Train Journeys – What they were and what they are

The truth is, there is nothing romantic about train journeys any more. Years ago, when I was wondering what to write after my first novel, I thought of a romance that takes place on a train journey and even started writing it. I gave up after a few chapters because I wasn’t convinced about anything – the characters, the situation and I had no real idea what I was doing with that book. Nevertheless, train journeys had an element of fun more than romance when I was a child.

 

In fact, it was an adventure for us when we were young. My father preferred to travel by car so whenever we travelled by train, it was a novelty. Then years later, after he passed away, it became the preferred way of travel for us. In the pre-Uber and Ola days, there would be that worry about getting an auto to take us to the station for early morning train rides. Luggage tucked around our feet and at the back, we’d leave (usually for Vellore or Chennai) and the excitement would fully hit upon us with the nip in the air as the auto zoomed off on the traffic free roads.

 

The station was a place where I could cajole my mother into buying me a magazine which I would devour throughout the journey. If I was lucky, there would be a nice story in it but if not, I’d still enjoy reading whatever they printed in the magazines during the nineties. We usually travelled with my aunt and her children and they would either arrive after us or be there at the station. The cousin pack would reunite and we’d plan the card games we would play on the journey.

The Cousin Gang

The train would pull in to the station and amid worried shouts of whether we’d get inside in time (I don’t know why this had to be so stressful, really), we’d finally find our seats and settle down. The vendors would start walking through immediately and we were all keen on the vadais and cutlets and what not, even though my mother would have packed breakfast as well. People watching, looking outside the windows at the fields and mountains as they scudded by, playing card games even when it was not practical, listening with one ear to the elders as they gossiped…those were the train journeys of my childhood and teenage years.

 

In recent times, train travel has once again reduced drastically, barring the odd trip to Chennai on Shatabdi Express which is clean, convenient and easy. A few months ago however, we went to Hyderabad by train and none of us slept much because my younger son decided to play musical chairs (figuratively speaking) as he couldn’t decide where he wanted to sleep. I told myself the excitement of sleeping on a train is highly overrated, especially when you’re an adult who prefers a solid bed instead of a swinging seat that can’t decide if it wants to stay forwards or backwards.

 

Then recently, my mother, my son and I went to my hometown Vellore by one of our earlier favourites, the Lalbagh Express. As we left the station in the gently rolling train, it got crowded. And then some. My son was not happy at all but all I could see were the people around me, glued to their mobile phones.

 

A man sitting by the once coveted window seat didn’t look out or up even once as he was watching a movie on his phone, ear phones plugged in. He was oblivious to everything that happened around him. I suppose the window seat today is not for looking out but it’s more to be able to cocoon yourself from the rest of the world.

 

I pulled out my Kindle and then put it back in, just to observe people a little more. The children played games on mobile phones, people dozed with earphones plugged, probably dreaming of the songs in their naps. Then there was a couple who got on at a station and the moment they settled down, they got busy doing their own thing on their mobiles. I couldn’t figure out their dynamics – whether they were siblings or a married couple – the man watched something on his phone and the woman played Candy Crush. I was secretly judging them until I realised this could easily be my husband and I with the only difference that I would be reading a book on my phone.

 

In the futuristic end to my time traveling trilogy that was published in 2014, I’d written about people walking around in transparent bubbles, aware of only their little world. It’s not that much of an exaggeration really, because wherever we go, our mobiles are extending an invisible bubble around us, and nowhere is this more apparent on train journeys where earlier acquaintances were made, friendships formed and some even found love.

 

This piece was first published in Sunday Herald, Deccan Herald, 19th March, 2017.

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The Girls I Could Have Been

In January, while I was conducting creative writing workshops for children at a literature festival, I tried explaining to those present about the necessity of having grey shades in every character; after all, people are not completely bad or good in real life. I needn’t have bothered, because the children were completely into the bad guys. Who were their favourite bad guys?

