Long, short, winding, straight, narrow, wide, wooden and concrete — tracks of the Indian Railways are not just engineering marvels that do the heavy duty work of moving the wagons but instead they are rays of hope and emotions that carry life to its destinations. They don’t start anywhere and nor do they end. The irony being that although they remain stagnant and stationary for lifetime, life floats over it and dances the dance with a motley of emotions and aspirations.
I was travelling through the beautiful and winding ridge forest in Delhi, an extension of the Aravallis, towards the railway station, crossing the craft-fully designed streets of the Lutyens where the modern Gentoos soak in the Delhi sun (whatever can make way through the thick layer of smoke) on a weekend. I was reminded of the good life in Delhi Winters. The one where people look forward to wearing their trendy trench coats and fur covered ear muffs, jovial evenings in the gullies of Khan Market and sipping coffee in the many inviting cafes in South Delhi — the modern ones that have fireplace machines installed so that the junta can sit out and not feel the cold, ofcourse with live music and de-constructed food. People are dressed up for evening dinners and coffee meetings with their loved ones, enjoying these chilly nights.
I sat in the train looking out of the AC compartment contemplating the reason for my existential angst and licking my imaginary wounds, like many of us so-called privileged homosapiens. The Delhi juggernaut gave way to quieter landscapes of Tughlaqabad and Faridabad and finally to the countryside India that was seemingly draped in a blanket of fog, enigmatic, menacing and cold. It was between these contrasts of the city and the village that there exists a clutter, a transition zone — the ‘have-nots’ of the city that live on the periphery of land, culture and society. I was privy to, or rather given a voyeuristic peek into, the life of the people most on the fringes of civilized metropolis and closest to the tracks. These are the ones who cannot sleep without the lullaby that resounds with every howling and rattling passing by of an Indian Railways’ wagon.
What I saw here was a world completely hidden form us physically and virtually outside the tinted windows of the trains — let us call it Utopia, we will know why by the end of this musing. The tracks were the mainstay of this mystic reality. Similar to the fireplace machines in the lounges and cafes in Delhi there were make-shift bonfires, to evade the cold and keep warm, being lit on the closest track from home of these people whom we shall call ‘the track-ers’. These bonfires were recurring every few hundred meters but the best part about them was the ready availability of raw material — trash dumped by the rail travellers on the railroad — that burns brilliantly leaving no trace of waste on the tracks. Little do the track-ers know that the plastic they burn for their survival may give way to carcinogenic fumes into their lungs, creating what I call a Survival Paradox. In between two bonfires was an array of activities keeping the track-ers so busy that it didn’t occur to them that they were on a railway track, the one that appeared to be ‘home’ but was actually borrowed real-estate from the Government. The Government that meant it as a service to the people — but could not fathom the various uses a railway track has or may have in India. There was a woman chopping vegetables, another butchering a live chicken and a third drying clothes and chilli on the track. There were young adults, behind trees and bushes, billowing rings of smoke and sporting blonde-dyed hair with a T shirt saying “Apna Time Aayega”, celebrating their youth breathing through corrupted lungs. Children playing with car tires that were disposed off long back and squatting near the drain that separates their houses from the tracks more likely suffering from diarrhoea, caught from the same place . Its meditative, like giving back to the world that you get things from — just that the things(diseases) they catch here are not blessings and what they give back is also not. They’re merely fuelling the cycle of death. There were also children in school uniform — cat-walking on the tracks -coming back from school — making sure their uniform is proper and resusable. And then, like in every class-ist society, there were the elite, the track-ers who possess a smartphone. I saw a few of them, sitting alone on the track and immersed in the life-changing experience that the smartphone provides with its PUBGs, Instas and Tik Toks. Ofcourse, they’re privileged to have a device that can click normal, wide and extra wide angled and auto-retouched photos, credit to the multitude of cameras that indeed are necessary — more than glucometers and health diagnostic equipment that could’ve maybe saved their life. The perfect selfie is a boost of dopamine nonetheless — preventive healthcare indeed.
The track-ers are the meta-minority in the country — an assemblage of many small and big ones. Between non-homogeneous array of brick houses were religious guard-posts of temples and dargahs that were smarty tucked away between gullies. For the track-ers these tracks were not what they looked like — they could be anything — benches in a Lodhi Garden or the ramparts of Purana Qila in Delhi or simply a relaxing chair next to a swimming pool, only that the pool here was embellished with human faeces. But they did not seem to care, they had accepted and almost forgotten the reality much like many of us have forgotten it or turn a blind eye or fail to notice it outside our train windows. The track-ers seemed happy where they were, possibly day dreaming of a better future for themselves or atleast their children sometime soon.
As the train bulldozed its way to the countryside, the tracks creaked under the momentum and the speed, leaving the track-ers behind. The beautiful landscapes of rural India washed away the gloom and sprinkled the heart with a poised tranquility. An afterthought though remained — why would the track-ers not come back to this life of peace in the countryside? Why would they not make their lives easier and more wholesome? Is it so hard ? Or is the drug supplied to their senses by city life - prone to relapse? Did Mahatma Gandhi envision this when he said that the Railways were a tool of evil and will spell doom for the real India that resides in its villages ? Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj — “ the railways are a carrier of plague germs, instruments for frequency of famines and responsible for creating a class division in the society”. The context of Gandhiji’s critique was very different but the current reality for the track-ers is not far away from it.
The Greek coined the word Utopia but had two pronunciations and two meanings for it — Eu Topos meaning ‘the good place’ and Ou Topos meaning ‘the place that cannot be’. The ‘track-ers’ are living their lives somewhere between these two meanings and struggling to find a holding yet accepting of their fate, that is as tethered to these tracks as the tracks to the Earth. Like the tracks, that are indifferent to the wagons running on them, the track-ers are also indifferent to people, like me, who ruminate on their lives, putting our romanticized meanings to their realities.
Note — some relatable images can be found here — Note — some relatable images can be found here — https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3097192/The-filthy-dangerous-life-India-s-poorest-slum-children-play-train-tracks-parents-cook-bamboo-shelters-just-feet-away-onrushing-carriages.html