk out their plans for the day. Dispersing, they use Toblerone-yellow ribbons to demarcate the central part of the arena.

One coffee stall just beyond a platform’s dead-end has just opened; I glance at its menu and try to get the hang of Swiss Francs. I’m letting the calculations, the budgeting, the conversion into rupees distract me from taking in the vastness, the grandeur of the carefully carved stone atrium. Annoyed at self for said distraction, I take a deep breath and just look.

The parfumerie, the patisserie and the kebab stall on the outer margins of the foyer are still closed. The ticket counters and helpdesks are open, but there are only officials therein. A prim middle aged man unlocks the doors of a newspaper-and-book shop. A young, incredibly pretty woman dusts the exhibits of a flower shop. The brasserie looks appealing - it has chairs and tables placed outwards, right in the main lobby of the railway station. With some three rows of chairs-tables all facing the expanse of the hallway, it gives the impression of seats at a theatre or show.

There’s still a tang of cold in the air, as if to remind me of the winter that’s just past. It is, however, spring now - mild, golden sunlight weaves through passers-by and pours itself upon the largely empty foyer.

I order a breakfast of raspberry jam, uber-bitter coffee and soft, crumbling croissants. I occupy front row seats to look at still-fairly-sparse crowds of travelers walk across the atrium towards waiting trains and large schedule-boards.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

1 - Learning to fly.

I have some four hours to spend at the Bangalore airport. The chairs in the lounge arch backwards, but stop short of reclining. There is the uncertain discomfort of whether you should attempt to sit or lie down. I quit reading and do an easy saunter around the lounge.

A posse of Kingfisher air hostesses arrives with their flaming-red baggage. They wait for their luggage to get stowed away - their duty hours are yet to begin. They confer in hushed whispers, sometimes letting occasional smiles and jokes break through their trained mannerisms. The occasional anxiety and frown peeps out from behind the pink make-up and powder. One of them twiddles the blue ribbon of an Indigo check in queue that reads - 'no red tape'. The counter at the end of the ribbons is closed.

**

The coffee day bar has deep red for backdrop, with an occasional glow of mild lighting. The three tables inside arent enough for the crowd, so people step outside under a yellow stained-glass like glass ceiling. People in the queue try and balance their baggage as they dig into their pockets.

A woman with sunglasses balanced above her forehead extracts the change she needs. She spots two suit-boot clad men and greets them with a shout - "Hello! You're going to Bombay too? Which flight? We should have come from office together!". It's yet another Friday evening.

**

You realize airports do not afford you as much space or variety of views as railway stations. All I had was a fairly big hall some 100 metres across. Most stations give me the choice of the length of a multitude of platforms, as well as space outside the station. Security threats and all that ensured that I couldnt exit this hall. If only for a change of scene, I check in my baggage and move inwards into another lounge.

The inner pre-boarding lounge has commerce aplenty too. Amid the self improvement books and fiction and HBR compendia, I cant help notice one book that claims to help overcome the influence of cults, written by 'America's best known intervention specialist'.

Coffee, sandwiches, biscuits abound - but no meals, nothing that can fill a stomach. No restaurants or tables - so you've to eat amid the rows of chairs sprawled across the lounge. There are shirts and ties and designer jewelry - you sometimes wonder who precisely is it that buys these. Prices leap up as you go from the outer to the inner lounge. Airports seem to be a trifle more demanding, perhaps because they deem these boarding areas their sanctum sanctorum.

**
There's the vague feeling of boredom in the air. People know there's a late night commute-after-flight that stands between them and the weekend. Sleep is still a couple of hours distant. People chomp on sandwiches and biscuits and stare into nothingness. My flight is still one hour away. This isn’t quite a comfort zone.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Train of thought 4.75 - One hour in the last town

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 .

**

Dibrugarh station is about as big as some of the double-track town-stations through which express trains whizz by without a second glance. The overbridge stands out, emphasised perhaps by the paucity of people on the platforms. The sun is up-and-shining by now, the 5:40am here is like the 9am of elsewhere. Still, the weather is beautiful and clear – no fog or rain, tis bright and cloudless.

Going past the mud-and-puddle filled front yard, I move out of the station, and walk towards the row of cycle rickshaws. I don’t quite know where to tell them to go. I think I should perhaps just walk around town. I’ve an hour here, and no idea how big the town is, so a rickshaw would be in order after all.

“Okay. Take me on a trip around town.”

“Uhh? Where do you want to go?”

“Well, I’ve an hour here, so I want to see the town.”

“Eh?”

I’ve seen that ‘you’re crazy’ look before, yesssir.

“Okay. Take me to the bus stand. How much is it?”

“10 bucks.”

En route, I tell him to chuck the bus stand and just show me what’s worth seeing in the town.

