This would be a long blog post as I would be sharing a lot of journeys, so have your favorite beverage in your hand and prepare for an evening of musing.
Before starting the blog post, I have been surprised as the last week and the week before, lot of people have been liking my Debconf 2016 blog post on diaspora which is almost two years old. Almost all the names mean nothing to me but was left unsure as to reason of the spike. Were they debconf newcomers who saw my blog post and their experience was similar to mine or something, don’t know.
About a month and half back, I started reading Gandhiji’s ‘My Experiments with Truth‘ . To be truthful, a good friend had gifted this book back in 2015 but I had been afraid to touch it. I have had read a few autobiographies and my experience had been less than stellar when reading the autobiographies. Some exceptions are there, but those are and will remain exceptions. Now, just as everybody else even I had held high regard for Gandhiji and was afraid that reading the autobiography it would lower him in my eyes. As it is he is lovingly regarded as the ‘Father of the Nation‘ and given the honorific title of ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) so there was quite a bit of resistance within me to read the book as its generally felt to be impossible to be like him or even emulate him in any way.
So, with some hesitancy, I started reading his autobiography about a month and half back. It is a shortish book, topping out at 470 odd pages and I have read around 350 pages or so. While I am/was reading it I could identify with lot of what was written and in so many ways it also represents a lot of faults which are still prevalent in Indian society today as well.
The book is heavy with layered meanings. I do feel in parts there have been brushes of RSS . I dunno maybe that’s the paranoia in me, but would probably benefit from an oldish version (perhaps the 1993 version) if I can find it somewhere which probably may be somewhat more accurate. I don’t dare to review it unless I have read and re-read it at least 3-4 times or more. I can however share what I have experienced so far. He shares quite a bit of religion and shares his experience and understanding of reading the various commentaries both on Gita and the various different religious books like the ‘Koran’, ‘The Bible’ and so on and so forth. When I was reading it, I felt almost like an unlettered person. I know that at sometime in the near future I would have to start read and listen to various commentaries of Hinduism as well as other religions to have at least some base understanding.
The book makes him feel more human as he had the same struggles that we all do, with temptations of flesh, food, medicine, public speaking. The only difference between him and me that he was able to articulate probably in a far better way than people even today.
Many passages in the book are still highly or even more prevalent in today’s ‘life’ . It really is a pity it isn’t an essential book to be read by teenagers and young adults. At the very least they would start with their own inquiries at a young age.
The other part which was interesting to me is his description of life in Indian Railways. He traveled a lot by Indian Railways, in both third and first class. I have had the pleasure of traveling in first, second and general (third class), military cabin, guard cabin, luggage cabin as well as the cabin for people with disabilities and once by mistake even in a ladies cabin. The only one I haven’t tried is the loco pilot’s cabin and it’s more out of fear than anything else. While I know the layout of the cabin more or less and am somewhat familiar the job they have to do, I still fear as I know the enormous responsibilities the loco pilots have, each train carrying anywhere between 2300 to 2800 passengers or more depending on the locomotive/s, rake, terrain, platform length and number of passengers.
The experiences which Gandhiji shared about his travels then and my own limited traveling experience seem to indicate that change has hardly been in Indian Railways as far as the traveling experience goes.
A few days back my mum narrated one of her journeys on the Indian Railways when she was a kid, about five decades or so back. Her experience was similar to what even one can experience even today and probably decades from now till things don’t improve which I don’t think will happen at least in the short-term, medium to long-term who knows.
Anyways, my grandfather (my mother’s father, now no more 😦 ) had a bunch of kids. In those days, having 5-6 kids was considered normal. My mother, her elder sister (who is not with us anymore, god rest her soul.) and my grandpa took a train from Delhi/Meerut to Pune. As that time there was no direct train to Pune, the idea was to travel from Delhi to Bombay (today’s Mumbai). Take a break in Bombay (Mumbai) and then take a train to Pune. The journey was supposed to take only couple of days or a bit more. My grandma had made Puris and masala bhaji (basically boiled Potatoes mixed with Onions fried a bit) .
