Growing up as a nomad can be very distressing for most kids. Imagine having to give up on your friends, a school that you had gotten used to, a house that seemed rather homely-and move to a whole new city (town in most cases) with an alien language and no friends around.
In such cases, one tends to seek solace in things that are not as ephemeral. You learn to observe way more than what a normal child would. For much of my childhood, it was the rain that distinguished one town from another. Like the sort in Kharagpur. It was a rather large bungalow with a veranda that ran all the way in the front. Many a late summer afternoon have I spent there watching the Bengal monsoon break upon the colony. It is not gentle or noiseless. Streaks of lightning rent open the sky, rain pours down with a roar till it gushes off the side of the roof and flows towards the roadside drain cutting gulleys of its own throughout the garden. And then when it is all silent, frogs croak contentedly near the huge water puddle while birds swoop down to pick off the bugs partying too hard in the grass post rain.
Living in a railway colony, it was hardly surprising that trains were such a constant presence in our lives. For one, we travelled way more often to way more obscure places than most people did. Railway talk was de rigueur. For me the most fascinating part was when I would sneak off to the railway embankment and wait for the trains to show up. Mostly it was a ‘boring’ goods train carrying wheat from the fields of Western UP to the FCI godowns or cement from down South to North Bihar. But occasionally the star performers would make an appearance. Early in the evening the high tone whistle of the crack Vaishali Express would sound as it came tearing in from Barauni towards New Delhi. In the late afternoons it would be the Sayagraha Express to Raxaul. Like all good Bihar bound trains, it would have people packed in to the rafters with a thick crust on the roof as well. While going to school in the mornings, I would fervently pray for the level crossing gates to be shut so that I could see Chauri Chaura Express trundle in. The evenings spent jaywalking along the old metre gauge tracks or watching the gateman brew his endless cups of tea remain deeply embedded in memory.
Railway life taught me something else too. Along with the Army, it is one of the most diverse organisations in India. It was perfectly normal to have a dozen languages being spoken in the same railway colony. Kharagpur, an out and out railway town, had a Bengali speaking Sardarji as its MLA for the longest time. His voters were an oddball mix of Bengalis, Hindi speaking people from Chhatisgarh, a few Marathis from Nagpur, a huge segment of Oriyas and Telugus with a generous sprinkling of Anglo Indians. One ended up sampling all of their food, picking up a smattering of their languages and learning a lot about their customs. Durga Puja was big, not surprisingly for a Bengali town, but so was Christmas and a variety of North Indian festivals. Poori Tarkari, Dosa and Kobiraji chop competed for the position of preferred breakfast options. It is impossible for a railway man to be parochial, communal or narrow minded. The more closely you see a fellow human, the more you realise that he is just the same as you are. The hate that so often convulses India has its roots in a blind devotion to one’s own caste, community and region. If only people travelled and met a few more of their fellow countrymen, things would have been very different.