As was my wont whenever I am at a railway station, I began scouring for comic books in the magazine stand. From the limited few they had there, I picked up a couple of ‘Chacha Chaudhary’ and ‘Billoo’ digests(yes, I am a sucker for nostalgia), along with a newspaper. Pleased with myself, I sauntered back to my bogie while the cool October breeze ruffled my hair. Before I could enter, I noticed a group of men clad in green uniforms actively cleaning every part of the bogie I was in. I realized then that similar groups were simultaneously at work at every single bogie of the train; all very hurriedly but very effectively. Suffice to say, I was quite impressed.
|At the now pretty looking Pendra Road station
Back to my seat, I began leafing through my comics while the train jerked and began moving.
The Kolkata Shalimar - Udaipur City Weekly Express was right on time as it hurtled towards its next destination, while I and my father awaited its final one patiently. We had started last night and were to reach Udaipur – my naani ghar – the next morning at 9. Udaipur…The city of my soul. The city where some of the finest memories of my childhood remain rooted. Visiting Udaipur has always been nothing short of an event in my life. This time too was no different.
I had, however, a lot of time to kill. Long train journeys can be cumbersome, but if you know how to utilize your time inside an Indian train compartment, you will be fine.
One of the most compelling aspects of an Indian train journey is observing your co-passengers. I have always found the behaviour of the varied co-passengers I have come across quite intriguing; their different moods, their views on a variety of things, the way they dress and speak, are all points that I habitually take note of. That in long train journeys a bunch of strangers are packed together in a bogie for close to two days is something which really fascinates me. They eat and sleep in the same environment, often make bonds, share their life stories, and then never see each other ever again.
My fellow passengers on this journey were a middle-aged Marwari woman and her 10-year-old son. Before long, we got to talking; about her life in Kolkata and how she finds it difficult to handle two young children in today’s age. I had noticed that her son was completely engrossed on a mobile phone. It irked me and I brought this to her notice.
She shrugged and said, “I don’t like it myself, but there is not much that I can do about it either. Sometimes I give the phone to him just to shut him up. See I am a house-wife and have plenty of work to do while I am at home. There is a lot of stress. I can’t always tend to his entertainment. That is why I just give him the mobile so that he will be off my back for some time at least. I feel bad about it sometimes. But what to do? Things were different when we were young. Families were bigger and everyone lived together with much harmony, taking care of each other’s needs. We used to be very friendly even with our neighbours back then. As a child, I never got bored and would play all day with my cousins and neighbours. Things have changed a lot now. Everyone prefers to stay in their own bubble and there is hardly any genuine interaction. And all we have for entertainment are malls or mobile phones. Thus, to keep my kids entertained, I have to depend on these mobiles.”
I had no answer to counter this and understood her point of view. Things really had changed now; no matter how annoying it may seem to me, I thought sadly. My thoughts were broken by a poke. It was the little boy who, I had not noticed, was now sitting beside me. “Bhaiya, can I read your comics?” he asked me a tad shyly. “Sure” I said, and handed him the comic books while feeling pleased for some reason. Perhaps there was still hope…
One thing that perhaps every single person travelling in a train does enjoy is gazing outside the window at the world rushing by. I, for one, find it to be a deeply soothing activity. The panoramic view of the greenery around, the myriad faces of the people you see along with the contrasting emotions in them, and even the frequently changing habitation, are extremely captivating to take in.
It was daytime now and while most in the coach were lazing around, I just kept scanning the vibrant view outside. The sights and sounds of rural India never ceases to amaze me. What is even more fascinating is the changing landscape as you pass each state. Every state in our country has a distinct pattern of flora, color of the soil, language, appearance of the local people, and even the structure of the dwellings. You can get to observe all this just through the window of your train seat if you are willing to peer carefully enough.
The train was currently speeding forward and outside I saw a group of kids waving; at no one in particular, but just at the train itself, in absolute delight. A little further ahead, a man was getting ready to board his scooter while a woman, possibly his wife, stood near him with a bag in her hands. Behind them was their house: a small, simple dwelling with a couple of windows, just one room and an asbestos roof. Both of them were oblivious to the train zooming past them. The bolting train did not give me a chance to observe a little more, but I wondered what kind of a life the man would be leading. Was he content with what he had? Did he want a bigger home? Where would he now be travelling to?
It was amazing how far my train of thought could travel, I realized and smiled. That man doesn’t even know I exist, but for a couple of fleeting seconds I had got a glimpse into his life and felt connected to him for some reason. This is always the case whenever I travel in trains. I let my imagination run wild and begin relating to absolute strangers, even if it is for brief seconds.
I was brought out of my reverie by a soulful voice. It came from the seats behind me. Apparently, a group of Bengalis there, to pass time, had begun singing. Among the group was a middle-aged woman whose song, or rather the voice that she sung in, caught my attention. It was so mellifluous that everyone around had stopped what they were doing and craned their necks to get a better reception of her song. The words that she sang went something like this: “Ja Re… Ja Re Ure Ja Re Pakhi…” which literally meant ‘Go on O bird, go on, go fly away’.