“But there’s nothing worth seeing here.”

“Well, the streets. The shops. The like.”

“It’s not even 6. Nothing’s going to be open now.”

Ahh. It’s warm, nearly getting hot, I forget that it’s effectively a different time zone.

“That’s okay. Let’s just go around the big streets of your town.”

The empty ‘big streets’ seem to have no other prominent attribute other than their width. The ‘big streets’ haven’t been claimed by commerce – they are residential just as well. They’re just uber-wide bylanes. There’s not too much of a concentration of signboards and shutters and hoardings around. Mostly homes and porches and parked cycles and bikes and coloured wooden doors opening out onto the street.

Once in a while, there’s a wide front lobby that my rickshaw-man points out as a ‘major shop’, but most places are closed, boarded up. I have to remind myself that it’s still 6am, even though it’s broad daylight. There’s one two-storied building with a glass façade that I’m told is a prominent hotel – would I like to stay here? For a fraction of a second, I’m tempted to agree.

**

“Perhaps you’d like to see the river?”

“There’s a river here?!”

“The Brahmaputra”

Augggh. Dammit. Brahms!? Why didn’t I know that before? Of course, because I refused to look up information online, because I thought that would be like skipping to the last chapter of a mystery novel. Because I thought it’d sour any element of surprise.

“Sure thing. Go right ahead.”, say I, camouflaging my excitement with a difficult, unstable calm.

We pass a private bus agency. To be precise, we pass the painted board above the closed office. I remember the milestone on the road just outside Dibrugarh telling me Jorhat is 145km away. Temptation wells up again, growing steadily until it threatens to overwhelm existing plans. Plan B seems tantalizingly possible. I know there is a Jorhat Guwahati train leaving around 2pm, and I tell myself I’ll comfortably catch the Dibrugarh-Amritsar Express in Guwahati. For a couple of hundred bucks, that’s great RoI, say I.

Practicality, unfortunately, arrives. Some consideration, and plan is shelved. Some more money, some more time on my hands and I wouldn’t mind the uncertainties of that unscheduled detour. Not today, alas.

Hindsight vindicates me – I find in the evening that the Jorhat train's arrival is half an hour after the Amritsar one’s departure. Still, I cant quite help a tinge of regret at missing out. Next time, I’m coming here without reservations.

**

From the main road, we enter an opening between buildings that’s supposed to be a path. Stones and hardened-mud lie ahead. The rickshaw guy tells me the river’s just beyond the end of this lane. The rickshaw struggles over the stones-and-hard-mud, so I just tell him I’ll walk – no point torturing his rickshaw on this monstrous path.

We walk between a row of huts, and then pass a board advertising a ferry service across the river. Temptation puffs up yet again. This time, it brings some regret along, perhaps knowing too well that the trip cant be done.

When we reach the river bank, I’m puzzled. This is a small water body – some 30-40 metres across, staid, calm, almost like a canal. Surely this isn’t the grand swirling mini-sea that I saw outside Guwahati? No, no, tells my rickshaw guy – what you see is just a mid-river island across the water. There’s a massive part of the river on the other side of the island – it’s bigger than you've imagined. If only you had the time, he adds with a tinge of infectious regret.

I fold my arms and brace myself, for there’re gusts of cold air, even as the sunlight beams down. There’re some 20-25 men and women in sweaters and scarves waiting on a bench for the morning’s ferry, whose services are advertised by another board. The ferry, my rickshaw guy says, is the only way to go across – there’s no land route.

Sigh. The few times you manage to resist temptation end up being the few times your best experiences loom ahead.

The chill in the air is suffused with the warmth of the sun that’s sprouted and fully come out. There’s a wall-less shack that exhibits glass-jars full of biscuits and rusks. We walk in, sit down on the raised-planks of wood.

“Two cups of tea.”

“Biscuits? Nashta?” asks our 10 year old waiter.

“Nahi. Phir kabhi lenge.” I so want to mean what I said. It’s 6:15am, and I so do want to come back here. Perhaps spend a couple of days, drive around town, go across river, explore roads and places in the vicinity of the place.

The tea is a sugarless, strong concoction with very little milk. I let the intense, almost-bitter-ness of the taste linger on my tongue. The heat of the glass-tumbler-with-vertical-rims passes through to my chilled hands.

**

I have to hurry the poor rickshaw-man on our way back to the station – he halts at the station gate with some 3 minutes left for the train’s departure. For a moment, I mull about how much to pay the guy. Quickly making my mind up, I thrust a 100-buck-note into his hands and go in.

The guard tells me there's five minutes left, so I manage pick up a couple of omlettes with some scrawny, thin bread. As I walk alongside the train, it jerks itself alive and into motion. I clutch the left railing, and balancing the food in my right hand and bag on my back, hoist myself into the now-inching-ahead bogie.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Train of thought 4.5 - The Easternmost point on the Indian Railways

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).