Darth Vader. Joker. And Voldemort, apparently. Ouch. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I wanted to know why they loved them and one girl answered, “Because they don’t stop trying.” That statement has remained with me and I’ve repeated it to other writers and friends, marvelling at how insightful children are. A friend remarked that bad guys are doomed to failure, and yet, that never stops them from trying to achieve what they want and how surprising it is that a 12-year-old girl could understand this. But there’s something else that I’ve learned here, and it’s not that you have to be a bad guy to never stop trying.

No one should ever stop trying.

Okay, well, let me give a little context here. I belong to the Lababin community from Tamil Nadu, a very small and close-knit community, with orthodox views. In school, I missed out on an important excursion in class IX, an overnight trip to Belur and Halebid, towns in Karnataka’s Hassan district which were renowned for their distinct Hoysala era architecture. My mother was paranoid about sending me away for various reasons, not least among them being that girls in our families don’t go away with school friends, especially on overnight trips. So, I stayed back. I watched my entire class get on the buses as they left and I stood back, thinking that it’s okay. It’s sunk into my head more than two decades later that I had stopped trying and, perhaps, too soon.

If I’d persisted, maybe, and convinced my mother, I, too, would have joined the gang of girls who smeared toothpaste over sleeping faces and stayed up late at night telling ghost stories to each other. Giving others (mostly my mother) the benefit of the doubt was probably the reason why I missed out on several such outings and events. I felt protective of my mother because she was bringing us up alone and I’d like to think I was wise beyond my years when I wanted to make things easier for her. But, in retrospect, I think I was just complacent about letting things be. Why upset the apple cart? My mother was a young widow and life was difficult enough for her without me being rebellious — although being easygoing never really got me what I wanted!

Many other instances come to mind, where I let things be because I thought it just wouldn’t be possible for me to do it. I gave up before I even tried. There was one time in 2003 when I got a call from a friend about a possible three-month job and for some reason, before turning her down instantly (because girls in our families didn’t go out for work was the diktat I was subconsciously following), I decided I wanted to try it. I broached the topic cautiously with my family, and, to my surprise, they were okay with me trying it out because it was short term.

The three-month stint didn’t work out because the project was cancelled. But when the next opportunity came up, I took it. It was my first ever job as a technical writer, and, more than five years after all my contemporaries, I discovered the joys of financial freedom. Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. In fact, I remember, when I was in Class X, I didn’t even feel like attending career guidance classes because I thought it was useless for me — I hadn’t even considered the possibility of ever having a career. I realised then that I had set very low expectations from my life.

Fortunately, it turned out very differently. But it was possible, only because I tried. Over the years, I’ve done things that are so commonplace for a majority of women, and yet, unheard of in my family, particularly for women. I’ve travelled alone for literature festivals (yes, it is a big deal for my family), stayed alone in hotels in cities like Pune and Delhi (my mother is still aghast) and I’m just waiting to see what comes next.

People ask me if characters in my novels are like me, and it was true for only the first book I wrote. My protagonist Mehnaz resembled me in personality and her reactions to life and the many situations it presented were how I would have reacted as a teenager. From then onwards, I thought I was consciously stepping away from writing about characters who resemble me in any way.

However, what I’ve realised, is that I’ve actually been writing characters of girls I could have been. In most of my young adult books, particularly in Asmara’s Summer (2016), Asmara is the kind of girl I might have even shied away from, let alone be friends with or be her. Where I’m timid, she’s fiery. Where I’ve let things be, she doesn’t. It took me a bit of introspection to realise that Asmara and even Maria from When She Went Away (2015) are protagonists who do not let their fates decide their lives. They charge head on. And in a way, they are me, or they are girls I could have been. These girls are on the opposite end of the spectrum in so many ways and yet, they are my alter-ego.

At times like these, I feel fortunate to be a writer because I get to relive those years through the lives of my protagonists. In a way, it’s liberating to write about these girls who are so much in control of their own lives because it reminds me as well to never stop asking, never stop trying.

This piece was first published in The Indian Express, 19th February, 2017 

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