Friday, January 30, 2009

BACK ON TRACK: BACK ON THE ROAD

After spanning continents and touring big city after big city in aero-planes, I never realized how much I missed the small-town feel until I travelled to a few, including my own hometown recently. Some of the yawning distances have to be covered by air, but fortunately I am spared the monotony of air travel with some movement on roads and tracks. There's something about travelling in a train that shifts me into an overdrive & a slumber at the same time. In an aero-plane, the suffocating silence & formality are so restraining that I long for emancipation. In a train, there is a perpetual buzz around you - the constant whirring of the fan, the slightly shifting, slightly adjusting movement of people around the compartments, the incessant chatter of people from all walks of life – discussing wives, politics, TV shows, terrorism - literally anything & everything under the sun. Some of it is relevant, most of it "time-pass". Foods from different households packed in the definitive style of that family do the rounds. The freedom to strike a conversation with the most myriad group of strangers around is liberating. One may walk about with royal indifference and get a glimpse of the REAL people of India.
The stations are hubs of activity, with its characteristic sounds & smells - the chai wallah with his shrill, monotonous drone, the chaat wallah loudly promoting his ware, the vendors selling a variety of sweetmeats, fruits, books and the like. Book stalls are stocked with the best and the inane. The toilet is filthy and I nevertheless still get charged for using it. In the meanwhile, I rest assured I'll bump into every kind of person, and observation suddenly becomes my endearing past-time. Many stations pass by, and finally I alight at my destination. Porters charge towards me, and I charge away from them. They haggle, quarrel amongst each other and I walk away with my meager baggage and an indifferent attitude. The car is waiting, and I get in for another less-frequented mode of long distance transport – by road

In the small towns I visit, I notice that in spite of the evidently newly constructed dividers & buildings, nothing takes the inherent charm away. The lanes are small & congested with a handful of boys & girls – the boys boisterously loud & cheeky, the girls shy & reticent. The children pedal away furiously on their bicycles, attempting a poor but exhilarating mimicry of the fast life of the cities. Their bodies are agile, even if slightly arched by the burden of the schoolbag on their backs. The trees are playfully teased by the wind, and I could've never imagined that mere rustling of leaves could become a heavenly form of music. The koels are cooing and the melodious sound reverberates in my memory long after the sound's gone. Over-the-top posters of various local & "imported" brands dot the landscape & the greenery acts as a sharp contrast to the dusty & dry town limits. It is heartening to see how many things that city dwellers take for granted are such joy-imparting bonuses in towns. The idyllic setting, the slowness of life draws me towards it. The city of Mumbai where I live is so crowded it looks like a mass parade, a disjointed march-past between people who are surging ahead, purposefully or aimlessly. The constant chatter of Mumbai changes to a lazy silence here. And I realize my observation begins to peak. I hear the squirrels twittering in the tree, hiding in the most impossible of thickets and branches, with their tails jerking with every twitter, as if the sound were emanating not from their tiny mouths but from their tails. Were these continuous shrill twitters mating calls? Perhaps, because in another instant, another one joins our furry friend and both disappear high up in the tree. I see colorful kites entangled in the trees – neglected souvenirs of the just concluded Kite festival. The thrill of seeing the distant hills in just the moon light with nothing in between to obstruct the view reminds of the rush I felt with my first kiss.

I spend time with my family and look at all the people gathered to see me, proclaiming to be my friends. My friends left these towns long ago, in search of greener pastures. And in celebrity starved regions, privacy comes with great difficulty. The roads in parts are a nightmare & it takes more than a warm bath & a massage to recover from it. I am a guest with the Deputy Chief Minister and he's a good host. However, the overt lavishness of the evening is in sharp contrast to the crumbling town outside – a town that is beautiful but is also falling apart at the seams, its spirit broken but not defeated, trundling towards the faintest of flickers of hope. The wastefulness of personnel, food and monies inside those walls but not beyond appalls me. What good it could do if put in for the right purpose & in the right direction… Very soon, it is time to leave by road to catch my next flight. The journey from the town to the city is long and throws up more interesting sights. The massive chimneys at the outskirts of the city spew thick, white smoke, not unlike angry, billowing dragons. I notice conical thatched huts which are epitomes of beauty in all their simplicity. The exteriors of such huts are replicated in many resorts where one must pay a fortune to use them. Here, the simple village folk make it for themselves and live in what eludes most of us. For the first time, I see flocks of birds perched asleep in dried up trees. To be honest, the sight set against a darkened sky frightens me. There are patches of dark clouds and the moon is obscured. I fall into the clutches of a deep sleep and the unforgiving cold...

The first rays of the sun pry my eyes open for what lies ahead. The brightness of the greenery is a sight to behold for a person weary of living in a concrete jungle. I instantly crave to break free of the confines of my vehicle and gallivant into the lush green fields. My dreams have always been made of such open spaces, spaces symbolizing freedom and greatness. Spaces in the manner God made them – unbridled, untouched. Suddenly, I want to be the man herding the cows scattered all over like a child's toys. I want to be the boy bathing with complete abandon in the village pond. I want to be the woman leaning forward to work the rice in the fields. I want to be the men sitting on their haunches, sipping on their tea and indulging in morning banter. I want to be the boy frolicking in a puddle of rain water with his nervous grandfather. I want to be the girls riding their bicycles to school in their crisp, blue uniforms. I want to be the lad sitting around doing nothing. I want to be the family of gulls perched on the wall, side by side like wise old men looking towards the horizon. I want to be the train chugging along with its trademark coo, taking me forward in space and back in time. A barely 5 foot high mesh separates me from my desires. What hold me back are barriers of time and barriers set in my mind. The grass is literally greener on the other side, but it's not easy to cross over. I watch sudden drops of rain slide down the car windows as I stare outside in childlike wonder. The music playing is mellifluous, with Pankaj Udhas' "Aur ahista" slowly melting inside me and making me wish that things would really go more "ahista". Fuzon's "Mora saiyyan" blurs memories of a face long lost in the recesses of the mind. Richard Marx croons "Can't help fallin' in love with you" and "Aao na" gifts me memories of a year back and tears of the now, which surprise me…