Train Journeys- Past and Present

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New Delhi Station

The Prayagraj: The familiar bleak friable landscape interspersed with algae ponds, cattle and livestock in different stages of thinness grazing on non-existent grass, the sparsely cultivated fields, thatched huts, semi naked children chasing mangy dogs, men huddled on charpoys or walking listlessly with the familiar ‘lota’ (metal mug) for their morning ablutions, women, head covered, engrossed in washing, cleaning. I was aboard the Prayagraj train, named after my home town Prayag and present Allahabad, after a gap of nearly 20 years and sat glued to the window not wanting to miss out the familiar sights.

The excitement was visible as on night of travel I arrived at New Delhi station at two hours before departure time to a deserted platform and wondering if had got the day wrong. Maybe I had the Freudian fear of missing a train and arriving at railway stations two hours ahead of time though unlike Freud I did not associate train travel with death. For Freud ‘Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey’. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’).

My misgivings proved wrong and within minutes the rush started and without undue effort deposited near my berth, second ac sleeper top berth near the entrance and the toilet. I was looking to swap my berth for a lower one. Second AC has two berths instead of three of Third AC sleeper, but my frail appearance did not soften male hearts. As one person I had requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’.

The ticket collector was Scarlet Pimpernel clone, elusive, and I resigned myself to the continuous footsteps and the all-pervasive urine odor from the rusty, rickety toilets (one is western and other squat).

An overnight train, the Prayagraj, is ideal for business or work commute but not for viewing the dusty plains of North India. I was awake early morning, 4 a.m. to preempt toilet use and for the first glimpse of the Gangetic plain awakening to dawn. I had done this journey umpteen times but the gap of 21 years made me curious about the changes as we crossed obscure hamlets, familiar not for their names but appearance, decrepit stations with platforms stacked with parcels and human bodies asleep or the in between naps, oblivious to the rattle of speeding trains. The familiar food carts, the tea stalls displaying the mud cups or khullars and their owners parroting ‘chai chai’ ( tea-tea) were missing. Station tea tastes best in earthen cups with aroma of leaves mingling with the mud smell. Fathepur,beyond Kanpur, had been my favored station to drink the special brew as the train arrives here early morning. Now we have the railway canteen authorised tea flasks and ceramic cups leaving us no option but to drink insipid tea.

Around 5 a.m., the filtering sun exposed derrières along tracks and at one place a group of boys ( four to six years old) appeared to be playing a game sitting in a circle. Not a pleasant early morning expose. There are no major cities on this route, till we touch Kanpur or Cawnpore of British India history. A history buff, I visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees. (The Indian Mutiny of 1847* ).

China:  Train Journey

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Beijing

There was still an hour to reach Allahabad and as I gazed into the horizon I compared the passing scenery with another train journey, in 2009, from Hong Kong to Beijing – Shanghai and back to Hong Kong. Then it was T 98 a superfast luxury train and the Soft Sleeper (four berths)compared with present situation had felt a luxury on wheels with clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights, air cons and new colored slippers for each occupant. The toilets were clean but towards end of journey, toilet hopping, it is a through train, appeared a better option.

View from trainThe train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, while a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains and the pastoral countryside metamorphosing into a clinical landscape of barracks and factories, the occasional residential complexes with children frolicking in puddles and the elderly smoking, squatting or working in fields.

Grey skies‘ would be a continuous phenomenon of our 10 day journey, as we approached the humongous Beijing station mid afternoon. Few days in Beijing and another train ride to Shanghai and this time in the swanky D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand-new 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating and we slid in quietly so as not to disturb the other passengers in the upper bunks of the 4 bunk Soft-sleeper. It was a twelve-hour night journey and we missed out the country sights.

