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 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.