A Ride Down Memory Lane

I’m a railway enthusiast. My favourite haunt for train-spotting was a relative’s house by the railway track where, whenever we visited them, I would scamper away to the roof and wait for a train to rumble past. Not surprisingly, all my life I preferred a train journey to any other. I travelled extensively to meet my favourite writers in far-away places, and during the journeys many interesting things happened. Let me recount a few such incidents.

At Old Delhi station, the Chandigarh-bound train, I knew, would halt for a couple of hours. I decided to go out of the station compound for a bit. Right outside, in a courtyard-like area, I found two people engaged in a verbal spat. Some people were trying their best to separate them, surrounded by quite a few onlookers. It was impossible to get past them. Presently, matters got to a head. I thought it better to head back to the platform. Just then, a sound like clapping rent the air, followed by whoops and cheers. Out of curiosity, I turned around and realization dawned in a blink. It was actually a street drama going on!

Once at Allahabad station, our train got stranded for hours due to some mechanical problem. It was the time of Kumbh Mela there. I took an auto and landed near the sacred Triveni Sangam, which is a confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, where it was being held. On the vast area adjacent to the holy place were makeshift camps housing the ascetics. It was late morning and there was hardly any crowd. I feasted my eyes on the meeting point of the rivers where you’d find some distinct colours at the intersection. It was a blessed bonus for me as I was not bound for Allahabad at all!

On another occasion, we were on our way to Kanyakumari. At the station before the final stop, I got down to buy a bottle of mineral water. There was a book stall near the water kiosk. I thought of giving the books a once-over. After a while, I craned my neck to take a look at the train, when, to my disbelief, I saw it pulling out. I broke into a sprint. My compartment was far ahead. I scrambled into a rear one, somehow. My family could not contact me as I left my mobile with them. Our reunion at the destination was quite a sight!

At the present Covid-19 lockdown time, like the narrator Ishmael in Moby Dick, “I find myself growing grim about the mouth”. Not because I can’t get to the sea, but because trains these days are more off the tracks than on. I might have reconciled myself to this loss of freedom to feel unmoored and unshackled. But every night as I do the last round of dialogue with the blank page, a forlorn whistle weakened by distance pierces my heart, as if the lone passing train feels my absence too!

First published in The Statesman

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