**

My bones feel squeaky, and produce occasional snapping noises like cracking knuckles. Muscles feel like they’ve decayed to a pulp, and seem to be in a squashed, rubbery, gooey state. When the only energy expenditure you’ve done in four days is walking-to-door-and-standing-there-and-return-to-seat, you understand why the body feels uncomfortably stifled, trapped within itself. Having eaten frugally over these days hasn’t helped ease the bodily rustiness.

The hour-long stop at Guwahati, then, is just what the doc ordered. One walk all the way up and down the platform, and the muscles and bones feel slightly better. That, even though there is this persistently uneasy feeling that the paunch is slowly expanding, growing – some tummy patting gives little consolation.

I’m now right in front of the engine, having walked across the tracks and come back. I think it’d be neat to be photographed on the track between the engine-with-torchlight-headlamp that’s on one side and the signal-post-with-red-light that glares out on the other.

And before I know it, the engine leaps out from where it parks, having decided that it is time to depart, for it was already running late. It is, you’ll realize, extremely unfunny when you’re some 20 metres away from a million tonne railway engine hauling a billion tonne train, and when the said engine-and-train abruptly decide they’re going make a lunge towards you.

Yes, so 20 metres are perhaps 20 metres too many. But there still is the small matter of registering the engine’s pounce, activating instinct-of-self-preservation, leaping off the track, panting, recovering, immediately recognizing the fact that you still have to get into the train, reactivating instincts-and-reflexes, commanding whiny legs to run back like crazy, braking at just the right moment, turn around in an instant, start running in the other direction and simultaneously leaping into the speeding train.

All ended well, as you’ll have guessed by now – the episode culminated in a new world record for the aforementioned series of actions.

**

I pry my eyes open, and push the white bedsheets away. There’s mild, slight light outside the window. The watch shows a quarter to 5. I mutter a ‘huh?’ to myself. The train’s stopped. I slowly, sleepily totter to the door.

Tis New Tinsukia, under an hour from destination. There’s a gentle, soft sunlight that’s spread on the clean platform that’s hardly peopled. The station clock confirms that it indeed is a quarter to 5. It takes a while to realize that I’m now so far east that the day begins and ends much sooner – it really should be in a different time zone.

The compartment, fully occupied from Delhi till yesterday night, is only one-third or so full now. Everyone around has gotten off at various points of time in the night. No matter how often you’ve travelled, how often you’ve seen the here-today-gone-the-next-station nature of train travellers, you can never really help feeling vacant, weird when you wake up to see empty berths and seats, vacant luggage-less aisles. This, even though the infinitesimal familiarity you have with your-fellow travellers is further diluted by your parking at the door most of the journey.

**

Dibrugarh arrives at5:35 am. Getting to the Easternmost point on the Indian Railways has an Everest-ish thrill while map-gazing, while fantasizing. Reaching Dibrugarh for real doesn’t have the adrenalin-and-excitement of the fantasies – there’s a calm, an understated peace about it that makes you feel content about all that’s come on the way. I look out from the door as the train squeals slowly through the suburbs of the town. I realize I don’t quite know what to expect from Dibrugarh Town. I mean, hey, so it’s the Easternmost point on the Indian Railway. But what’s an Easternmost-point-on-a-railway *supposed* to look like? And what is one supposed to do, having gotten to the Easternmost-point-on-a-railway?

Still, the anticipation, the expectation that has been building up all these days has been quite an experience. The build up is somewhat like the trip to Chamarajnagar station that I did when I was 8 or so. Chamarajnagar was(and is) the dead end before the Nilgiris thwart any attempts at railway line building. I remember the days before that trip, almost jumping in expectation of seeing a place where the tracks would just stop. They just wouldn’t go further, and I couldn’t imagine *how* that would be possible. I mean, hey, tracks are supposed to go on and on and on, right? How could they just *not* continue?

Very often, when you do give yourself a build-up, such an eager sense of expectation, it turns out that your destination is much more familiar-seeming, much more un-exotic than you thought. You go far away from where you are, and yet you find the land, the people, the crowds aren’t new, aren’t novel. Somehow, not seeing something radically new doesn’t disappoint you – it’s a reassurance, a comfort, a feeling of belonging. Perhaps that just means you’ve made your peace with the place.

**

So, what plans have I for Dibrugarh town? Scheduled arrival is 5am, and I’ve planned a fleeting, running view of the town before moving out by the Dibrugarh-Amritsar express that leaves 6:45am. That just so I can see the 567km Dibrugarh-to-Guwahati stretch in the daytime(the stretch that passed in the night while arriving). The 5:35am arrival leaves just around an hour to check out the town.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Train of thought 4 - Further East

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).

