Monday, February 27, 2012

Rhythm On The Railways

Travelling after all is discovering. And, it is quite often the journey, rather than the destination, that presents us many pleasant moments of life. During the turn of this decade, we decided to travel to a peaceful corner of our beautiful country, without knowing how a simple train journey would offer us such a romantic experience.

The train to Murshidabad, from Kolkata starts early in the morning and the journey takes about 5-hours. The train is called Hazarduari Express – named after the palace with more than one thousand doors in Murshidabad. It's a real train for real people. So, to be on the safe side, we reserved our seats, as someone told that on the Haat (weekly market) day the train would get overcrowded - somewhere on the way. Not yet being a 'heritage route' means it is spared the mock interiors and trapping of luxuries. The train, however, is clean with padded seats of earlier vintage and overall interior giving a charming retro-chic look.

As the train left Sealdah, varied landscape of a changing society was flying past our windows - bustle of the mega city, with its tall buildings and squalid extremities, followed first by a decaying industrial landscape of the outskirts and then, after Kalyani, giving way to a distinctly rustic sceneries. Gradually green became predominant colour in this fertile outlying area. During this period we saw mainly office goers and business people as our co-passengers and a busy group of hawkers selling a wide assortment breakfast.

But, The Hazarduari Express is not a mode to travel with faceless crowd, but to make your little discoveries. So, when the train reached Krishnanagar, the outlook inside the train changed quite a bit. Here we met many rural gentries and rich landlords entering the reserved car. They happened to be very keen to talk to the “visitors” from Mumbai, which we readily reciprocated. Though from hinterland, they were educated, knowledgeable and pleasant to talk. Most of them were talking proudly about their children, who were doing well all over India and abroad. Yes, here the people are known not by how much money they have but how educated and well placed are their children.

After Krishnanagar it is a single – line rake and as such the train had to take longer stop in smaller stations – in-front of colourful fields of mustard, rice and pulses. We took a look at the crowded unreserved compartment full with people carrying their produce to the Haat. Everyone seemed to be happy without any apparent reason. We also noticed absence of any beggar inside the coach or on the platform. It seemed that somewhere land reform, mass education and decentralization of power by Panchayati Raj were really working in this rural hinterland.

The passengers, mostly from the reserved compartments, came down during such halts and the platform became abuzz with their discussions on myriad subjects, ranging from family happenings, neighbourly gossip, national politics, American meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan, some new plays launched in Kolkata and off course, football and cricket. In a single place, we could capture the gloriously lazy pace of Bengali suburban and rural life, in all its senses and sensibilities.

But, off course the best bit of Bengali culture was to be enjoyed inside the train. With luck, a ride on the Hazarduari express can be more than just a ride from point to point. I was told that, in this route one can enjoy great folk dances, talented percussionist and group of men doing reasonable rendition of popular one-act political plays with hardly any prop. Luckier ones can even expect a puppeteers and even a travelling magician – their performances putting smiles to the faces and twinkles to the eyes of the weary passengers.

So, we were expecting to taste a few samplings. And, just after Plassey, an enterprising fellow entered with a bright “Namashkar, Good Morning!” hung a wine-red velvet curtain between the two chromed posts at the end of the car and painstakingly started up his Karaoke player. He gave some renditions of famous Bollywood and Bengali modern songs interspersed by his interesting cues and exchanges with the audiences and his grand and gracious “thank yous”.

The intrepid Bengali Baul singer was the next performers with his song about touching the divine grace through the earthy life. The sound of the string of his ektara was reverberating inside the coach and wordings of the song entertaining as well as getting the travelers to take a pause and think about the frivolous-ness of daily life. Next came a fantastic flute player giving magnificent rendition of some well known Bengali classic tunes. It, indeed, turned out to be a veritable cultural show.

Time flew unnoticed and the journey from Plassey to Murshidabad seemed so short. We remembered that Robert Clive defeated nawbab Siraj-ud-Ullah in that famous battle of Plassey and ushered British Company rule in India. And, Murshidabad had the distinction of having grand palaces built by the British for subsequent nawbabs. The intention was to convert Indian rulers to British puppets and totally change the culture of the people.

Happily, our train journey to visit Murshidabad allowed us to get an interesting perspective of our country. We understood that the colonial power might have had exploited and looted us of many things, but in their two-century long rule they were not successful in breaking our cultural mooring and Indian-ness. And, I am sure none will be able to do that to us in any foreseeable future.