Chug Chug Gadi…

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CHUG CHUG GADI…The magic of Trains.

Most of what we see today in modern India is the legacy of what the British left us: English language, game of cricket, the bureaucracy, the parliamentary system and the largest network – viz. THE “Indian Railways”.

The iconic “chuk chuk gadi” that knits India together – up close  is truly a multi-sensory experience. From the time when one enters the platform, till the time one reaches a destination, there are a gamut of unforgettable sights, interesting people we meet and stories we become a part of.

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Life is just like a journey on a train:  with stations, stops, changing routes, delays and accidents. This ride is full of hellos, joys, surprises, sorrows, expectations and goodbyes! We don’t know at which station who will get off, and who will get on, making it all the more unpredictable and much more exciting!! We are all on this ride together. Like one big extended family!

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Train journey’s were much awaited and yes, the excitement was palpable; this was “family adventure” extraordinaire! A time for bonding, fun and frolic. Of course a lot of planning went into it- from debating which place to go, booking tickets  in advance and finally packing. Small and large, wooden & metal suitcases were brought out. Finally,  a rolled bedding, also called a “holdall”  with towels, pillows, sheets, would be  ensconced on one’s head on the day of travel.

I nostalgically recall the scene on the platform where people from diverse cultures and different social backgrounds gathered: some frantically running to fill the trademark big water jug, others desperately searching their names on the chart and many more bidding tearful goodbyes to their near and dear ones….

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Once inside the train, how can one forget quarreling for that precious window seat with one’s sibling?  the sheer excitement of climbing onto the uppermost berth?  the piercing whistles and the rhythmic chugging of the wheels? All a reminder of the joys of childhood and the thrill of an enchanting journey ahead…..

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See how R. L Stevenson sings in the poem “From a railway carriage” :

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses; hedges and ditches.

And charging along like troops in a battle

All through the meadows like horses and cables.

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as driving rain;

And ever again in the wink of an eye,

Painted stations whistle by.

Just like the poem resonates, the fast chugging train with my face peering through the window (and black soot covering my face) left me breathless, with sights to behold! From the quintessential lush fields of Punjab, scarecrows scaring little kids more than the sparrows,  sparsely populated villages of Madras, mighty mountains in the Western Ghats, gushing waterfalls in the monsoon, the thrill of tunnels right up to the Konkan coast- It was as if a painting was being sketched every minute! And I got to see the real India: rustic and earthy through an ever changing landscape.

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It was common to spend days and nights in the compartment. If you were unlucky enough to have your seat near the bathroom, strong odours would fill the air and your nose, even if one had a severe cold!  It all came as a package!!

Meal time was special.  In case you hadn’t bought food, there would be many smilingly willing to offer their dabbas. And Voila! You could choose from a variety of cuisines across India: idlis, thepla with pickle, pulao, fish, cutlets, jam sandwiches and more….To top it all, the vendors shouting, prancing around and offering “hot” delicacies like vada pav, cutlets, bhajjias and peanuts. And then…the eagerly awaited cha and kapi; magical potions that tasted different, each time, in every state!

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The long days whizzed past, as there was so much of entertainment on board! We all can relate to playing cards, antakshari and word games; not only with cousins and siblings but even fellow passengers. Cacophony was everywhere, making the ride even bumpier! You want to shout? Laugh or fart? Go right ahead…

There was entertainment from passengers as well. From the grumpy old uncle who was disturbed by a motley crew of rowdies, the shrieking cries of a new born infant, the newly married couple jostling to sit close to each other (shying away from peering eyes), or the wise man who was ever ready to advise anyone sitting next to him, to the saffron clad priest engrossed counting his beads; all the characters were alive as if from a rich novel or a teleserial.

And one wonders: Isn’t this what living in diversity is all about??? Isn’t this the very essence of life? Aren’t these memories and moments that shape us?

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A large part of my learnings have come from meeting these very fellow passengers: sharing food and water, lending a helping hand, picking up waste, gifting a smile, exchanging a seat, witnessing or solving a fight; and the list can go on and on….

I may have switched from the effervescent second class travel to the comfortable chair car or the more sophisticated first class coupe, but trains still fascinate me and I continue to enjoy the ride. It’s sad that the present generation (many of whom prefer air travel) are missing out on one of life’s mesmerizing moments,  replete with pure adventure!

It’s a place where one can find oneself as easily as one can lose oneself!

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I’m reminded of a song by Kishore Kumar which aptly sums up my feelings:

Gaadi bula rahi hai

Siti bajaa rahi hai

Chalna hi zindagi hai,

Chalati hi ja rahi hai…

Aate hai log, jaate hai log

Paani ke jaise rele ;

Jaane ke baad, aate hai yaad,

Guzare hue vo mele;

Yaaden mitaa rahi hai, yaaden banaa rahi hai…

Sab hain savar, dushman ke yaar

Jeena sikha rahi hai,

Marna sikha rahi hai…..

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Keep chug-chuging…. Keep exploring….vikas