**
The moisture in the air makes every deep breath thicker, more refreshing, particularly when the train speeds through open pastures. Soon, there's Kishanganj and the West Bengal border. The broad, vacant NH31 that wafts some way off looks inviting.

**
Some way on, the much anticipated New Jalpaiguri arrives. Much anticipated, because it's one of those places whose only significance arises from the fact that it's a railway junction. Jolarpettai, Mughalsarai, Daund and Londa spring to mind as finest examples of this rather alluring species.

There's really no commerce, industry or activity intrinsic to these places, no crowds or overreaching urbaneness anywhere nearby. However, it is these towns' status as railheads gives them a supreme importance. What commerce there is revolves around the trains and transport.

Railway travelers who switch trains know that these places are the old faithful, even though they've probably never stayed here. They know of the multiple platforms and huge station premises and availability of trains anytime anywhere. Even those who arent quite regulars know that these stations command 20 minute halts, and speak of them with a reverence that befits such a status.

New Jalpaiguri, then, is the archetypal frontier town. It seems designed more as a marker, a milestone than to actually harbour people. It really wants no role other than that of a junction. One grand, massive railway station, and seas of uninhabited nothingness along the tracks on either side. You walk up to the engine, and you can see the fields and emptiness right ahead. I keep thinking of Jolarpettai, and fond memories of one-evening-amid-the-sunset there pop up. I've only 20 minutes here now, but am reassured by the prospect of a 5 hour wait-for-train here while returning.


**

Among other passengers is a young lady with dad. Splits life between Delhi and her town in East Assam, where she's headed with Dad. Isnt that the town where there was a major shootout last week, I ask. Oh well, happens so often, we dont really notice it. Once again, I don’t quite feel like the 'we always imagine it all happens to someone else' line, so I shush. As if sensing what was left unsaid, she says - of course, it helps that nobody in your immediate life has been caught up in the violence so far.

So, where was I going? Umm, err, say I. Pleasure trip around the country, say I. Like all travelers, she isnt content, and asks for more information. Sighing, I give brief outline of intent.

"Some people have such a passion for travel", saith the lass.
"I've heard that one before. It means 'you're crazy'"
"No. Really. All I can say is wow. I wish I could do that sort of thing."
"Tis not too difficult. Sit at your comp, book a ticket, and you're on your way! For now, you could park at the door for starters. It's not dangerous. Really."

"Umm, yes. I'll say yes, but I'll lose interest when I think of actually making the plan. Reg. footboard, dad's around now. Maybe the next time, I'll travel alone."

As the train clangs over a bridge, I spot the name of the river. I ask the young lady if that indeed is the river she's been named after. She blushes and nods.

**

"So, you must've met interesing people while traveling."

"Oh yes, tis fun, that." say I. The man-at-door-near-Mathura comes readily to mind. Nopey, not that, I cant be saying that! I do, however, tell her about the young woman at Jhansi who'd read the Hitchhiker's in Hebrew. We'd spent half a night and early morning morning walking around in crazy cold, warming ourselves by the impromptu mini-bonfires that had sprung up on the sparse platform. And while leaving, decided we wouldnt trade numbers or email IDs, and would just disappear to each other. (That, by the way, was in the hours preceding that cult classic – the Gwalior Barauni Mail).

"Well, nobody you meet on a journey is a permanent presence. Everything is transient - here today, and when you wake up tomorrow morning - poof, they're gone. That way, tis a bit like a microcosm of life in general - you cant quite expect anything to last forever. Once a journey is done, the only place it really exists is in your head."

"I'll probably never see some of these places again. At any rate, I'll never stop over and stay at these places. Knowing that you’ll never own some things, that you’ll never be a permanent part of some things doesn’t stop from loving, enjoying, appreciating them. See, you and I will never meet again. We still talk, just for this moment".

She tries to sound somewhat offended at that suggestion. "I might just pay you a visit at your post-retirement-happily-ever-after-tea-estate-villa. I hope you'll remember me then.".

**

There arent any hills like you've been told, no tea estates. Just rice fields that stretch on. These are a shade of intense green, evenly spread out like a vast trampoline. No light, faded or dusty shades of green here - just bright, clean, almost wet green that lies low enough to give you a view of the vast horizon.

As Assam is entered, the towns, the roads look more leisurely, less frantic, with plenty of space for themselves. Late in the evening, just after darkness descends, the train slows down, and ponderously, steadily goes with a slow rattle across the Brahmaputra, which is wide enough to look like an arm of a sea. There're city lights of Guwahati twinkling in the darkness, there're the lit up hills that adjoin the said city, there're glimmers in the vast water stretch right underneath me.