Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
A few years ago, my husband and I decided to take our two children on the train to NYC. We always drove but I wanted our children to experience train travel; they struggled to understand why. It was deep-seated, you see. I wanted us to have a shared memory with my children that was reminiscent of my childhood in India.
Though we had taken the Metro Rail to Washington DC several times, the idea of inter-state train travel seemed appealing to me. We got to Union Station and after marveling at the structure and browsing through the stores were ready to board the train. The doors to the platform opened, we walked quietly, boarded a carriage, and sat down. As the train started, I began to think back to my childhood days and how different the train journey was. Here in the US, with everything so organized, there was none of the confusion or the loud excitement. People sat quietly in their seats with their laptops and devices. No looking out the window, no talking, walking, or eating. None of the joys that we experienced as children. It was actually boring. My children sat with their phones and I felt a pang. That is when I decided to translate my love of train travel in India into words, so as not to forget the memory. To share how absolutely thrilling it was to take an overnight train.
Train journeys were an integral and an exciting part of our lives, especially for those of us who grew up in India in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
As the train turned at the bend, the child craned his neck against the bars of the window squealing in delight – “I see the engine, I see the engine”. I am sure that this is a mutual fond memory of my generation in India.
Growing up, summer vacation usually meant going to visit grandparents Back then, vacation was not visiting exotic places or expensive holidays. Rather, it was the simple joy of going back to the village, town, or city of your grand-parents. Invariably, the journey was by a train.
In those days, trains were not as fast or as clean and comfortable as they are now. The seats/berths were hard, had no foam bedding, and you were not served meals. Traveling by train meant packing not only clothes, gifts, toys and books, but also carrying your own bedding in something called the ‘Hold All’. In the ‘hold all’ you stashed your pillows, blankets, sheets, shawls, etc. It was rolled up like a sleeping bag, and carried along with your other luggage which included two or three suitcases, handbags, and even at times, small furniture. Then of course, there was the multi-container steel tiffin carrier (lunch box), which contained idlis with chutney, sandwiches, chappatis & sabzi, and yogurt rice. There were packets of biscuits and other fried savories to snack on.
A taxi would be hailed to get to the railway station. No sooner had it halted at the station, coolies (porters) would come rushing wanting to carry your luggage. After a bit of haggling, a price would be settled and on the poor Coolie’s head would go two or three suitcases, a bag on each arm, and anything else you had. But, before you entered the station your eyes would fall on the weight machine that was standing there minding its own business. After a tussle and some pleading, some of you would stand up on the machine, insert a coin, and wait for the tiny rectangular cardboard piece that said how much you weighed.
With the platform located, the porter would unload the luggage at a place where your carriage was estimated to stop. While waiting for the train to arrive, children would run up and down the platform, plead for chocolates, toys, or cool drinks from the vendors who had set up stalls. Train delay announcements were greeted with dismay, and on time arrivals sparked excitement and a call to the coolie to get ready to load the luggage.
Chaos ensued when the train arrived at the platform. People scrambled to the coaches to check the lists posted on them for their seat/berth numbers! Then, there would be a hustle to get on the train, and locate your seat.
Finally, we would begin the best part of the journey. After getting all settled in, luggage safely tucked under your seat (sometimes even chained to the berth to prevent it from being stolen), your parents would flip through magazines and newspapers and you would eye other passengers to see what interesting stuff they had. If your traveling companions were friendly, you would talk and play, and even share snacks and food with them. When it was time to sleep, the middle berth, which was your back rest till now, would be pulled up and secured to the upper one with an iron chain. A minor skirmish would follow for the upper and middle berths. With that settled, out came the ‘hold all’ and all of the bedding. Then came the hard part, trying to sleep amidst the smell of food and multiple snores heard through the carriage.
In the morning, with the middle berth back as the backrest, the ‘hold all’ packed and rolled up, everyone all cheery and bright, the excitement of arrival ensued. At the first station of the morning, you would hear the tea and coffee sellers, and vendors selling breakfast items like idlis, wadas, and upmavs. The “chai, garam chai and coffee, coffee, coffeeya….” still rings in my ears. A brief period of anxiety would pass if a loved one got off the train and the guard’s whistle went off. A sigh of relief, everyone aboard, but wait, some more tense moments, as some who had climbed into a different compartment so as not to miss the train, had to walk through the precarious gangway to get to the right compartment! The last leg of the journey continued with impatience and anticipation about what awaited at the destination!
