I’m quite certain of the existence of vast quantities of literature on trains and train journeys, but I am also quite certain that all of it is very different from the other. I know this because trains are unpredictable: they have not yet come under the purview of internationalism and professionalism, and differ vastly between not only countries, but between regions within countries, and indeed vary temporally too––the same train on the same day, in the same berth and coach, but with a gap of a month, will be quite different from the one taken earlier. Unlike flights, which have been hammered into uniformity and smooth shapes, by a combination of the possibly terrible consequences of even a slight disturbance, trains remain from an earlier generation, in which the suffering of a traveller is assumed, his expectations unexpressed (or even unthought), and if articulated, his complaints remain completely ignored. Though at times frustrating, tiring, and discouraging, train journeys offer some interesting experiences.
Put into such a small area, with no escape, passengers begin to talk, as this is seen as the best way to pass the time. Very few people actually see the time as something to be used; rather, it is seen as useless time, the time between work, or between family. Passengers are seen generally supine and snoring, or in animated talk about small things (important topics are generally avoided, possibly because of the lack of an escape route in case of a disagreement––is this conscious?) The tone is cordial and polite, and seldom are people rude to each other. Probably, this too is a measure taken to prevent uncomfortable situations and not a reflection of the quality of the people present. This shows also, that even the rudest and most beastly of people, feels personal discomfort at being rude to others, and generally does it only in open spaces and or if they are in a group. Indeed, a group of young men, even in the casual laboratory-experiment atmosphere of a train journey, are bound to misbehave, especially if there are some pretty young women around. But on the whole, we make a pleasant bunch.
If you are young and alone, attention is bound to fall upon you. Elderly gentlemen will engage you regardless of your lack of reciprocation and will insert small details of their life into the questions they are asking (because let’s be honest; people are more interested in themselves than they are in you).
In India, where boundaries between private and public do not exist, if one is slightly “different” (the difference lies more in quantity and not quality), the conversation is bound to get uncomfortable very soon.
On a recent journey, the eldering gentleman in my compartment yanked the direction of the conversation to religion with a simple question: ‘Hindu or Muslim?’ His omission of numerous other religions was out of ignorance rather than bigotry, and his reaction when I told him that I was in fact neither, and not only neither of these but none at all, was mild shock, followed by amusement. The conversation went like this (he spoke in Hindi, and the curious abruptness of his initial question and subsequent responses is unfortunately not clear upon translation):
Man: ‘Hindu or Muslim?’
Man: ‘You have to be one or the other.’
Me: ‘No. I’m nothing.’
Man: Arre, you have to be something or the other.’
Me: No. I’m nothing. I am, what they call ‘Naastik’ (atheist).
Man: Accha, you’re an atheist!
Man: I see, an atheist! (chuckles with amusement). He wore a dirty, golden-brown safari suit and a cheap golden watch and told me that he had been in a car accident near his hometown in Rajasthan––I never asked. The safari suit wasn’t the only thing ugly about him––in fact, everything was. The hair on his cuboidal head was oiled and lay plastered like thick, flat snakes. He had a look of utter boredom and on numerous occasions asked if I had movies on my laptop (the use of the word ‘picture’ to refer to the medium of film perhaps is an indication of his generation). And this wasn’t the only thing that betrayed his anachronism. Soon after finding out that I was on my way to meet my girlfriend, and armed already with the knowledge of my religious views, he probed further into the cast question, (identity is the only thing that matters to some people), and seemed disappointed when speaking about the unimportance of such matters in big cities. “Boys and girls just get married,” he said, “without regard for cast or level of household.” Ill-disguised was his follow up statement: “There’s a lot of goondagiri in Bangalore. So many prostitutes near Majestic.” Soon he realized that I wasn’t much for talking, but my change of compartment had more to do with the conversation ending than this revelation. Presently, I heard him talking to someone else about the car accident and happily for him, he had found some people who agreed that his unquestioning belief in God was what saved him from that brutal wreck. Perhaps now God could save him from the brutal wreck that was his life, I thought.