11:00 am, Sunday, 28th December. Poorva Express.
Another train. I’m so glad that I’ve traveled so much by train this year. And though this one promises to get me very late, I don’t really care. After all, late running trains is part and parcel of travel really, at least in my mind. We just got out of Patna, running a couple of hours late. Maybe we’ll make up the time. Anyways. Traveling in a first class coupe, first time in such luxury. Well, first time that I can remember definitely. Maybe the time I went with my family to Mussoorie way back in the early Nineties. But I don’t really remember. One of my co-passengers is this nice enough guy, who works in Essar in Gurgaon. He’s going home to check up on his father, who’s been hospitalized. The guy’s nice enough, and has some nice old Bengali music. Old Hemanta songs and the like. But his ‘western’ music scene is dire. Basically an entire album by Aqua! Oh well, you can’t have it all. The other guy in the coupe is this engineer from Calcutta, traveling on business. Struck me as a Hindutva type with his saffron kurta, and tika, and strings around his wrist. Figured I was right when the Bengali guy asked me if Israel was not doing the right thing by attacking Hamas outposts in Palestine. Before I could answer the Meerut guy piped in and said that Israel was the only country with any balls. So I kept quite. Guess I was right about him after all. Its guys like Eammon (that’s the Bong guy’s name, dunno how he spells it!) who’s heart’s gotta be won over. But I fear I’m not the ideal person for the job. Because as this Engineer Mr. Rawat makes clear, these right wingers (the educated ones) are very patient in explaining the whys and the wherefores of their prejudices. They believe their own logic and suffer from no self-doubt, which makes their discourse problematic, but also clear. Because they will otherwise be perfectly genteel urbane people. Maybe I’d even get along with Mr Rawat if the conversation were to be limited to train rides and how much fun they are.
Since last evening I’ve read a lot. Started off with a couple of New Yorkers from two years ago. Read a cracking piece on C S Lewis and his Anglicanism vis a vis his works, especially the fantastic Narnia books. Then read a great account of the death of the Reformist Movement in Iran on the eve of Ahmedinejad’s election way back in 2005. A very poignant story, especially the account of a then-27-year-old dissenting journalist/blogger, and the shit he has to go through for defending his belief in a free society. Read some other stuff as well, but these two were especially great. I love New Yorker I’ve decided. It joins The Guardian and National Geographic as my journals of choice. Today morning read quite a bit of Bill Bryson. That book is good, witty and immensely informative without being flippant or trite. There isn’t much of a style apart from the humour, but well, that’s quite enough, frankly. Space renders me awestruck. The vastness of it all, the loneliness and fragility of Earth’s existence in relation to the Universe humbles me. What was totally a trip was Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Finished reading it yesterday morning. Its one of those prized SF novels that haunt you long after you’ve ended it. Among its many many charms, Gateway probably has the single most fascinating and terrifying accounts of a black hole. Imagine, stuck in slow time, being sucked into a massive bluish THING five times the size of the sun. You’re stuck somewhere inside the black hole at Sagittarius AG, perhaps only a few minutes, while normal time has already aged centuries, millennia. And you’re trapped, for eternity, alive. Man, who are we? Just who are we? Insignificant, and at the same time so precious. We are like a solar flare upon the surface of the Universe. A blip really, a precious blip. And yet we hope to leave a mark. On posterity? I don’t know. True immortality could only be when beings on a world in a different Universe which we can’t comprehend will have the full account of humanity and celebrate this small fragile race of creatures on a small, beautiful blue world that is lost amidst the eddies of infinite time, of warped space. What other true immortality is there? Meanwhile, during this my very very short stay on this planet, I want to see it in all its beauty and horror. A minute little speck of carbon and methane, I want to participate in the world, and I want my participation to be in part an intellectual one, because that is the gift of my species, and that is its curse. Actually right now, I could do with some sex, maybe even a lot of it. Sigh. 11:44 am
Saw an Esbjorn Svensson Trio concert in the past one hour. This was them playing in Stockholm in 2000. Just like Lenny Breau before him, I’ve developed an intense liking for Esbjorn Svensson. Well, not him really as a solo artist, but for the E.S.T as a group. Can’t remember, rather can’t really spell their difficult Nordic names, but boy, are those three guys good. The sad thing is that since ES is dead, there’s very very slim chance of me hearing the other two ever again, except on E.S.T. albums or whatever live videos I can get hold of. Right now, I have two, the Stockholm one, and a superlative concert from 2003. Its one of those regrets of mine- I’ll never see them play live. Just imagine how fucking phenomenal that’d be. Especially when you consider all the second rate crap that comes to India during all those hyped Jazz Utsavs and the like. Right now I’m listening to their album, Good Morning Susie Soho. My favourite of the lot.. Must