“Faster than fairies, faster than witches ; Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches “
Each time I travel by train, I hear an echo of these words of R L Stevenson in the clackety clack of the wheels. The beauty and magic of watching the countryside hurtle past in brilliant flashes of colour is so correctly depicted in his poem. I’m a huge fan of train travel though unfortunately the frequency of my travels has come down a lot. I realized that my love affair with trains remained as passionate as ever when I travelled from my home town to Kochi, recently. The journey was a short one of 4 hours. But it was more than enough to get reacquainted with an old love. I was in train-heaven since I had managed to get the window seat. As a child, this was the most coveted seat and a lot of wrangling and bargaining was usually involved before it could be attained. Many a time I had to surrender it to my brother in spite of falling back on my last resort – tears. So this time when I got the window seat without having to kill anybody for it, I felt terribly happy. Even though I kept a very benign expression on my face, inside me was an ecstatic little girl doing a mad jig. When I look out through the glassed window, I’m taken back for a moment to my childhood when the trains ran on coal. There were no air-conditioned compartments and getting flecks of coal dust in the eyes was a part of travel.
I have my own ritual when I settle down in my seat; in fact I’ve seen many travellers with their own particular rituals of settling down. I always have a bottle of water and a couple of books with me. After pushing the bottle into its holder, and stowing my bigger bag overhead, I take out a book and settle down. Anybody glancing my way would be forgiven if they thought that I was getting ready for a long reading session. But the truth is that I hardly read, maybe a couple of pages at the most. The scenery outside has me in its grasp, and tearing myself away from that turns out to be an impossible task.
It was a somnolent lazy afternoon and it was a pleasure to lean back in my seat and surrender to the beauty of the countryside. I felt like I was watching a series of short movies because each scene came with its own mood and story. Railway lines usually pass behind houses, and the backyards give a more fascinating view of life than courtyards. The debris of life is collected in backyards and so many interesting facets of life are revealed in these bits and pieces. Abandoned tricycles give an indication of a child who has left his carefree years behind and stepped beyond the confines of his mother’s arms. Clothes merrily flapping on clothes-lines have me constructing elaborate pictures of the entire family in my mind, complete with visiting cousins and relatives.
Since it was a Sunday afternoon, the pace was more relaxed. Children were sitting around with cousins or friends, desultorily swapping stories or playing quiet games. Women could be seen relaxing after the hectic activities of the morning; older women with legs stretched out and younger ones grouped around, with laughter lighting up their faces and weariness reflecting in the droop of shoulders. At some houses, the husband and wife would be sitting on the steps unconscionably leaning into each other and sharing a few words, or sometimes just enjoying a quiet moment together. A glimpse of the scene is all I need to give free rein to my fertile imagination and before I know it we have reached the next station.
The importance of each railway station in the overall hierarchy is reflected in their appearance. I’m not a big fan of the busy stations with teeming humanity, blaring announcements, abundance of tiny kiosks and mountains of luggage stacked around. My favourites are the tiny stations that often have just two platforms, and where many of the trains do not halt. It’s in these tiny out-of-the-way stations that Nature makes its presence felt, with beautiful shady trees left untouched, flowers growing in riotous joy clambering over fences seemingly eager to hold conversations with the speeding trains, and wild greenery crowding around the platforms as if they too want to go on a journey.
Kerala is a riot of green at all times and amidst this when I see flashes of colour it immediately catches my eye. A little hen-coop is transported out of the ordinary by the bright blue tarpaulin stretched across its roof. A sunshine yellow tractor merrily chugging along in a field calls out to me. The most catchy image is that of a pink bus parked in the middle of a tiny bridge with passengers standing outside chatting comfortably. The overcast sky adds to the surreal nature of this scene. I would have loved to find out why the bus was parked in the middle of the bridge and why the passengers were not in a hurry.
But trains do not allow me to linger at one place. They take me onwards, to the next scene, the next story, and the next slice of life. I pass a small temple with a cleanly swept yard and no signs of life, and then a sparkling white mosque. Both waiting patiently to welcome believers, and dispense peace and relief to burdened minds and troubled souls. I’m also fascinated by the small unpaved roads, which abound in the countryside. They look very beguiling, with the richness of the brown earth in sharp contrast to the green around, gnarled roots poking out from the embankments on both sides, and an air of expectancy in the air. The roads that disappear around a bend are the most interesting, since I can have my choice of characters waiting beyond the bend. The destination remains a mystery, which only adds to their charm.
Just like the people I see along the way, the trees too have distinct characters. There are giant trees waiting motionless and with bated breath for the rains to fall from the overcast sky. Others tower near the railway tracks, with bended branches peeking inquisitively towards the trains, trying to figure out what happens inside the rectangles of light which rush past them all the time. Some of these denizens of the forest have the most amazing flowers and one that had flowers hanging downwards like pale feathery chandeliers enthralled me. They looked like fantastic props made by some eccentric designer.
Very soon it was time for me to leave this wondrous world of possibilities and discovery and get back to my life. It’s always a pleasure to get back home after a journey, but this time there’s a slight pang because I don’t know when I’ll be back on a train again. As we pulled into my station, I was swept along by the rush of people eager to reach their destinations. I seemed to be the only one looking at the dusty train with any signs of regret, but I’m sure there are many like me out there somewhere who hanker after the simple joys of train travel.