March 24, 2005

Scenes in a train

A few vignettes from 24 hours spent on a second-class coach to Bangalore. More another time. Overwhelming impression: the sheer number of beggars.


At Daund, an old man looks in at me through the window and starts speaking in Tamil, asking for a few coins. In Daund? What makes him think I look like a Tamil speaker? I reply in Tamil, whereupon he switches to a smiling English. "Excuse me you sir, you give me one rupee OK mister?" I give him his rupee and he nods his head in appreciation and wanders off as the train starts moving.


Two performing kids get on somewhere. Actually a whole family of them, in walks up and down the train with dozy daughter on my shoulder, I see them crouched in the passage between carriages, trying to avoid the glare of passenger stares. This pair is a boy and a girl, he in a wildly painted face, once-smart but shabby clothes, and a thick cast on his right arm. She's a sullen thing who pouts at him, can't be more than 4 years old. He begins crooning Dhoom macha de which immediately endears him to my son, whose current all-time favourite song this is. To the beat of his arhythmic singing, she folds herself, still sullen, through a little metal ring that would not go over my head.


At Solapur, a vendor has excellent looking watermelon and sliced cucumber with masala plastered on. Mouthwatering stuff. We buy a few and gorge ourselves. We've been carefully packing our trash in a plastic bag, and the rinds from the watermelons go into the bag, which I then go out and dump into a trash can on the platform.

Am I pleased with myself for doing my bit to keep the station clean? Well, it seems a drop in a trash can, because up and down the train, people are eating watermelon and dumping their rinds either on the platform or onto the tracks.

A young man in a T-shirt with red stripes suddenly wriggles from the tracks under the train, between it and the platform, carrying two or three of the discarded rinds. He eats from them, eats what's left. Then he goes over to the can I've just filled. Leans in and picks out the rinds I've just thrown in there. Eats what's left from those. Vanishes.


Another young man suddenly appears at our compartment. There have been a steady stream of beggars, all 24 hours of our journey, but with this one, I have a hard time keeping my face impassive as I look at him. He is scooting along on his bottom, stopping to ask for coins at each compartment. His leg is draped around his neck. A bag of grapes hangs from his toes, at cheek level. He looks at me, into the depths of my soul, asking for money with a face just as impassive as I'm fighting to maintain.


The blind beggar couple wanders past, singing some tuneless song as they go. He, in front, reaches out with his hand to guide his way. I'm sitting right there, holding my daughter. He hand brushes her as he reaches for something to hold; she instinctively grabs onto his finger. His face breaks into a smile. "Beti", he says, quietly.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful - as a Welsh girl having only been to India once, you have transported me from my impersonal, anonymous office in the UK to be with you on the train journey. As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Kartik said...


I agree with you ... the hardest to control one's face (and emotions) is when someone (in this case of my own age) looks resigned and despondent to his/her fate ... whereas you KNOW that they'd actually lead lives probabl better than you if given the opp.

Trains ... they're supreme! Give me a hundred SpiceJets and Air Deccans and AirOnes ... the IR always rules!

-- TK

Vidushi said...

I am amused by the blind man who 'recognised' ur 'beti' (and her gender) when she grabbed his finger :)
A train journey in India has the ability to change you forever - and also the ability to bring you back from wherever one might have migrated...

Best wishes...

Anonymous said...

Took a trip in the unreserved compartment from Madras to Bombay three years ago just before leaving Indian soil to pursue grad studies in the US. U've brought back memories of that trip. The 24 odd hours that I spent atop the wooden rack inspire and haunt me to this day! Glad to see you echoing similar thoughts. Cheers~

Auburn, AL

NoHairBrain said...

Have always really enjoyed the train journeys back and forth Delhi on my way to Pilani :) Aint u a BITSian too ?

Anonymous said...

Read ur article on rediff - this is what one my friends friend had to say - irrelevant for this post - but could not resist sending it -

I don't think it is appropriate for any one to `just' give their opinion in this matter. Any `just opinions' would only make the issue murky. You are either for, or against American decision to deny an Indian elected official Visa on the explanation they gave for it. This is not about Modi, they have outright turned down Manmohan's request too. When the bigger issue is the total disregard of democratically elected Indian government, opinions about any
individuals are unnecessary. Imagine in a grave occasion like a funeral, if some one expressed their `opinion' on the deceased attire. Of course it would only be an opinion, but absolutely unnecessary and inappropriate. Every one has Opinions, but a sensible person understands when is it appropriate to express them. This isn't a issue about who is responsible for Godhra
violence. Refusal of visa to an elected Indian official, who has no criminal record, is a gross misuse of power. If u don't stand against disrespect for `your kinds'(Indians), than soon you will be the victim of the same. This is not just a secluded incident.
(Check this link
We Indians are constantly targeted with insults and humiliation. Only because we have become quite tolerant of insults to any thing Indian. Opinions throwing doubts on Modi's character (who is a representative of, apparently
ununified society), would dilute American abuse of authority. `Opinions' throwing doubts on Modi's character would weaken the resolve of those who feel the need to stand for the respect of themselves and their fellow men.