It was a hot summer day. A few of us friends with our kids were traveling in the second class of the Brindavan Express to Bangalore. It is very rarely that I have traveled in such a packed reserved compartment of a train. There were people standing and sitting everywhere and it was impossible to get from even one bay to the next. I had to think many times before deciding to walk up to the bathroom, squeezing through those standing and walking over those sitting right up to the bathroom door. I thought, ‘Okay! This is going to be some experience! At least we all have seats.’
A few minutes into the journey, a very old frail woman walked into the bay next to us. She said she was traveling all the way up to Bangalore but didn’t have a reservation. One of us gave up our seat for her. And then there were young children who were standing for a long time. And slowly we were taking turns giving up our seats to those we thought would find it hard to stand for the entire duration of the train journey. Sometime into the train journey, all of us were standing with other strangers seated on our seats.
Children were sharing songs, games and food. The old woman was advising a ten-year old stranger girl how not to behave. She was annoyed at the old woman and asked her to shut up. Someone else was advising her not to speak to old people like that. People were asking Isha which school she was going to. She came up with her own interesting and entertaining response to it. Coffee, tea and snacks were being sold by these railway guys who had a knack with walking through the crowd without spilling the food. A customer was commenting to one of them ‘Is this what you call bread-omelet in your town? How sad!’ The angry bread-omelet seller snapped back at him. In the middle of all this noise and chaos, we were having our loud philosophical discussions about life, spirituality, community living, etc. While all this was happening, there was a beautiful sense of ease in the whole bay and everybody was smiling and laughing at different people’s responses and reactions to various different things. It surely was fun. Sweaty, squeezy, uncomfortable but solid fun!
After the long ride, I got off the train feeling very light inside; feeling a sense of joy about nothing in particular. It is a feeling I always have when I travel by the ordinary bus in Chennai (especially the crowded ones), or walk through these lower-class and lower-middle class settlements in the city. The passage from the coastal road in Besant Nagar leading up to the Vailankanni Church is one. There are many areas like that. People are gathered together in different corners either laughing, fighting or working together. In spite of dysfunctional elements of modernity like school-going children sitting down to do their homework or people glued to their TVs, there is still so much life bustling in these pockets. Seeing ‘amma’s sitting by the roadside and making and serving idlis somehow warms my heart! I often don’t feel this joy inside in comfortable a/c compartments of trains, a/c buses or upper-middle class neighbourhoods. There is a sense of sterile privateness and a lack of innocence to these spaces, which I find very repelling.