Train journeys in India are often associated with different concoctions of card games, played over an endless supply of chai served in small earthen cups. The tea often has no particular flavor, but mix it up with a game of rummy, bluff or teen patti, and the brew can certainly be palatable. On a recent trip to Kochi, during a pit stop in the home of ‘Masala Dosa’, Udupi, I had a pleasant experience worth documenting.
every day. Waiting for a habitually delayed train from Udupi, whilst the night was coming closer to the devil’s hour, it did not take long for me to get lost in the billow of my dreams. In the morning, I was awakened by the emphatic and cheerful voices, spoken in a heavy English accent. Not quite ready to give up on my sleep so soon, I tried to doze off again, but alas, only for about another half an hour. My dreamy nap was interrupted by the incessant, loud voice of a hawker selling breakfast. I settled for a greasy omelette served with dry bread and a cup of milk tea, with which I retreated to the privacy of my berth on the upper side of the compartment. While lying there I heard loud giggling and some playful chatter. Gently moving the curtain to steal a glance at the source of the sounds, I was amused to discover, a group of people comprising of my brown compatriots, and pale skinned foreigners enjoying a rather loud game of cards. As I did not wish to intrude, I decided to return to my reclusive self for the remainder of the journey. At that moment a burly man from the group, with a horse-shoe mustache, called out to a certain young boy to join them in their game. Looking left and right down the aisle of the compartment, I realized with a sheepish smile that he was inviting me to be a part of their little group.
Climbing down the rusting metallic support steps of the berth, I introduced myself, hiding my characteristic shyness while trying my best to make mental notes of everyone’s name, which elude my memory now. There sat before me a group of people unlike any I had encountered before: A young Israeli couple?that brandished identical braided hair, a septuagenarian couple from Amsterdam with a flustered pink glow on their faces, a businessman from Texas who worked in the oil business and a family from Karnataka– all members of this little group were headed for different destinations, but were brought together by a chance of fate. For as long as time permitted, we displayed great camaraderie, despite the diversity of our age, origins, characteristics and reasons for our voyages. The Israelis wanted to visit the Old Jewish Town area of Kochi to feel closer to their history in India, the Dutch wanted to go back in time to the shores of the Dutch Malabar, the tough looking Texan wanted to explore the renowned massage tours of Kerala, while our indigenous Kannadans were on their way to bless a couple about to share the auspicious vows of matrimony.
Despite over two hours of small talk pertaining to sight-seeing and news concerning India, there was never a dull moment for our diverse group. Clichs abound, we ended up discussing the Qutab Minar with its mysterious Iron Pillar, the spices of our country and the Taj Mahal, of course. I talked in length of North India, especially Punjab, trying my best to propagate the land best known for Sikhs, butter chicken and lassi, while my Kannada friends chipped in with talks of corruption and women’s safety, with later additions from my side as well.
It is interesting to note that, we Indians like to point our shortcomings to foreign guests with a multitude of potential reasons. Maybe it is to lend a more mysterious air to our country in the eyes of our guests, or to subtly hint at one’s own political clout or even a certain reticence when it comes to such things, but the exact reason might evade us forever. I have done it, too, and despite being guilty as charged, self-criticism has helped me break the ice many a time. Breaking in a pack of cards over these conversations, we played several different card games, with our own Uncle Sam taking the lead by introducing us to complex American card game called Bacon, while I pitched in with Judgement, an Anglicized derivative of the Indian card game of Kachufool. The young children of the Kannada family urged us to join them in a game of Donkey, in which a letter of the animals name would be assigned to you every time you lost a point and the first one to become the donkey would have to sing a song. Despite its juvenile nature, our guests seemed to enjoy this game more than the others and it was amusing to see grown-ups indulging in childish plays. Entering the last phase of our journey, it became evident that no more passengers would be boarding the train and our guests decided to make merry while the cat, in this case the TTE, was away. Pocket sized flasks were brought out and passed around for all to sip, the strong smell emanating from the flask told me it was alcohol. Although I had seen similar things on train journeys as a college student, they had been restricted to the precinct of the dirty washrooms, unlike now, where the only things lacking were orange juice and music. My mother would have disapproved, but my stereotypical Punjabi uncle who never travels without his hip flask and a bottle of orange juice would have ratified this act, but like always, I paid little heed to my uncle’s words. I tried to hide my amazement at the party that had taken shape, but I couldn’t stop the embarrassed smile from spreading across my face.
As the train approached stations such as Thrissur and Alluva, before finally settling down in Ernakulum, we read out the names of different stations for them to help them with the correct pronunciations. Our foreign guests soon left us to carry on with their journey.
I’ve had my share of train journeys in which I have many a times met various interesting people, such as an origami artist from Japan when I was a young boy and at another time a young girl with whom I had an interesting talk only to discover that she was a junior from my college. However, this journey was something I had never imagined possible in my wildest dreams. I must confess I succumbed to the juvenile temptation of taking selfies of our group and posting them on social media, but I was too excited for prudence to play a role at that moment. The train journey left me with a great taste in my mouth before my adventures in Kochi had even begun. Fortunately, this experience turned out to be an overture to what was a rejuvenating experience in the cultural nuances of the Malabar. This was one journey which would stay with me for a long time and I only hope that I was able to play my part well for our sacred guests, and that I made Amir Khan proud in his campaign for Atithi Devo Bhava.