March 26, 2005

More scenes from a train

If it's vignettes of life in India I wanted, taking the train was the best idea in a long time. Herewith and hereunder, some more.


The men selling chikki -- that far more euphonious name for what the Americans call "peanut brittle" -- bring Richard Dawkins, of all people, to my mind. In his superb The Selfish Gene, Dawkins speaks of memes -- a word not unfamiliar to the blog world, I gather -- in this way. He discusses the old folk standard Auld Lang Syne, commonly sung at the New Year in the West. The last line goes "... for Auld Lang Syne." But it is now almost universally sung as "... for the sake of Auld Lang Syne." Why?

Dawkins theorizes that the "s" sound in "sake" is a sort of meme. Someone once sang the line and mistakenly inserted "sake"; the sibilant "s" sound caught on and spread like ... a meme, I suppose. Dawkins writes of how he manfully and loudly sings it the "correct" way when he's at one of these gatherings, but to no avail. "For the sake of..." is now firmly part of the song.

There's something to this theory, because chikki vendors among others stress (or should that be "stresssssss") any "s" sound in their patter. These guys say "Chikki, sweetssssss, timepasssss, tesssstee," on and on like that.

And I'm listening to this thinking, this has got to be the first time I've ever thought of Richard Dawkins on a train ride.


Every few hours, it seems, someone comes through cleaning the compartment and asking for a few coins in return. Once it's an old woman, barely able to bend over, but doing something nevertheless. More often, it's young kids, teenagers at most. Reach under our seats and between our bags with a grubby rag, pull out whatever bits of dust they find, push it along up the corridor to the other end. I know not what they do with it there.

One young boy does this, naked to his waist. Looking at him I know why. The rag he's using is his shirt. (Actually, I've seen this before, in Bombay's suburban trains). I look down the corridor, wondering if he will put his shirt on when he finishes. Of course, he doesn't -- he moves into the passage between coaches, heading for the next coach to continue cleaning passenger spaces with the shirt off his back.


The one possible problem with second-class compartments, especially on longer train rides, has always been the bathrooms. They tend to get dirty, shall we leave it at that. But on this ride, I notice that at nearly every station there's some kind of cleaning happening: great gushes of water pour from the outlets onto the track. And the bathrooms, while not spotless, are reasonably (and usably) clean all through the journey.

Except one western-style toilet. Well, it's not exactly dirty. But when I lift the seat, I notice why it has remained pretty clean. There's someone's purple kurta stuffed in there. Why? Who knowssss?


Several eunuchs come through. I know by now that the majority of them speak Tamil, so I always speak to them in that language. (Though I write this knowing that my Tamil friends will be laughing at the notion that I'm speaking Tamil). I'm not sure why, but it often seems to soften them a good deal. Perhaps Tamil is like that?

One of these eunuchs is a tall, strapping, athletic figure in a bright green salwar-kameez, a constant charming smile on her face. She speaks to me as I sit there, again with my daughter on my lap. The smile never leaving her face, she plays with the little girl's fingers, then tells me, "I'll never have a baby like her." And she moves on.


At Wadi Junction, an announcement about our train's arrival plays interminably, over and over again. It's past 8 at night, but the announcement begins, stubbornly, with "Good morning, you are welcome to Wadi Junction."


At some other anonymous night station where we don't stop but barrel through, the station master stands in front of his office with a green light. Why this odd custom, of the station master holding either a green flag or a light as trains pass?

Just a few feet beyond him is the lit porch of a small house, just beyond the platform. His house? In the porch, silhoutted against the house and with the light streaming through her dupatta, is a slender young woman, looking at him.

His wife, waiting for him to come back home after waving his green light?


Kartik said...

One of the best I've read ... I wish someone would compile a book with these short vignettes ... I'd BUY it!

Oh and Station-Master: to indicate a clear section ahead, that's why the green flag or light swings ever faithfully! :-)


Kartik said...
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