Passing the green paddy fields, counting the green squares, waving back to the smiling village children who would stand in a row, watching stalled traffic, houses and trees zoom past, counting the number of stations, watching the steam coming out of the engine (getting soot in your eyes), and if you were brave, the walk on the precarious gangway connection, all made the train journey more interesting.
When the train finally arrived at your destination, you would rush to the platform side of the train and wave your arms profusely while yelling out the names of your cousins or uncles who came to receive you. Once again surrounded by porters, your luggage unloaded from the train and loaded into a car or taxi, your fun vacation of a few weeks began.
As I was writing this, I began reliving my childhood and began feeling the same love and excitement as I did back then. A thought crossed my mind, my children would never be able to relate to this. Sadly, for the present generation, this would probably be a fictional read, something they would never fully comprehend. It will be a forgotten and unrequited love story between me and the Indian train.
Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelancer from Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for writing and especially enjoys writing about Indian life and culture.
Last evening, I had been contemplating writing a commentary on friendship and I saw two ladies walking briskly towards each other in black velvet overcoats. As I came within earshot, they were hugging and rocking one another vigorously. I waited for their joyous greeting to end and asked, “ Are you best friends?” They broke free of their embrace and turned towards me. It was the beautiful Stephanie Walker and her friend. I burst out laughing at the serendipity of the process. Stephanie is well known in the Alabama arts community as a children’s author and currently works at WLRH where this commentary could air! My thoughts had found these friends and I could already envision them as the opening act of my story.
“Do you have one?,” Stephanie asked me. “What, a story?,” I responded. Stephanie shook her head, “No… a best friend?” I winked and said, “Well, for that you will have to read my story”.
I reached the restaurant I was heading to, musing about my eight year old grandson, Ayush, in Jaipur; He often talks about a classmate, maybe Noel or Anshuman, as his in-today-out-tomorrow best friend. Together they share a bench in class, participate in frivolous boyish acts like rolling pencils, singing slightly off-key, having lunch, and maybe inviting each other to birthdays. For the past few days Ayush has been sitting alone. I want to fly over, be his friend in class, and share gossip with him at lunch. I guess friendships at that age are less stable. Your table mate can be your best friend and when your seats change, so does your friendship.
Back in Huntsville,Alabama, I sipped my cucumber martini alone and I found myself surrounded by groups of friends, some celebrating birthdays, others meeting for dinner. I remember my kindergarten days, there was no dearth of friends then. The green-eyed monster had not reared her ugly head! We hugged, tumbled, twirled and hugged some more. Life was all play. In middle school, my best friend was Shiwani, or as I liked to call her, Juju. We climbed mango trees and got into scrapes together. By high school I had moved on and become close friends with Ganga and Mukta. Together we were known as the “Three Musketeers” and we were inseparable. We did homework together, shared food during intermission, talked about our first crushes, laughed over classroom drama, and made concrete plans on living in the same city once we were older . We are still close though we all currently live in different countries. Perhaps one day we will be together…
I have met wonderful, talented people in the Tennessee valley. I know artists, poets, engineers, nurses, doctors, researchers, bankers, librarians, journalists, musicians, herbalists and I share their virtuous company with joy. But the naked truth is that, although I wear my heart on my sleeve, I do not have someone I consider a friend. I have to confess that I don’t relish the “so-so” company of women in cliques . They dress to match, carry designer purses, have perfected their eye rolls and dissolve in mirth together at those who are in a pickle. They have no qualms about whispering under bated breath like pepper merchants in Thailand. Their makeup is flawless, as though their faces were hand dipped in porcelain, but when no one is watching their features settle into a shapeless gelatin mass that shudders with every breath. I try a joke or two to break the ice but their responses often set my teeth on edge.