get my hands on their last album from earlier this year, Leucocyte. Funnily enough, I don’t think if I were to hear any ES solo I’d like it. Don’t think I would. (Spam-Boo-Limbo just started. LOVE IT!!!) He’s the quintessential trio guy. And what a trio. They feed off each other beautifully, switching between grooves, shifts in time signatures, keys. They play like a dream together. No matter how much of a genius ES might’ve been, the joy of hearing a band in full flow is just awesome. I’ll give an opposing example- Brad Meldhau. Now THAT guy’s absolutely brilliant solo. I was as blown away by his Live In Tokyo as by any of E.S.T.’s albums. Listening to his 19 min plus cover of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android sends shivers up my spine every time. The thing is, I downloaded a Brad Meldhau Trio album- Day Is Done, and though that’s quite good, but not as great as his solo stuff. In fact my favourite track off Day Is Done is his peerless solo reading of The Beatles’ Martha My Dear. So in the absence of ES, I guess Brad is one guy to follow. The trouble is that no matter how good he is, he just isn’t as electrifyingly brilliant as the E.S.T. Truly, what a loss. I must get my hands on their entire catalogue. Eammon just asked me if Metrogyl should be given to the train staff. Apparently the guy is suffering from an upset tummy. Oh, more news. Train’s 4 hours late. Which means we ain’t reaching before 10 pm or so. FUCK THAT!!! 1:00 pm
Just left Jasidih on the Jharkhand-Bengal border. Now that Lalu’s train has stopped leading the Poorva, we’re going as per schedule. Now my only wish is that we reach at 10. It would be nice to reach, though all things considered, its been a great journey so far. Spent a lot of time hanging out of the door. A very good thing to do while the sun’s still up and you’re getting bored. Beats staring at the laptop for sure, like a moron yuppie, which I seem to be turning into. So I’m standing there, watching people trying to barge into the general compartment next to our bogie (the irony! Cheapest next to the most expensive!) at Kiyul Junction. It’s a major one, as the steward confirms. I remember going off towards Purnia by train from this very place as a kid. Yes, says the steward, the other line does indeed head off towards Katihar Junction, the next big one near Purnia. In the rush at Kiyul, this old man bound for the general compartment only makes it as far as our gate. The steward, a nice middle aged Bihari man called Prosad, lets him up on the condition that he goes on to the general compartment at the next station. So anyways, I hang on. Its quite pretty outside. The stretch-till-infinity Gangetic plains is showing some bumps and slopes as it gets close to the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Now, as luck would have it, Lalu’s train (seven compartments long, according to some idling cops) are on the same line as ours heading towards Jamui, further down the track. This means that we get a red at every successive signal. Right outside Kiyul, a picturesque sight. The branching line in the distance has a long, solitary train on it, waiting for the green signal to approach Kiyul. Its blue and white in colour like most other expresses. Wonder where its coming from. Too far to read the lettering. It’s a pretty sight as I count the compartments- 13. I follow the line away towards the horizon (most train lines can be distinguished by the fact that they are usually upon a bankment, higher than the surrounding plains. Of course, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for in the first place). A large ridge appears in the middle of a sea of flat land. Looks like Ayer’s Rock. We approach it rapidly. The branching line goes around the other side of the ridge and is soon lost in the distance. From a distance it looks like a giant hillock but it IS a ridge, and a pretty long one at that. A couple of small villages at the bottom, with a large house on a smaller bump just before the ridge starts. Looks like the local zamindar’s haveli. From the train its difficult to say if its still inhabited.
As the train runs parallel to the ridge, we slow down. I crane my neck out and see a red signal in the distance. Here we go again. So we stop, the stragglers at the doors of the general compartment start getting off to stretch their legs, pee, or just stand around and spit. The conscientious old man wants to know if we’ve stopped at a station so he can go over to the correct compartment. I tell him to relax. Poor old man. After all he DOES have a ticket right? So what if it isn’t A/C? No reason for him to feel hassled unnecessarily. Three cops with massive rifles come and join me at the gate. They’re all butt ugly, but have nice enough grins. One of them gives me the news of Lalu’s train. Apparently he’s traveling in a 7-bogie train up-front with full fanfare, off to inaugurate a new platform in Jamui. As he speaks we start moving, and sure enough, as we pass by several level crossings, villages and ramshackle roads coming up to the train line from farms everywhere, right next to the train line, are throngs of men, women and children dressed in the gaudy colours of their Sunday best, waving their hands at the Poorva, as if every passing train holds the “Honourable Railway Minister, the Messiah of the Downtrodden, the Keeper of Lohia’s Flame, the Scourge of Communal Forces, the Charismatic (and now subject of Management Studies) Lalu Prasad Yadav.” Fluttering paper flags with the lantern symbol of RJD, Lalu’s party, fringe the train line. Its all quite fascinating.