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Shanghai Station

Shanghai station is a throwback of stations back home, except for its voluminous interiors, with escalators not working and no one to tell you where to go. The return journey to Hong Kong via T 99, in hard sleeper of 6 bunks, was a journey closer to real China train experience. The upper, middle and lower bunks cushioned bunk stacks and I spent my waking hours in the corridor sitting in one of the chairs placed for passenger comfort, peeping into adjoining cubicles with passengers trussed amongst bales, packets and luggage, playing Mahjong. We had planned the train journeys for a view of the countryside and to interact with the locals but it was nowhere near the ‘family’ atmosphere of Prayagraj, of camaraderie with friends, foes, acquaintances and strangers.

Past Journeys: My bonding with trains is probably a residual baggage of my mother’s accounts of journeys aboard the British India Railways, the compulsory every six months winding up the hills to Shimla, in the Himalayas and return to Delhi. Her stories were peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies safeguarding the steel trunks carrying the family ‘silver’ …clothes, ration, and household stuff.

The steam engines wove their magic in my psyche and as a six-year-old I would dream of traveling the Indian countryside in the chug-chug trains. My elder brother, probably in line with family tradition, joined the Railways via Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) Jamalpur, an institute started by the British to rope in the best brains to manage the railways. His first posting was in Bhusawal, Maharashtra and my mother, me and younger brother spent a summer in his cottage in the railway colony. At night we would be woken up by frantic calls from the linesmen about some derailment or another and often my brother had to rush to the scene. He had been assigned a carriage, with bunks, washroom and kitchenette attached to a goods or passenger train, depending where he was traveling. We joined him once for a regal ride from Bhusawal to Mumbai and Pune. The carriage, coupled at the end of a goods train for most part of the journey, was a dancing box and our mother spent the entire night worrying about being looted by robbers or being stranded in some vague station. It was an experience having the humongous railways at our service, the linesmen, station attendants waiting to welcome the Sahib with fruit and sweet baskets. Train travel took on another meaning.

New modes of transport did not lessen my fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across swathes of land whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.

 

Accidental Expat -2 Hong Kong

DSCN2888‘…. travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams (PICO IYER…’CAN A TRIP EVER BE AUTHENTIC’)

2000-2008…a period of hibernation, of re-locations from Muscat to New Delhi to Gurgaon, Haryana. Property boom and strong industrial base had transformed Gurgaon, a sleepy village with affiliations to Mahabharata (one of the religious tomes of India), into a New Delhi clone. We were lured by green vistas, pollution- free air and manageable traffic, little realizing that few years down the line the ‘Dream city’ would emulate New Delhi’s traffic congestions and unruly constructions.

IMG_0410Not surprisingly the seven-year itch surfaced and 2008 found us jetting our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. In between there were vacations to USA (meet with children), Singapore, and Thailand and cities within India. Every time we returned, Gurgaon would dip one notch lower in pollution index. The blue skies were fast disappearing to be replaced by perpetual grey, haze and smog.

Hong Kong: Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional laid back nation and the other glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s  lingering British influences amidst ‘Red’ mish-mash of opportunism is probably what lures visitors, us included, to its crowded streets embossed with glass fronted buildings. The British came in 1789 to what was then ‘Fragrant Harbour’, a sobriquet derived from the scents of trees and flowers that once adorned the hills and shores. They liked what they saw and stayed on finally being reminded of their status as over-stayers in 1997. One cannot blame them as ‘Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while… ultimately to succumb to the allure’ and continue to stay on. For millions who followed over the years, Hong Kong continues to be a dream destination despite being swamped by constructions, traffic fumes, odorous exhalations of raw meats and cigarettes and political shenanigans.

