Strangers on a train

Published: Jun 23, 2019, 05:38 IST | Paromita Vohra

"Don't worry. We are taking the same train till the first change, so we'll get you on."

Strangers on a train
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Paromita VohraI've travelled to many countries on my own and always managed to figure my way around. The 'developed' world, especially, is designed to minimise human dependence on humans. Maps, labels, signs: all help a newcomer navigate the system with relative smoothness. Germany, the native place of efficiency, was where I least expected to feel confused as I tried to get a train from Frankfurt to Weimar. Abandoning my independence, yaniki, machismo, I finally asked two young men near the ticket machine if it was the right one. They confirmed and then, to my surprise, began helping me buy the right ticket, which I was dismayed to discover, required two changes. "Don't worry. We are taking the same train till the first change, so we'll get you on."

On the train, they immediately cracked open some beer and toasted each other. I learned they were cousins, and from Nepal, which gave their neighbourly behaviour to me a double meaning. S, the younger one had just flown in from Nepal. "I came to receive him," said N, the older one. I smiled at the word 'receive', so desi. "Coming from another city just to receive him?" I asked. "Oh, it's absolutely necessary to come and meet someone when they've returned from home, you know?" I nodded, but thought how it's something we today consider inefficient, belonging to an older, sentimental era, but also one in which travel was an infrequent, more momentous occurrence. My father always met me at the airport, especially when I returned from abroad, but since his passing, it's a rarity. Indeed not necessary, but it does make you feel cared for.

S and N had been at the airport for about three hours after S's flight landed. "Because you have to carry many things for many people, some or the other items from home." All morning various people had come to the airport to collect their "some or the other items". "We don't even know who some are, just that their mom has sent achaar for them."
In the desi way, I mentioned to N that I knew a professor at the university where he works. "Oh my god. She is my boss," he cried. The filmi coincidence thrilled me. I have no idea why people complain about these coincidences in Bollywood. "Don't tell her about the beer," he said.

At the first station, S and N walked me to my platform. "It's not necessary," I kept saying. "I don't want to trouble you more." They just smiled. This was who they are.
We have come to view such gestures as unnecessary. The world — work, life relationships — is increasingly a marketplace and succeeding in it requires us to be efficient, to 'waste' no time, emotion, gesture or effort. It must all yield identifiable returns — better networks, optimal mental health, social importance, cultural cool quotient, at least, a good Instagram post. All else is dispensable.

When I described my train troubles to a German friend, she said, "Bah, German efficiency. It's a myth of long ago." But, the myth of efficiency is all too contemporary. Watching idyllic streams and genial clouds from my window, I thought the sweetness of strangers, the sharpness of achaar, the inefficient detours of love or kindness, are what make a constantly shifting world more liveable. What could be more efficient?

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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