By Rudrani das Gupta
9 August 2010, West Bengal, India. At the risk of making a broad generalization, I might venture to say that Indians, as a people are less private than many. The concept of “private space” doesn’t hold much ground as a rule. The personal and the public often overlap. Try an overnight journey in a train and you will know. For one day or more, I find myself sharing my life and personal routine with a few hundred strangers I have never met before.
The whole process of forced familiarity is very interesting. Mostly, we choose to let people into the gritty details of our personal life depending on how close we are to them. On a train journey, one has no choice but to. It can be nightmarish for those who have a snoring problem that they would rather keep hidden, or for those who like reading at night. We end up opening our bag of secrets to our co-passengers. All of it doesn’t happen at once, though.
At the very onset we remain in our seats, politely looking out of the window, or reading. No one talks to each other, barring a few curious glances. And then there is the Friendly Passenger. Every group of seats HAS to have one. This Friendly Passenger forms the core of the journey henceforth. It starts with the inevitable question, “Where are you headed?” While some respond freely and end up making conversation, others, like me for instance, answer reluctantly in closed sentences that do not permit any further query. Some even climb up to the top most bunk and rarely descend during the whole length of the journey. Again, that would include me. On train journeys where I am travelling alone, I become a recluse. Most of my time is spent in the top most bunk, reading and sleeping.
The ice breaking conversations are followed by people hauling out their bags of snacks. Everyone starts munching out of their respective polythene bags or containers. There is muri, (puffed rice) a popular favorite. Then the biscuits and the sweets and a variety of munchies made of wheat, corn and so on.
I rarely seem to have these munchies on me, since I prefer travelling light. With wonder, I watch these families who carry huge shopping bags filled with food for a mere overnight journey. They carry full course meals, including the pickle and the dessert. As the evening progresses, people start arranging their bunks for the night. If you are lucky (and prosperous) enough to be travelling in an air-conditioned coach, then there will be pillows, blankets and sheets provided. Travelling by ordinary sleeper class means you stretch yourself out on a bare bunk, much like riding a horse bareback.
Throughout these hours, one watches people opening up to one another. I have heard of entire life stories being exchanged in the course of a journey. One can see people constantly moving up and down the train, with toiletries and utensils in hand. It is like living in a moving colony of people.
For those who like it quiet, pray that you never land a music loving co-passenger. Experience has taught me that my music tastes never coincide with the person who is loudly blaring songs on his cellphone next to me. I have spent hours listening to maudlin romantic songs and loud devotional songs on loop. I have vainly glared at an old lady who chose to sing bhajans (devotional songs) out loud in a cracked and tuneless voice. While hearing her out, I suddenly knew for a certainty that wherever God was, he was certainly not here.
There are certain staples on a train journey in the country. Like the Friendly Passenger, there is also the group of Loud School/College Students. If you happen to be a part of them, then nothing could be better. But woe betide if you happen to be parked near them. You will be subjected to a stream of endless chatter, gossip about names you have never heard of, and songs. It could do one of two things. Either you would end up being nostalgic about the good old days, or you grit your teeth and look for the nearest machete. People settle down for the night, and soon the train becomes a sleepy caravan of muffled snores. The next morning is when one gets a sneak peak into the daily lives of the people around them. Armed with mugs and toothbrushes, people rush for the toilets. You know who the larks and the late risers are. You also find out the breakfast habits of your co-passengers! Once the train pulls into the station, people depart, mostly never to meet again.
We are forced into shared living because of a common destination. In history classes, we were always told about how this played a crucial role in the Indian freedom struggle. The British built railways to connect all parts of the country for their economic gain. But these railways in turn led people from all cultural backgrounds to freely mix with one another, leading to certain solidarity. Caste barriers, which had always kept the Indians apart, broke down as people were forced to spend days in the same train, next to one another.
In a country of millions, we live very cloistered lives. On a train however, one sees the substance that India is really made of: people of myriad cultures, backgrounds and histories.
Rudrani das Gupta is a freelance journalist based in West Bengal, India.