Man, I love trains!!
Why do so few people talk to their fellow travellers on planes and why do some many talk to their neighbours on trains? I think it is because we view planes as mobile offices while train travel is time away from work; more like a vacation; a time to exhale and take stock; a time for diffused thought rather than focus; a time to relax. Planes produce the opposite effect. With no interruptions from colleagues or relatives, we pull out our computers and phones and get work done. Why is this? What is it about trains that promote community and conversation and what is it about planes that doesn’t?
I think it is the physical space and its design. Seats face each other on trains, engendering conversation. In planes, we are crammed like in a school bus, all facing the stewardesses in front, who point their hands left and right to demonstrate what could well be theorems or equations. Train compartments are ecosystems that force you to engage with your neighbours. Babies—and bananas– get passed around. Health tips are freely dispensed along with roti-sabzi or idli-chutney. Information and opinions are shared. People get drawn into conversation. Here’s how it happens.
I am returning from Kumbakonam to Bangalore– tapping away at my computer and listening desultorily to the conversation around me. The elderly gent sitting beside me is chatting with the elderly couple across us. The lady has a round face and a pleasant smile. Her husband is aquiline and thoughtful. They carry a blue Estee Lauder canvas bag that their niece has brought “from foreign.” The man beside me is travelling alone to visit grandchildren in Bangalore. They have been talking for an hour. I hear random phrases as I type.
“I had an angiogram last year. Lost 10 kgs.” Trains are like group therapy. You offer details of your life to perfect strangers with impunity. You take comfort from the knowledge that you’ll never see them again. Until you do and become friends.
Some time later: “What is the point of building canals if there is no water? No wonder farmers are committing suicide.”
Mostly, the two men talk. The woman smiles and nods. She looks maternal and comforting. The toddler with jingling anklets gravitates towards her. She is wearing a pink sari and has flowers in her hair but no bindi. She reminds me of my childhood doctor, Almas Rasheed, who had “white skin and black, black hair,” as my grandmother said. Indian women of the previous generation exude a certain contentment; a lack of bitterness certainly; an acceptance of life. They have their priorities right. They may not comment on world affairs but they know how to make a toddler smile.
The irony, I think. Here I am writing about community and conversation, and behaving exactly as I would in a plane. I am retreating behind a computer screen.
Suddenly the gent beside me asks, “What is the purpose of cursive, Madam?” He looks to be about sixty. “My grandson is in first standard and they are torturing him with cursive.”
“Heh?” I blink. The elderly couple sitting opposite us smile gently. They have been exchanging notes about grandchildren and await my answer. “Cursive?” I repeat stupidly.
“In my day, there was capital letters and small letters,” continues the man who asked the question. “Nowadays, the school says to write in cursive. What is cursive?” He knows what cursive writing is, of course. His fingers draw cursive letters in the air. His question is rhetorical so I don’t answer it.
“I know,” I agree. “Too much homework for little kids these days. Too much competition.”
“Tooooo much competition,” he agrees, drawing out the “ooo” for emphasis.
We complain congenially about how difficult schools are these days; and how many books children have to carry; and how their grandchildren have to go from tuition to tuition; and how there is no time for play. We close the topic with no resolution because more immediate concerns take over: specifically, our stomachs. It is 7:30 and dinner is discussed. They have both brought their dinner.
“I bought it from Ganesh Bhavan in Thanjavur station,” says the man beside me.
“That has become very expensive. You should stick to Krishna Bhavan,” says the man opposite us. “Our son is bringing us dinner at Trichy station. Call Rukhsana and tell her the train is running late,” he instructs his wife.
She calls her daughter-in-law. They advise me to buy biriyani packets in Trichy. The train stops. We all get out. Rukhsana is wearing a red salwar kameez. There is hugging and smiles. This time, it is the mother-in-law who talks, leaning forward animatedly. Devoid of discussions about world affairs, her husband stands there smiling and nodding—just as she had done in the train.
The family spots me staring at them from the door of the compartment. They wave. I wave back and return to my seat. Soon, the grandfather comes in with his grandsons. One is called Aatish and is at “Alpha School in Class 2 Section B.” His elder brother is Ahmed. They stare with frank curiosity at my vegetable biriyani. I offer some. They shake their head. They offer me idlis and garlic chutney, neatly packed by the daughter-in-law in a stainless steel tiffin box. I accept the chutney, which smells of mint and garlic. The horn sounds. They all rush out of the train. The grandparents peer out of the window, smiling and waving. The train gains speed. Half an hour passes.
Memories of train journeys are made through granular interactions such as this. Spend 36 hours on a train with someone as you travel from Kanyakumari to Kathgodam and you might as well marry into their family. After all, you have broken bread together; met their relatives at various stations; and have displayed the products and goods that make up your home—that have now been transformed into water bottles, food containers, and paan-daanis or paan holders. What else do good relationships need?
Shoba Narayan carries saunf (fennel) in sample-sized containers of Crème de la Mer.