I noted down the first few words of it in my notebook for future reference and then began enjoying the song. She sang with such heart and such enthusiasm that almost everyone in the bogie began clapping slowly with her dulcet rhythms. It was a beautiful moment. The train was moving into Madhya Pradesh and I could see the rich verdant greenery of the state for miles ahead. I kept my head on the window sill and listened to the woman sing with all her heart. “Aakashe akashe phire… ja phire apon neer-e…” The cloudy skies above were in perfect contrast to the vibrant voice below. It was a beautiful moment indeed…
My childhood is filled with countless memories of my previous train journeys to Udaipur. During those days, I, my brother and my mother, would travel to my naani ghar only during our school summer vacations. Those were good days, despite the fact that we travelled in the oppressive May heat in sleeper class coaches and despite the fact that we had to break our journey for lack of any direct trains to Udaipur. But just the fact that I would get the opportunity to visit my naani ghar and that too in a train was reason enough for me to get my adrenaline pumping. I loved travelling in trains then and the only opportunity for it arrived once a year.
I remember some images from those journeys very vividly: me sitting on the lower middle berth with my nose buried in my comics, my brother sitting at the window side (he would never let me sit there despite my vehement protests), and our mother sitting opposite from us. She would often narrate stories of her childhood in Udaipur to us; her favourite ones being how our Nana would prepare snacks for her after she returned from school to his eatery, how she would try and stop her eldest sister from thrashing pesky boys, and how our Nana had established his ‘hotel’ after endless hardships and hassles. Her face would glow particularly whilst narrating the last one. It would be pleasing to see her so animated and I would often egg her on for more stories.
These train journeys and the holidays following it was, in fact, the only real relaxation period that my mother would get. Her life as a housewife was quite grueling and she hardly got any reprise from it. Hence, during these train journeys, she would, more often than not, fall asleep for long periods; even while sitting. I used to find it amusing and regularly teased her for it as well. But deep down, I felt sorry for her; wishing that I could somehow ease her burden.
The long train journeys to Udaipur would also give me enough time to imagine how I was to spend my holidays there. My naani ghar was a massive place teeming with innumerable relatives: nanas, nanis, maamas and maasis; most of whom I shared a great rapport with. Lying on the upper berth, I would picture myself spending time in the many nooks and corners of the house, playing cricket in the open field there and visiting the different bazaars of the city and gorging on the wide assortment of snacks found there. Yes, I really savored those precious moments of envisaging.
However, there was one particular feature of these train journeys which stands out above everything else: the morning when the train would be about to enter Udaipur. The feeling of those mornings is quite incomparable really. I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning and sitting close to the window of my seat; trying to gape outside in the darkness and get a feel of the cold Rajasthan air. I would remain rooted to my spot until the rays of the sun would lift the cover of darkness and release the magnificence of Rajasthan to me. The unique structure of the stone walls around the local houses, the breathtaking mountains, the spectacular lushness; they would all be tremendously overwhelming and I would feast my eyes on them hungrily for as long as I could. Those few hours of waiting to get into Udaipur envelop a delightful part of my childhood that, thankfully, is retained somewhat even to this day.
My excitement would reach its zenith when the train would slowly but assuredly begin to chug into the Udaipur City station. The moment I would see the big yellow and black board featuring the name of the city, my heart would begin pumping like mad, the smile would never leave my face... My home away from home, greeting me into its arms…Pure bliss it was.
I also had this habit whenever I would dismount from the train onto the Udaipur station: of taking a long, deep breath; assuring myself that I am finally breathing the Udaipur air. It made me feel that all of this was indeed real. That the real adventure was now about to begin.
I could still feel the salty crumbs of the poha in my mouth, despite having had it more than an hour back at the Chittaurgarh station. Eating poha at Chiitaurgarh was almost like a tradition. It signaled the true arrival of Rajasthan to me. And now I knew that Udaipur was just more than an hour away.
|The customary snacks cart at the Chiitaurgarh station selling poha
I looked outside the window at the familiar sights whizzing by: the mountains, the stone walls, and the trees with some peacocks on them. A smile spread through my face. They were images I could never get bored of. Perhaps I did not feel the same level of thrill I once did on seeing them. But there still was that rush of excitement surging through me, albeit slightly abated, as Udaipur dawned closer.
A lot has changed in these past years. My naani ghar didn’t exude the same lure as it once did to me, the city too now bore a modern touch; peeling off several layers of its rustic charm with every passing day, my mother wasn’t there on the opposite seat to narrate any further tales of her adventures in Udaipur, my brother too wasn’t there beside me to fight for the window seat. I sat there in my berth all alone (my father was sitting in the seats behind me, talking to some Bengalis, and the woman and her son had gotten off at Kota the previous night), reflecting on the days gone by. Yes, things had changed. But my love for Udaipur hadn’t diminished. A part of me - the part which had spent many a glorious summers in the city - still remained alive there. I was hopeful that someday, in some of the city’s busy lanes or along the banks of some of its placid lakes, I will discover that part of me again.
With a loud honk, I was yet again brought back to the present. The train was now about to enter its destination. I hastily picked up my luggage and, along with my father, rushed towards the exit door. I peered out and was greeted by a familiar yellow and black board at the starting point of the station, featuring the words ‘Udaipur City’; the sun rays bouncing off of it and making it appear absolutely sparkling. My heart began pounding again. The smile too returned to my face. The city attracts me, pulls me towards it, like nothing ever has.
The train finally came to a halt and I got off. While everyone around me scuttled towards the exit, I took a moment to seep in the surroundings. With a long and deep breath, I calmed my nerves. Even if it was just four days that awaited me in the city, I knew that they would add another enchanting chapter to my Udaipur chronicles of love. I knew…I knew that I was home… My home away from home…
With those happy thoughts, I hurried ahead. The part of me lying in the heart of the city was waiting to be uncovered after all…
(To be concluded)