One early February morning this year I found myself at Mumbai CST railway station. It is the oldest and one of India’s largest railway stations. Arguably, it is also the most magnificent train station anywhere in the world.
It was in this historical setting that the Mandovi Express kept me waiting. It would be the first train in my month long journey across India.
There was a grand party of exactly three people to see me off, my mother & my best friends. They were concerned about my insanity, but made a fine effort of hiding it.
I was about to travel around India on 25 trains in 25 days.
What was so interesting about this journey?
Well, 25 trains in 25 days would be an interesting journey anywhere in the world. But in sleeper class (non air conditioned) trains in India even more so. My journey would take me to the last railway stations in every major direction of the great Indian railway. It would also put me on board the Darjeeling toy train, a world heritage site. I would travel on meter gauge lines which are almost but extinct. Among these 25 train journeys was also the Vivek express, the longest train journey in the country. It travels about 4300 kms from the southern tip of the country to the eastern end of the railway. It completes its 57 stop epic journey through 8 Indian states in 4 nights.
In some phases the journey would keep me on trains for 7 days at a stretch. And in 18 of the 25 nights, my bedroom would be the overflowing train compartment. The Indian railway would literally be my home in the days to come.
Here is what I learnt from this once in a lifetime journey:
People Make A Place:
India is a beautiful country and there is so much to be explored & experienced. But it is people who made this journey special and not just the sights.
The tea plantations of Dibrugarh may not stay in my memory for long, but Pranjal Prakash Kalita, his wife & kid will. My wallet, camera & phones were stolen on the last night of the journey on Vivek Express. It was Pranjal who came to my rescue. During the darkest hours of my journey, it was he and his family that restored my confidence and conviction. Great meals, a cosy bed and wonderful conversations were just few of the many things they offered to me. If it wasn’t for them, there is a good chance I would have given up 10 days into this trip.
Or in Kashmir, the snow and the mountains made for a pretty sight. But my memory jogs back to a charming Kashmiri man who offered me a bed in his home and the warmth of his friendship. In the cold Srinagar evening, our chat about Hollywood movies and life in Bombay will survive even when my memory fades away.
These experiences made me realise that a place without people is like a body without soul. It is kindness and love of people that makes any beautiful place worth visiting.
Diversity Is A Word We Don’t Really Comprehend:
That this world is a diverse place is common knowledge. As kids we are told this and we repeat this through our lives. But do we really understand what diversity means?
The train journeys made me realise that I did not fathom the magnitude of diversity of my country. Landscapes, people, culture, food and attitudes change with every hundred kilometers.
From the polite yet hesitant south Indians to the welcoming Punjabis; from the wild woods of Assam to the beautiful barren countryside of Rajasthan – I experienced a lot. And for the first time in my life I truly realised how diverse India is.
Rather than some people defining a narrow narrative, it is the diversity of the country that needs to be celebrated.
There is no single definition to anything, no single thought that surpasses other. We need to make room for everyone and everything. That is the true test of humanity.
Most Of Us Lead Other People’s Lives
As I hopped from one train to another, many young Indians in their twenties spoke to me. Each one of them had a great interest in my journey.
Inevitably, they would end up saying, “Wish I could do something like this too. But I cannot.”
On probing they would narrate their life story. Most people went to a particular university because their friends did the same. Others took a job they did not like because parents pressurized them to. And while they still wanted to experience & explore life, they were married off.
While this might be a peculiar Indian problem, other societies have their own issues. The individual’s true passion and desire gets lost most of the times. No matter what the external façade, many people are sad.
And this sadness can only be brushed off by action. The action of choosing what is right for you. But I do agree that it is easier said than done.
Ironically, being yourself is the most difficult thing to be.
Infrastructure Builds Dreams
It was naïve of me to never truly realise the power of infrastructure.
The Vivek Express is a link back home for people of North East India working or studying in the south.
Yes it is a four night long journey. But without this train, the way back home would be much longer.
Yes it is not the most comfortable of journeys. But for the young engineering student who gets to see his mother after exams comfort that hardly matters.
The train from Banihal to Baramulla is a relief for people in the Kashmir valley. Getting to the hospital in Srinagar is easier. For many people the train is a comfortable journey into and to get outside the valley.
Roads & trains are a great tool for national integration. Good connectivity and easy access gives people a sense of belonging like nothing else can.
Guns Don’t Need To Fire To Intimidate
Kashmir surely is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But when I got there, strangely enough, I noticed guns far more than the beauty.
It is one thing to look at a gun in movies or newspapers and quite another to live in its shadow. Guns do not need initiation to intimidate you.
Every railway station in the Kashmir valley was guarded like a fortress. It wasn’t like a war was ending or that it will arrive. It was almost as if, there was a raging war. Here and now.
In some areas of Assam the situation was similar. Paramilitary forces made their presence felt and there was a thick air of fear that accompanied them.
Of course I am no expert in geo-politics, or in anything else, for that matter. In my inexperienced view – war, guns and intimidation need to be avoided at all possible costs. It is impossible for a truly free & inspiring society to grow under the shadow of guns.
Like this, the Indian Railways gave me the greatest gifts. Some lessons on life and others on the country I call home.
Follow my journey as I travel to 12 different countries to take a challenge in each one of them. These challenges should end up in learning which will help me and probably be of some value to you too.
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