May 20, 2008

Tales on Rails

(Here's the script I used for Project 3 of Toastmasters at the Chennai Covansys Toastmasters Club [CCTM]. Won the Best Speaker prize for this one too :-). Do read through and leave me your valuable comments)

Chennai’s sweltering summer is draining us all out!!! We’re all complaining about the rising temperatures!!! Summers – however hot they were – somehow always brought a lot of cheer and excitement when I was schooling in Bombay. Summers meant summer vacations. Summer vacations meant visiting my grandparents in Chennai which also meant the fun-filled 36 hours of train journey from Bombay to Chennai.

We have so many micro societies formed within society in general. Societies that get formed in residential colonies, societies at work, jogging track societies and the like. All of them have their own charm and personify a sense of belongingness. For me, the 36 hour train journey every summer was nothing short of a society on wheels.

Bus journeys are too short. Flights may get you frequent flyer points and pretty airhostesses, but traveling long distance by second class is one of the most entertaining experiences and I’m very sure all of you would agree.

We used to travel by the Madras Mail almost every year. We’re a family of five and the first thing that would be debated over before any journey would be the luggage count. We always had a minimum of 7-8 bags, plus of course the last minute additions like the big basket full of breakfast, lunch and dinner, the water can and an extra bag for all our footwear!!! Dad tried really hard to explain how one pair of footwear would be good enough for the two month vacation. Somehow that never worked with us.

I have come across a cross section of all sorts of people during my journeys. It’s like a stage on the move with people of all types making an appearance!!! As kids we would strike quick friendships with the other kids in the compartment and have a good time together. We would come up with interesting games to play - right from ‘who climbs up to the upper berth first’ to ‘count the tunnels as they pass’!!! As I grew up, I became more of an observer. Constantly munching something seemed to be every passenger’s delight and only pass time. We were quite a hotel-on-rails ourselves. The big basket had everything from yummy idlis for breakfast to packed tamarind rice for lunch. Not to forget the be all and end all of every South Indian’s meal – the curd rice – mum would have it all in place for us.

While traveling by train, you have just two interesting things to do… eating and watching others while they are eating!!! There was once this Gujarati family traveling along with us. Small eats and snacks are an absolute must for them. The ladies in the group actually prepared an elaborate bhel puri for their entire group – complete with all the ingredients. We had fun seeing them make it and they had fun as they ate it all up.

There was this other occasion when there were a group of Marwadis traveling to Chennai. They were busy playing cards throughout the journey. Never seen more enthusiastic card players after that!!! So much that after a while almost everyone in the compartment had joined them in their game of cards!!!

When we’re talking about train journeys, we just cannot overlook the vendors selling all kinds of stuff – right from eatables to toothbrush and toothpaste for the forgetful travelers. It would be an interesting sight to see little kids blackmailing their parents to buy them something from almost every vendor who caught their attention. I did that too, as a kid.

There’s this small town called Daund on the Bombay-Chennai route. This place is supposedly notorious for dacoits and train thieves. All the elderly men in the compartment would ensure that the window shutters are closed before sleep time. They would advice everyone else to be careful of their belongings. On one such night journey, when we were all asleep there was this thief who got in somehow. I was asleep on the middle berth. All of a sudden the train screeched to a halt and I woke up with a start to see this hooded person running away from near my berth. Apparently, Mr. Thief was trying to snatch my chain just as someone else who had been robbed had pulled on the train’s emergency chain!!! The entire compartment woke up. Some people tried to chase the thief. Others helped to check if everyone’s belongings were safe, while a few others offered to stay awake and keep vigil for the rest of the night.

The best part about all these journeys would always be when we reached Chennai. No matter how absurd our first impressions about our fellow travelers were, we would have struck quite a few good friendships through the journey. I’m surprised about how we would feel sorry to be parting after that brief stint together. But that’s the way it is. We tend to gel beautifully with our co-passengers on the move. Irrespective of where they’re from or what religion they follow. Wonder what makes it so difficult to respect and accept people as they are in the journey of life!!!

Have we become an intolerant lot? People living together for decades just can’t stand each other now. The recent attack on north Indians in Maharashtra, the attack on Biharis in Assam and other similar incidents of regional intolerance are not something we would want more of. India has often been quoted as a burning example of unity in diversity. Are we failing to live up to it? ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakum’ – is an ancient Sanskrit scripture from the Rigveda!!! Literally translated it means ‘the entire world is one family’. This term has been coined nearly 5000 years ago when nationalism as a concept didn’t even exist – leave alone regionalism. It surely subscribes to mutual coexistence and respect for each others beliefs and values. Think about it… can all of us together help make Vasudhaiva Kutumbakum a reality – train journey or otherwise?

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