Traversing an imperfect past

Updated: Jun 20, 2020, 04:24 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

I used to think of journeys by long-distance trains across India as magical, but adulthood has changed that perception drastically

Police check the site of a train accident where migrant labourers sleeping on the track between Jalna and Aurangabad in Maharashtra were hit by a train on May 8. PIC/AFP
Police check the site of a train accident where migrant labourers sleeping on the track between Jalna and Aurangabad in Maharashtra were hit by a train on May 8. PIC/AFP

picMy parents, for reasons known only to them, used to take us to Chennai and Bangalore whenever school closed for the summer. They did this every year, without fail, for over a decade and a half. We had no relatives or friends in either city, but adults have all kinds of mysterious reasons for why they choose to do what they do. They must have explained why visiting other cities was impossible, of course, but I can't seem to recall that explanation. Maybe they just felt the need for something familiar, year after year, for which I can't blame them. Nostalgia can be a powerful drug.

What I remember most about those journeys aren't the destinations themselves — although I continue to retain a fondness for both cities — as much as the journeys by train. We would find ourselves at Victoria Terminus at unearthly hours, depending upon which train we had tickets for. The platforms would be filled with people of all kinds because that is how the middle class travelled back then before we all found air travel magically affordable. There were no fancy suitcases anywhere on display because this was India before liberalisation. All we had were massive trunks, like giant treasure chests, locked and tied up with rope, carried on the heads of porters who unerringly knew which platforms they needed to be deposited on.

There are other memories that come to mind, of random stops at tiny stations with names I no longer recall; the appearance of local food and fruit at windows whenever the train would halt; the undeniable pleasure of being rocked to sleep every night after climbing into a top bunk; the sheer magnificence of rural India whenever the train roared across a ravine or past uninhabited mountainsides that stretched into infinity; the agonising wait for a parent who would rush to a railway stall for water with the fear of being left behind.

I haven't been on a long-distance journey by train for years now and realised that the romantic notions I had about those journeys have long faded. I think this is the year in which I finally put to rest those unrealistic expectations of seeing my country through the windows of a train again. How could I, when confronted by visuals of chapatis lying on the tracks in the aftermath of that horrific accident in which innocent migrant workers lost their lives? How could I square my own memories of travel by train with those of India's poor, thousands of whom were packed into compartments like cattle and forced to go penniless into uncertain futures?

We often forget how heartless India can be to those who have nothing, the millions who toil in our cities for tiny sums and are thrust away without security the minute a crisis comes rolling in. Safe in our homes, with apps scheduling delivery times for groceries, we have casually put aside the massive tragedies unfolding around us because our government has failed on all fronts. I think of what it means to be broke and hungry on a journey that takes days to complete, and what it means for parents travelling with children. How do they explain why a packet of biscuits lying behind a glass counter just beyond reach outside the window cannot be procured? How do they manage only with water trickling from unreliable taps and hope for a meal at the end of their journeys?

Nostalgia tends to obscure the nasty bits of what it meant to engage with India. We paint rosy pictures of our past because we were privileged to see only what our income groups allowed us to see. Journeys by train in India are romantic for writers from the West because they make for great travel writing and anecdotes to be shared in local pubs. For every article that talks about how the Indian Railways are an astonishing feat of engineering, there should be facts and statistics put out on how money that is meant to improve amenities often fails to meet the claims being made. Walk into any train, irrespective of class or compartment, and look around for proof.

There is another reason why I now refuse to take a chance with any long-distance train. I may want to visit Bangalore again, for instance, and wake up in another state. After all, this is a country where trains have been known to vanish and ministers in charge of them don't seem to know where they have gone.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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