Notes from an Indian Train

​I’ve been in India for fifteen days now. In absolute chaos among family, friends and relatives. Overzealous festivities and get togethers have sucked the life out of me. After living two years out of India, in this visit, I feel that people have become unnecessarily over-religious. Even atheists hold a religious view now and hitherto apolitical folks have started taking right and left wing stands. It’s no longer easy here.

Heck, it’s never been. 

It is now, after all these days that I get the opportunity to travel in a train, finally, if only for an hour or so. It’s cramped inside the train. It’s a sleeper carriage, non air-conditioned. I can’t remember the last time I travelled in one. Men and women sit, sleep, squat and walk, all inside the narrow compartments of the carriage. 

Outside, the scenery is rather bland. Apart from a glimpse at the 2000 years old Sanchi Stupa, built by emperor Ashoka, from the train, there isn’t much to look forward to outside the window. 

Inside though, the scene is just picking up. A Gujarati speaking group dominates my compartment. They give me place to sit. One person is woken up by the other and then another one by someone else until everyone is wide awake, including a little girl by the name of (surprise, surprise!) Krishna. Someone tries switching the ceiling fans on and is aided by another man who strokes the wings of the fan by the rims of his spectacles, as if waking up the fan too from its morning slumber. The push works & the fan swings into action. An enduring task of ‘jamna‘ (lunch) ensues. Bags are withdrawn from under my seat. Then boxes after boxes of food stuff are extracted. There’s bread, there’s Gujrati snacks mixture (two varieties of it) from Gopal Farsan of Mumbai and there’s butter, there are ladoos, and another sweet meat. And well, that’s lunch. 

In between all this, one of the men takes out three miniature idols of a deity and places them on the berths. Here we go again, I think. Religiosity, even in a train. It’s only when I look at the idols, I’m myself a little captivated. They’re smaller than a Barbie doll would be. But eye-catchingly beautiful. A golden faced Lord, draped in long clothes of vivid colours, red, green, golden. He holds a golden flute between his hands. He’s Krishna, a God who’s associated with the most loving form of worship in Indian culture, Bhakti. The Chhatrapati Shivaji museum in Mumbai devotes an entire section to historical manuscripts and illustrations of the worship of Krishna. There’s no doubt that the idol evokes compassion, whether one believes in the God or not is a different question.
And yet, I wonder why the idols have been placed there in the first place. There could have been loud hymns, prayers, rituals, anything is possible in Indian trains. But nothing of the sort happens. Then, just as the first bread was smeared with butter, the first ladoos taken out and then first piece of the sweet picked, they are all arranged in a paper plate and placed infront of the deity, very quietly, very matter of factly. It’s an offering to the Lord before everyone starts their lunch. There is no fanfare. Just a plain act of devotion, or bhakti, as some would call it. In that one moment, I realize that it is this India I had been pining for all the time I remained away. A Gujarati family travelling from Mathura in the north to Mumbai in the far west. An old woman draped in a sari exactly the same way my grandmother does. Food, that adapts itself to the mode of travel, yet remains firmly devoted in the worship of a deity. A two thousand year old Stupa which houses remains of the Buddha. I had seen a microcosm in just an hour of train journey. 

Oh India, I missed you. The India of its trains. 

Rumblings from a bowl of Ladakhi Maggi

It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch  time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More

Of Jazeera, Janjira & Okra

The Dighis of janjira

The Dighis of janjira

He pushed a long pole into the shallow bed of the sea shore as the dighi (boat) slowly drifted into the blue-green waters of the Arabian Sea. ‘Ghai naku kara, ghai naku kara’ (Don’t hurry, don’t hurry!), the boatsman had shouted when this bunch of enthusiastic school children from a nearby village had tried to barge their way in the boat all at once, Read More

Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh Reprise – Zanskar

Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.

The smiles of childhood

The smiles of childhood

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.

A chiildhood to wake  up these views?

A childhood to wake up to these views?

Or some place like this?

Or some place like this?

And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.

School time in a pick up truck

School time in a pick up truck

Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Riding high

Riding high

The hotel owner's son.

The hotel owner’s son.

And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.

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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh

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This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The

The Many faces of Mumbai – One for the Birds!

On a cool winter morning, as one walks down the road to the Sewri jetty in Mumbai, it seems more like taking a guard of honour from the oversized trucks that line both sides of the road. Pass them, and the road opens up. Towards the left, a smattering of old ship wrecks marks the foreground. And beyond them, a rising Sun glints upon the Arabian Sea, trying to figure its way between the clouds and the smoke that mark the usual Mumbai sky. But there’s so much here that’s unlike the usual Mumbai. It’s the east coast (yes, Mumbai has one!), and in a city known for its evening Chaupati sunsets, we are here to witness a sunrise and so, even the Sun is atypically benign.  But more than that, we are here for a glimpse of nature in the otherwise industrial area of Sewri.

A Sunrise through the wrecks

A Sunrise through the wrecks

A keener look at the sight reveals those thousands of birds that we’ve come looking after. They stand, in row after row, at the edge of what’s called the Sewri mudflats – wetlands formed by mud deposited after tides. Eyes marvel at the congregation of the white birds as we walk past rows of worn out and junk ships, or rather, large boats. Once at the jetty, the Flamingos are closer, their white bodies contrasting with the grey landscape and the nuanced pink flavours of their wings gelling with the reddish hues of an early morning. It’s like a sea of several curved dark beaks & long necks craning down to find fodder in another sea. Every now and then, one of them flaps its wings, to reveal a plumage of white, pink and black, all woven together by the careful & yet seemingly effortless precision that only an artist, or the nature itself, can afford. They come in huge numbers, an entire colony of tens of thousands that lines the swamps. The question really though, how did they land up here & why?

A colony of flamingos against the Sun

A colony of flamingos against the Sun

So here’s the thing. Every year, Mumbai witnesses a migration of Flamingos, mostly lesser Flamingos (more populous with darker bills and white-pink plumage) and a few greater flamingos (less populous, plumage is pink-red). Though one can’t be sure, it’s being said that these migrate from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, already known for its Flamingo sightings. They usually look for swampy habitats & mangroves, which are easily provided for in areas such as Sewri and Thane creek. From the start of the winters till May, these are the abodes of thousands of these birds and several other species. Egrets, Sandpipers, Ibis are some of the other species of birds that can be easily spotted here.

A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food

A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food

Living in the constant grind of a city such as Mumbai, it is sometimes difficult to grasp that such natural beauty may be lying in your backyard (Also Read : Biking through the heart of Mumbai – SGNP).  Sometimes, one just needs to look around. Take a moment to catch one of these birds in flight and ponder at the amazing story of migration that Mumbai is, of birds that flocked from all other parts of the country, to find food & shelter here; of the swamps & marshes, of mud & concrete alike, that provided them all of this; the mud-flats that in a way, represent the richness & also the shallowness of our city lives that all drain into the urban sea called Mumbai. Look at them, an Ibis here, an Egret there, at one moment flocking together, at the other competing for a piece of the same food.

Aren’t you and I, birds here too?

A sea of Flamingos

A sea of Flamingos

Have you witnessed a Flamingo sighting? Where and how was it?

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