On train travel and creative unity in India.
The modern age has brought the geography of the earth near to us, but made it difficult for us to come into touch with man. We go to strange lands and observe; we do not live there. We hardly meet men: but only specimens of knowledge. We are in haste to seek for general types and overlook individuals…………………from CREATIVE UNITY, an essay by Rabrindranath Tagore
There are any number of reasons to catch a train in India. A cheap way to get from A to B, a peep inside the “Real India” often denied to foreigners in an India trained to put on her best face for visitors and sometimes even trains exist simply for the experience of the journey.
It was the latter that set me on a course for what has become a Rail Yatra of India. I thought it would be a swansong of my travels so far in this country, a way of saying goodbye, a final fond gaze at this beloved land. But by the time I had completed only half the journey, I was falling in again at every bend and with every shy smile exchanged.
Then there is my constant companion, The Muse. I have been courting her you see. My muse needs movement. She sulks and goes into hiding if I spent too long in one space. My muse craves the rock and rattle of local buses, the soothing cradle roll of a boat, the rhythm and rhyme of a train journey. The company of strangers, the shy smiles exchanged that mark the beginning of a friendship, a heart connection, the miracle of a random guru who teaches you in an unexpected way.
And then because I am lately wondering what it is about India that makes foreigners “take the facts that (PLEASE or..) displease him and readily makes use of them for his rigid conclusions, fixed upon the unchallengeable authority of his personal experience.” (Tagore, Creative Unity). How we dare to be an authority on India when no Indian would lay claim to the same. Being Indian and the issue of Identity is a huge and continuing discourse in India and I was interested in eavesdropping into some of those conversations.
At first it was simply to travel on longest train journey in India – from Assam in the North East to Kanyakumari in the Southern most tip of India. But then I realised I needed to be at the foot of Nanda Devi in mid August and so the idea of the Rail Yatra was born. It seemed like a cop out to fly from south to north if indeed I was on a journey back to the heart of India. Friends (mostly friends from phoren) declared me crazy, others gleefully reminded me of the Rats in Trains stories and still others bragged about about scoring cheap air fares that meant they never had to catch a train in India ever again. I think they missed the point.
The most significant fact of modern days is this, that the West has met the East. Such a momentous meeting of humanity, in order to be fruitful, must have in its heart some great emotional idea, generous and creative. (Tagore- Creative Unity)
I thought about bringing my own rat traps, I thought about fasting for the 72 hours I would be on the train so that I didn’t drop rat attracting crumbs nor get sick from the Railway catering service. I thought about that stuff you use instead of soap these days to purify your hands. I reckoned that a python would be a handy traveling companion but in the end I just jumped the train….because as Kerouac says “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”