You can try making it with a recipe shared by Sanjeev Kapoor, a celebrity chef from India. This is not the only way to make it, Indian cooking is all about improvisation and experimentation but that’s a story for another day.
This is/was a staple diet for most North Indians traveling in trains and you can even find the same today as well. She had made it enough for 2 days with some to spare as she didn’t want my mum or her sister taking any outside food (food hygiene, health concerns etc.) My mum and sister didn’t have much to do and they loved my grandma’s cooking what was made for 2 days didn’t even last a day. What my mother, her sister and grandpa didn’t know it was one of those ill-fated journeys. Because of some accident which happened down the line, the train was stopped in Bhopal for indefinite time. This was the dead in night and there was nothing to eat there. Unfortunately for them, the accident or whatever happened down the line meant that all food made for travelers was either purchased by travelers before my mother’s train or was being diverted to help those injured . The end-result being that till they reached Mumbai which took another one and a half day which means around 4 days instead of two days were spent traveling. My grandpa also tried to get something for the children to eat but still was unable to find any food for them.
Unfortunately when they reached Bombay (today’s Mumbai) it was also dead at night so grandpa knew that he wouldn’t be able to get anything to eat as all shops were shut at night, those were very different times.
Fortunately for them, one of my grandfather’s cousins had got a trunk-call a nomenclature from a time in history when calling long-distance was pretty expensive for some other thing at his office from Delhi by one of our relatives on some unrelated matter. Land-lines were incredibly rare and it was just a sheer coincidence that he came to know that my grandpa would be coming to Bombay (Mumbai) and if possible receive him. My grandpa’s cousin made inquiries and came to know the accident and knew that the train would arrive late although he had no foreknowledge how late it would be. Even then he got meals for the extended family on both days as he knew that they probably would not be getting meals.
On the second night, my grandpa was surprised and relived to see his cousin and both my mum and her sister who had gone without food finished whatever food was bought within 10 minutes.
The toilets on Indian Railways in Gandhiji’s traveling days (the book was written in 1918 while he resided in Pune’s Yerwada Jail [yup, my city] ) and the accounts he shared were of 1908 and even before that, the days my mother traveled and even today are same, they stink irrespective of whichever class you travel. After reading the book, read and came to know that Yerwada had lot of political prisoners
The only changes which have happened is in terms of ICT but that too only when you know specific tools and sites. There is the IRCTC train enquiry site and the map train tracker . For food you have sites like RailRestro but all of these amenities are for the well-heeled or those who can pay for the amenities and know how to use the services. I say this for the reason below.
India is going to have elections come next year, to win in those elections round the corner the Government started the largest online recruitment drive for exams of loco pilot, junior loco pilot and other sundry posts. For around 90k jobs, something like 0.28 billion applied. Out of which around 0.17 billion were selected to apply for ‘online’ exam with 80-85% percent of the selected student given centers in excess of 1000 kms. At the last moment some special trains were made for people who wanted to go for the exams.
Sadly, due to the nature of conservatism in India, majority of the women who were selected choose to not travel that far as travel was time-consuming, expensive (about INR 5k or a bit more) excluding any lodging, just for traveling and a bit for eating. Most train journeys are and would be in excess of 24 hours or more as the tracks are more or less the same (some small improvement has been for e.g. from wooden tracks, it’s now concrete tracks) while the traffic has quadrupled from before and they can’t just build new lines without encroaching on people’s land or wildlife sanctuaries (both are happening but that’s a different story altogether.)
The exams are being held in batches and will continue for another 2-3 days. Most of the boys/gentleman are from rural areas for whom getting INR 5k/- is a huge sum. There are already reports of collusion, cheating etc. After the exams are over, the students fear that some people might go to court of law saying cheating happened, the court might make the whole exam null and void, cheating students of the hard-earned money and the suffering the long journeys they had to take. The date of the exams were shared just a few days and clashed with some other government exams so many will miss those exams, while some wouldn’t have time to prepare for the other exams.
It’s difficult to imagine the helplessness and stress the students might be feeling.
I just hope that somehow people’s hopes are fulfilled.
Ending the blog post on a hopeful and yet romantic ballad
12/08/18 – Update – CAG: Failure to invest in infra behind delay in train services