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 Bags are withdrawn from under my seat.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.