In my recent trip to India I visited the coastal region of the Western Indian State of Gujarat. The primary reason of the trip was to take my parents to the religious sites of Dwarka and Somnath. Before I proceed with the travelogue, I will have to confess my religious beliefs to you all – I am a non-believer when it comes to any religion. If one has to put me in a conceptual religious bucket, yes I am a Hindu by the only coincidence that I was born to a Hindu set of parents. Do I identify myself with being a Hindu? NO. The primary reason probably is because religion was pretty much shoved down my throat (just like most of us who grew up in the middle class Indian families). Anytime when I asked the validity of the religious rituals that I was being asked to perform they were met with the same answer – “Because you should”. A seed of disdain was sown and watered by the continuous “you must” attitude by the religious folks around me. It was intensely frustrating that I should spend my valuable childhood fun-time doing unfathomable archaic pujas and other rituals. All my rebellions were squashed with alarming alacrity by all the adults around me. As far as I can remember many of the family trips we took were centered on a religious site. In most cases I was dragged along by force rather than by choice. So while some of my friends took trips to such exotic sites as Mount Abu, Goa and Kashmir I was visiting another temple in some nondescript village. Guess what – the seed that was sown above, started to get rich nutrients to sprout into a healthy sapling.
As I grew older, this sapling thrived into a gigantic, strong tree. During my teenage and college years my rebellion took the shape of complete non-participation as I preferred watching pimples form on my face and then dry out, than join my God-smitten family to these temples. Now that the hormones of youth have stopped messing with my brain I regret not going on these trips – not because I have accepted the religious part of it – but because I could have visited these places and kept myself away from the “religious” aspect of it and could have explored the town/city/village. So this time when opportunity knocked, I opened the “let me be an explorer” door of my mind and dove right in. Before I go any further I would like to warn my religiously inclined readers that some of my comments might offend you and your beliefs.
Day 1 – Bombay Central Station
In order to get to Dwarka from Bombay (MNS be damned – Mumbai just doesn’t do to me what Bombay does), we boarded the Saurashtra Mail from the Bombay Central station. Train stations in India open a floodgate of sensations which cause your mind and body to react in ways that are beyond your control. The Bombay Central station was lit up for the ongoing Durga festival. There was a local band setting up a mini-stage for some kind of a performance scheduled for later that night. People from all walks of life were scurrying around in all possible directions. A unique smell that can be felt only on large train stations crowded my nostrils as I was looking for the platform number of our train. We boarded the ‘Mail’ and settled in our assigned seats. The term ‘Mail’ for a train is a leftover legacy from the Colonial years. The English introduced the rail system to India (for which I am much thankful). Back in the days, certain trains were designated to carry postal mail across the length and breadth of the country. These trains were named as mails for obvious reasons. (Incidentally, the mail has its named carved in Hindi film music history via the chartbusting hit song of 1942 Toofan Mail sung by Kanan Devi.).
Once aboard the train, my father got in his element of what fathers of my generation do – check if the seats are really our own, adjust and readjust the luggage such that it is not easily visible to thieves, lock the luggage using long windy shiny steel chains with miniature padlocks which can be opened by a simple hairclip (these chains are then looped through many hooks and joints – it’s a sight to see him retrieve his bag out of that tangle when it’s time to deboard), ensure that we have enough water to last through the journey and the list goes on. It was a good refresher for me since I had not travelled with him in ages now. Anyway, the train got on its way and people started filling up the rest of the seats at Dadar and Borivali. Pleasantries were exchanged, utterly useless information was passed amongst all parties in the coupe, such as – “I will be getting down in Rajkot since my sister-in-law lives there. Its’ her son’s Pinku’s first birthday you see. Bahut shaana deekra che.” Needless to say, I was completely enjoying myself. This was an experience that I had completely taken for granted 12 years ago when train travel was quite regular for me. Today, it was immensely entertaining and on some level comforting. Comforting to see that at the core we are all still the same – still eager to share our lives with complete strangers, still sociable, still so naïve that we don’t know that some of this information could be used maliciously against us. I have yet to see a people who are as naïve and simple as the middle class Indians. I bow to you all. We found out about everyone’s sons and daughters and in laws, and schools and jobs.
Amusing as all of this was, hunger beckoned, it was 9 PM and nobody showed any signs of getting ready for dinner. My mother understood my restlessness (aren’t mothers just great – it’s like there is an unattached umbilical cord between a mother and her offspring) and unpacked the food that she had brought with her. The rest of the folks in the coupe took the inspiration and opened their respective food packets. A thought crossed my mind – these folks just boarded the train from Borivali at 8:00 PM, they could have had their dinner prior to getting on board – why go through the hassle of packing and unpacking and eating in the train? But then I answered my own question – right from the primitive Stone Age human beings, our race has been a fan of communal eating. So, puris, aloo bhajis, parathas, dhoklas, laddoos exchanged many hands and collectively ended up in many bellies. It was an immensely satisfying meal. Believe it or not I was mildly intoxicated by the tasty food touched by many unwashed hands, the rhythmic motion and sounds of the train and the collective odor of food and people. I had not slept for the last 48 hours at a stretch and I was about to crash. I set my berth, spread a clean white sheet, placed the pillow and wrapped myself in the blanket provided by Lalu’s people and slept like a 2 year old.