We came to Hong Kong in 2008, for a year, and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get our extensions stamped for two, three, seven and permanent residency. There was no single reason for taking root in this neatly packaged multi dimensional concrete locale balanced by yan ching mei ( essence of humanity) but combination of these assets that presented Hong Kong as an exotic experiment. Maybe, I was waiting for such a change.

hong Kong

Cuisine Trap: A clichéd way to knowing a country is to step on its food trail and my introduction to local cuisine was through Chin-India cuisine, Chinese cuisine flavored to Indian taste. The surprising part is that I am not a food person but differentiating the fake (Indian –Chinese) from the real was a choice I willingly made and splurged on the rainbow additions to my culinary choices. Other ‘food’ firsts were the squirming fishes in restaurant water tanks, different species and hues, and till date I ask a table farthest from the mini tanks. Wet markets were another self-imposed banned areas till my helper asked me to accompany her once,  Nose scrunched I followed her to realise that I had missed out on the color riot of fruits and vegetables.

Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders. The Island city is prodded and pricked with every alphabet and the F word is way out of the maze. The choice is unlimited from Michelin star, five-star or simply neighborhood open-air food stalls or the once popular Dai Pai Dongs, book cafes and fast food outlets.

ChinaDragon Boat festival The ‘food trail’ facilitated tasting of the esoteric and exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties and talking about it.

One year down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’ in words of Betty Mullard (KOWLOON TONG by PAUL THEROUX) became more than food exploration; it became a way of life. We changed residence from service apartment to a fully furnished apartment in Laguna Verde, Hung Hom, along the waterfront. My days followed a set pattern; morning and evening walks along Tsim Sha Sui (East) promenade watching ‘still’ fishers and seniors risking cold water dips in the Bay; walks in Hutchinson Park to gawk at feisty seniors in coordinated tees swinging to ‘Sugar…Sugar…Honey… Honey’; afternoons and evenings were leisure and writing times, social outings and television viewing. I discovered South Korean serials, watching most from start to finish.

Communication, as in Sultanate of Oman, was/is without bumps or lumps except when faced with unblinking faces in crowded MTR, the mute cashiers at general stores, the gruff fruit sellers at wet market stalls expecting  exact change or the ‘No cheap’ commenting shop assistants of brand showrooms because you happen to be from the Sub-continent.

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In seven years my discoveries multiplied, in step with the burgeoning verticality as I walked streets, alleys and subterranean air-conditioned walkways, checked on numerous eating-places metamorphosing with drop of chopstick, watched tenacious seventy year olds, bent back tiptoeing on tiny feet, pushing carts stacked with cardboard boxes through crowded pavements. My initial response was to help, but one withering look and I backed off. In a way it was an inspiration to step out of my comfort zone of ‘non-labor’. My glance went to her feet, tiny, but not the ‘iron feet’ of Chinese girls we had read in geography books, in school in India.

DSCN2641Talking with friends I learnt  that ‘iron feet’ was ‘lotus feet’, a custom of ‘applying painfully tight bindings to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth.’ This excruciating custom had originated from the upper classes, court dancers of Imperial China (Song dynasty) and percolated down to the masses, a status symbol of beauty and sexuality for a prestigious marriage. Dorothy Ko in ‘Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (2002)’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses. In 1887, Alicia Little, had referred to bound feet  ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.

I do not have ‘Lotus feet’ but my feet size is 4 and it was a joke in my hometown (India) that ‘ you will find your size only in China’. But I have a hard time finding my size amidst the present large shoe sizes of Hong Kong.  I see dainty, normal size feet and it is a relief that human frailties and their callous results consigned to the past.

 

IMG_3057Explorations and Visitations: 2008 onwards was also a period of acclimatization and exploration. Weekends saw us boarding ferries and public transport for surrounding islands (Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Lamma, Lantau), walking commercial streets and alleys, visiting temples, libraries, museums and to watch commercial and residential areas turn into grand commercial carnivals of decadence and expectations. The trips were ‘mystical flashes of belonging’, of windows opening to another life, of feeling confident about our move to an island country existing in different time zones.

Selfie sticks in Sham Shi Po market

The journey continues and when someone asks me ‘Don’t you miss your country’ my answer is ‘Why. Even after seven years of stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist’. (John Le Carre “When you leave Hong Kong,” …”it ceases to exist.” in The Honorable Schoolboy’.

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