So I seek my redemption in my place of worship: a bookstore. Viola! As soon as I pick up a new book, the world is my oyster again. I immerse myself in the lyrical prose of Towles, Doerr, Patchett, Dalai Lama, Tolstoy, Tagore, Twain, and Shakespeare. As I sink into the arms of a comfortable well used sofa, I realize that I have come full circle to my true best friends. They don’t mock my Boheme mismatched socks. They could care less. All ennui vanishes into thin air and I am in their heart of hearts. All of them take turns in sharing their life lessons with an urgent candor. Suddenly I have uncovered the light I could not see. My trepidations vanish into thin air and I am surrounded by my familiar best friends with hearts of gold. All’s well that ends well. What do you say William?
Oh little Ayush, you will settle down into the social norms of being in school. Being an only child, I know you hanker for a regular companion but you are a resilient young man. You read stories of Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood to me on FaceTime and I feel we are the same. So I’m not worried. I hope you find someone who will enjoy reading stories with you, till then you can find new friends in books.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart.
Winter solstice has come. A time symbolically used to celebrate the rise and fall of the sun. A time of year when we reflect on the past year and nurture hopes for the coming one. A time of year for reconnecting with friends around warm food and lights.
I turned the thermostat up a couple of notches and the white light effused a warm glow against the curtains. As I surveyed the house, I felt a surge of warmth course through me. Dear friends and family were visiting, and I was glowing from the companionship. The house had been through a deep clean: which is to say that the closets were stuffed and groaning. I warned guests to open any closet with care: a dozen things could tumble out at any moment, I said widening my eyes. The adults laughed, while the children nodded with sincerity, but an hour later I found them playing hide-and-seek, and finding a place to hide in those very closets. Oh well!
As time spun its way through the evening, strands of conversation were coming together too. Light-hearted topics were interspersed with hefty ones and laughter was sprinkled with wrinkled looks of concentration. It was beautiful to hear opinions changing ever so slightly; of course, it was not without the exasperation of trying to string complex thoughts into words that would convince someone of their perspective. I marveled at humanity once again.
“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
― William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830
Can we get better? Absolutely. We lose sight of the marvelous gift we have of empathy and of trying to understand one another. Moments in which we bestow upon one another the inestimable gift of attentive listening are irreplaceable. Like the stuffed closets the children found a place to hide in, there is always room for our own mindsets to grow and expand.
With all the additional means of communication at our disposal these days – whether instant or otherwise, we are so intent on telling the world what we think that I fear we may slowly start losing the art of listening, weighing, offering our opinions without being attached to our own viewpoints, and allowing ourselves the beautiful vantage point of changing our minds.
The appreciation of merit from multiple viewpoints is an Art in itself.
It is a lesson that Nature herself teaches us in the simple act of the changing of the seasons. How wondrously we admire the same surroundings for different aspects during different parts of the year? The bursting of new life, and flowering trees in Spring; followed by the joyous long days of summer with their blooms of flowers; the beautiful fall foliage; and the cold rainy winters enabling us to reflect, change and poise ourselves for the cycle to begin again.
Each season brings with it a new physical aspect and a philosophical one.
I find winters winter a good time to look back on the year gone by; reflect on the grains that made up the texture of the preceding months, and those months layered upon years, like a tree, adding a ring to its makeup. A time for reflection of the past year and a time for hopes in the coming year.
Every year our hopes and aspirations for ourselves and our collective future differ. This year, given the state of political affairs in the US, and the deep divides that separate us, I hope we can strive towards truthful, honest dialogue. As we usher in the New Year, it becomes doubly important for us to remember that our strength lies in listening to each other respectfully; to engage in conversations sans ego so that we may learn to appreciate the beauty of human thinking and its many perspectives. That seems to be our only hope to collectively move towards a future that is filled with integrity and compassion.
As the French philosopher Simone Weil said in the early twentieth century, let’s bestow on each other the generosity of spirit so beautifully outlined in this quote.
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity – Simone Weil
Now is the time to say thanks for all the small and big things in life. The time to appreciate friends and family. The time to appreciate the gifts of nature and of our place in it. The time for us to refocus our energies on what is possible and our duties towards society. I am looking forward to a new year informed by the past, yet open to the future.
Saumya writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com, and some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.