This blog is spread over two towns in two parts of the country. Santiniketan, in the east and Bhilwara, on the west. Culturally, geographically and also demographically, the two regions have nothing in common but are connected by a thin thread of a traveler.
Santiniketan is a cultural and intellectual town, which is known for its university. It’s also the hometown of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet, artist and writer, who is known worldwide. Throughout this sleepy town, you will meet with artists and writers, poets and singers who would be more than happy for a conversation over a cup of lemon tea. This conversation over a cup or cups of tea is called an adda. Sit on a cycle rickshaw and ride through the streets!
Though the purpose of the trip was to see some art, it was the journey back to Calcutta, which I remember. The station, small and sleepy, was brightly covered by a mural and I could hear Bengali songs playing all around. I may not understand the language but I knew that it wasn’t Movie songs which they were singing, but songs of patriotism and devotion. There was a hypnotic melody which even an outsider like me would get captivated in.
I wandered around the station for a while. A man stood at the foot over bridge looking into emptiness. Maybe looking for an inspiration or waiting for someone to return. A sign, which mentioned an eating hall and its delicacies invited me, only to see that it was still under construction. The train soon announced its arrival.
The train journey itself is filled with hawkers and singers. Many people came selling lemon tea (which I assure you is tasty) or Jhaal-mudi, a snack made of spices and puffed rice. Another must to try. But what one must do, is to listen to the many singers who come to entertain the travelers. And they are not aggressive. If you’ve enjoyed it, pay what you wish. My co-passenger requested him to sing a particular song and the musician earnestly performed. So well he performed that the patron had tears in his eyes. Not only he got a financial reward but also a hug, which I also felt meant more to him.
On another hot summer day, I traveled to Bhilwara. It’s a tiresome journey as it involves a connection and practically no services like food on the train. But the people you meet provide enough food for thought. Mr.Mukesh, an engine driver, was my co-passenger and was on his way to Bhilwara, from where he would take control of a goods train. A father of four and settled in Ajmer, Mukesh spends most of his time on rail. He is upset about the fact that the personal life is non-existent as he misses out on weddings and festivals and also misses spending time with his children. Given a chance, he is willing to sacrifice everything to be with his family but then he is also the sole bread earner.
Is it exciting-driving a train and enjoying the beauty of the country? Exciting, no, it’s not. There are always two good months and then two bad ones. The engines are not air-conditioned and thus are a furnace in the summers. In winters, they turn into a freezer and in monsoons damp. All the time you are inhaling smoke and dust, so the drivers are more prone to diseases. Even though there is not much to do now after the automation of the engines, but drivers need to be alert and they need to hear, see and smell any problems. Many a times, animals wander over on the tracks and then there is no options but to run them over as the train usually fails to stop on time. It’s not an easy job at all.
Another man on Side Upper Berth constantly spoke on the phone and loud enough for everyone to hear his family problems. I pray for his happiness and that he is invited back into his family from both paternal and maternal side.
We soon arrived at Bhilwara and went on in our separate directions. He was taking over a goods train and I was a vagabond, a ghummakkad who was looking for more experiences. At the ticket counter, don’t miss it out the amazing Phad painting above the counter, which has been painted by the famed Joshi family of Bhilwara.
A Phad is a horizontal scroll which narrates the story os Pabuji and Devnarayanji, two local deities. At the first glance, it is impossible to figure out the narrative as there are million figures in different sizes, various horses and elephants at war and a couple of deities. To understand if the Phad (which means cloth) is of Devnarayan’s or Pabuji’s, simply look at the biggest figure in the painting. In front of the Pabuji figure is a spear and in front of a Devnarayan is a snake. A Ganesha is always painted at the top left corner at the start of the painting and then come the Vishu Dasavatar in the case of Devnarayan. The rest of the scroll talks about a story which moves in all direction depending on the location where the event took place. To understand that, you need to experience the narrative given by the bhopa ( the narrator) who sings out the story with the only light coming from a diya (oil-lamp). The tradition is quickly ending and the bhopas are now seen performing outside commercial establishments in Rajasthan.
India is a country of stories and the best way to experience it is through the Indian Railways. You will meet and see people who would open their hearts out and tell you about their version of this country. Sometimes, their tips are also very handy, so keep your eyes and ears tuned in. The railway station is a bustling place to spend some time and soak in the atmosphere, especially if it’s a small town. It is the centre of all action when the train comes and then for hours remains deserted, waiting for the next lot of ghummakkads.