Dunno why, but proximity to cops, no matter how friendly, makes me nervous. I guess they’re pigs, that’s why. So I go inside. Look around, nothing much happening. Rawat is sitting cross-legged staring out of the window while worrying some prayer beads. The old grandfather of the little baby (an occasional grinning/bawling visitor to our coupe) is sleeping on the bottom bunk. Eammon sees me and jumps down and sits between Rawat and me. Asks me if Lalu really should get the credit for the recent spectacular profits that the Railways have been posting. The political animal Rawat’s ears perk up. I tell Eammon what I think, that Ministers by themselves cannot achieve much. What good administrators do is help cut through the red tape and ensure that there are deserving public servants in the Ministry who can do a good job. Rawat agrees. Eammon and I talk a little about going to Cal, and how frequently we’re able to do it. Rawat can’t take it and asks me where I work. I’m sure he’s dying to know who this bearded Leftie is and why is Eammon (the everyman as it were, the person who the left and the right fights over) asking me political questions in a little awestruck way. So I smile sweetly at him and say, “India Today.” That’s that.
To avoid further conversation, I take out Bill Bryson and glance through the pages. We stop at Jamui, and then Jhanjha. This means that a) we’re finally rid of playing bridesmaid to Lalu’s train and b) we’re about to enter the Jharkhand part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Actually I realize that a good fifteen minutes after leaving Jhanjha. Chota Nagpur Plateau means ridges, and forests! I rush out to the doorway as the train is pulling out of a station. I open the door facing west, cause if my memory serves me well, the stuff to see will be on that side (if you were to take the Gaya line further to the south, instead of the Patna line that we’re on, then you’ve got to open the other door). And I was right. We are traveling through a rolling countryside of densely forested high ridges. Further west and south, ridges march out to the horizon, hazy in the light of the setting sun. Everything is bathed in a golden-silver light. We pass through deep cuttings, the train blaring out its horn, going faster at every turn, building up a head of steam. Well none of those around. More like a head of diesel. I’ve seen this countryside countless times from passing trains, but every time I see it, it awakens the same sense of wonder as the best myths do. It does look like a mythical, fairy tale landscape, the kind that Bibhutibhushan talks of in his peerless Aranyak. It’s the same landscape in fact. Little forest streams and rivers come up to the train line, shyly almost. A sudden deep culvert disorients, but soon passes. The track curves resolutely to the right, and then the left. I look forward and to the rear of the train. Its like I’m attached to this giant caterpillar. Ancient red brick walls act as cuts and channels, works of many generations past, separating the agent of civilization, the train line, from the primeval mysteries of the forests of the Plateau. The sunset makes it just right. If we’d passed through here at the correct time, it would’ve been around 11 in the morning. Good enough, but it wouldn’t have had a similar dramatic impact. I wonder why more Indians aren’t moved by this beauty that surrounds them. And by this I mean mostly urban India, because so much of rural India lives in or near landscapes like these. Why don’t people from the city bother? And as every time I pass through some place like this, some more of my heart is hardened towards the vacuousness of the modern urban, ignorant, technocratic India.
If you’re looking at the passing land from the train, pay attention to the occasional deep cuttings that the track passes through. Apart from reminding you of Ruskin Bond’s The Tiger in the Tunnel if you’ve read it, what you’ll notice is that every time you come out of a cutting, the landscape has changed in a very subtle way. What a cutting does is basically carve up a way through the most convenient rise or crest in this constantly undulating landscape At no point is it flat, and occasionally you’ll find yourself traveling through a bowl shaped valley with forested ridges on all sides. Its quite spectacular. In fact, its an even better sight if you’re on the Gaya line. Imagine the effort to get the Railways through here! Phenomenal. The scenery changes, predictably, with every cutting. Coming out of a final, long cut, I see that we’ve left the high ridges behind (the highest of which must be a good thousand or two feet high). We pass by the station of Simultala, famous to previous Bengali bhadralok generations as a charming beauty spot. A very British phrase isn’t it? That’s what the bhadralok thought. And who am I to scoff? It IS pretty. Even though the ridges are gone, the undulating land continues, as does the occasional patch of forest interspersed with patches of farmland. Its almost sundown, and people are returning from the fields with firewood, and produce, and their gaggle of cattle. There are dogs and goats and cows milling about everywhere. A few kids playing make-shift cricket on tilled fields. I’m watching all this when I get a massive fright. A speeding train rushes by in the opposite direction barely five feet from me. The sudden blaring horn and the rush of air from the speeding brute totally shocks me. I let go of the hand rails and jump ever so slightly. In an instant, I quickly grab hold of the rails. My heart’s still racing. What a brute. And what speed. Quite a rush. We approach a station. We stop. I get off, drink some tea. Pretty soon we’ll be entering Bengal. I smile at the thought.
5:51 pm. We passed by Chittaranjan a while back and are about to enter Asansol. Chittaranjan is where you enter Bengal. The steward says that we’ve made up some time and might even get to Howrah by 9 pm if all goes to plan. I’ll stop writing.