Whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true is the saying. Chaotic, creative burst of culture, bamboozling, intoxicating, daunting, overwhelming. This is how India is described. Buses are overcrowded, cars and bikes spew thick black smoke, busy streets, cows and dogs everywhere, and the best part is people are ready to learn, experiment, and make new friends. You will find both the new and the old. Rapid modernization coupled with communities that are still struggling to break into the mainstream. As you may already know the best way to see and learn about India is by a train journey. People make friends, and some fall in love. This train is the India Express, a city on wheels.
The train left the station after a stop at Nagpur, the rocking motion of the train put people to sleep. Some of them were new to this city on wheels, and were excited about everything. Some keep looking out the window all night. Within a few minutes of train leaving the station they took their crisp morning newspaper bought at the station and chai with an assortment of biscuits and chocolates. The train was full. There were children, security personnel, and also a music band. ‘We play tribal folk music’, the band said.
Sitting on a window seat near the door, Sharath and a European tourist broke into a conversation.
‘Did you have a good night’s sleep?’ asked Sharath.
‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘I see you have lot of books with you.’
‘I love reading about other places, especially from people who live there. It gets you a different perspective on things. I would want to get some books on how to speak Hindi now.’
‘Have you made any friends here?’
‘Yes I have. I spent time with a family at a village in South India. Three families stayed in that house, and only the women cooked.’
‘That’s nice of you. Did you like it?’
‘Yes. I loved it. The women cooked when the men went to work in the morning, and the children went to school. They never allowed me inside their kitchen. “You are our guests, you should not come inside the kitchen”, they would say. I loved their food. The dining culture is different here. Back home we eat together, but here the men and children in the family eat first while the ladies serve, and after that the ladies eat. But they have got to help themselves.’
‘Yes that’s how it is in rural areas. In big cities we cook and eat together. Have you stayed in a big city?’
‘I’m not fond of big cities. Hence the village-stay. I loved their music. The music is different in the North, and the South, isn’t that right?
‘Yes. I’ve never got time to explore the music scene in India myself. If you do it, that’s awesome.’
‘I hope I do. How do you say music in Hindi?’
‘What language do you speak? How do you say it in your language?’
‘I speak Kannada. It is Sangeetha in my language.’
The music band that was traveling with them started playing music after taking permission from everybody in their car.
Some people cheered them. The well cooked breakfast, and the soothing music made him yawn, and then he went to his sleep. The foreign tourist went back to her Lonely Planet.
In the next compartment men were playing a game of cards. They taunted the band to play their music better, and even challenged them to a battle. They also mocked the singer. The pranksters, every train journey has some of them. As they play their game their friend comes in laughing.
‘Why are you laughing?’ asked one of them.
‘Hey, somebody talked those American tourists into buying their stuff?’
‘What did they sell them?’
‘A fake Gucci, that too at a 20 percent discount.’
‘Is that right? Who sold it to them?’
‘Me’, he said inviting a surprised glance from his friends. ‘Now I’m ready to place a bet’, he said showing off his cash.
In the next compartment to them, Asha is seated by the window. She is on a high. It’s her first backpacking trip across India which she wanted to take ever since she could remember. Like a calf staring at humans she stared at the verdant landscape outside her window. She saw miles and miles of fields of rice, wheat, corn, and vegetables, farmers in loin cloth working in the fields, buffaloes marinating themselves in the muddy ponds, sheeps grazing on the patch of grass next to the pond, their shepherd smoking a beedi sitting on a rock, women in colorful saris carrying bundles of rice straw, some carried pots of water.
Yes, women have to walk a long distance from the villages to fetch water. ‘I have to do something about it; I have to bring water to where the villagers are’, she thought. She made a note in her travel log. The trains passed several stations, and she made sure she read the names of the stations. The meals brought back fond memories of the train journeys she took with her family and she smiled. When the train attendant asked her if she preferred vegetarian or non vegetarian, ‘non-veg’, she replied with alacrity.
Everybody she knew skipped the part about their meals from their travel log. But she was not the one to skip the mention about the meal she ate. Chilly chicken, chapatti, vegetable curry, and rice she scribbled in her travel log.
The man in front of her had been stealing glances at her since morning, but hadn’t spoken to her. She put a strand of hair behind her ear and looked outside. She wanted to speak to him but she’d rather that he spoke to her first. Not wanting to speak to the man first and tired of waiting for him to speak to her, she plugged in her I-pod to her headphone.
“You raise me up”, sang Josh Groban, and she felt calmer. She opened her eyes and saw the man hold out his palm at her. She removed her headphone, and the man with a motion of his hand told her to watch him. He brought both his hands in front of him; he rubbed them, put them behind his head, rubbed it again, and then revealed a rose which was presented to her.
‘I’m Tej he said. ‘I’m going to Delhi to attend my cousins wedding, and you?’
‘I’m Asha, I am traveling across India, never did it before, so doing it now, and I’m starting in Delhi’, she said.
‘Ok, Nice. Now I want you to check your jacket Asha.’
She gave an anxious look and checked her jacket pocket revealing a birthday card. ‘Happy birthday Asha’, it said. It was Asha’s birthday, and the card also wished her a nice travel.
‘How do you know? We never met before, this must be a trick.’
‘Off course it is a trick.’
‘Then tell me how. I don’t remember telling you my name.’
‘Your bag has your name on it. I looked it up on Facebook, and found your profile. I got your birthday from there.’
‘Oh. Ok. How did you do the flower trick?’
‘I’m not going to say. Maybe I will tell you when we meet again.’
‘When we meet again? Ok.’
They spoke for the rest of the train journey. Some hours later, the train reached Delhi where both of them disembarked. They exchanged numbers, and they promised to catch up for coffee before Asha left Delhi. The flower dried by the time they reached Delhi, but she didn’t mind it. For many days to come she had it rested in the middle of her journal.