A hundred and sixty years ago, the first passenger train service in India ferried passengers between Bombay and Thane.
To me, one of the most profound things I have felt while travelling on the Indian Railways was the sense of unification. For a country whose geography, local language and cuisine changed easily every thousand kilometres or so in every direction, India could have very well been a couple of nation-states. Yet, after a long day of wandering around and experiencing everything from subtle changes in cuisine to disastrous changes in weather, wherever you are, there is a soothing comfort of the azure-blue coaches, and the familiar sounds emanating from the locomotives. It becomes your very own mobile home.
For irrespective of the zone, section or gauge of track, the essential character of the railways has stayed intact. The gentle tug pulling you out of the station, the one language that the wheels speak all over the country as they run over and over the (mostly)welded joints in the rails.. and then the coaches starting to sway in their own fashion, putting you to sleep. It works the same way whether it's over the shifting desert sands of Jaisalmer or winding its way through the thick tropical forests of the Briganza ghats. From being the only passenger in the eerily quiet coach of a weekday Garib Rath to near-asphyxiation in a commuter train, it treated you exactly the same way, and worked in accordance with its mottled manual - the one borrowing from the British, retaining archaic and quaint operational rules and incorporating newer ones as modernisation came in. This character was what bridged the gap, subconsciously, between you and your fellow travellers. The hesitant (sometimes brazen) question "Where are you from? Where do you want to go?" would soon give way to discussing places and sipping tea while the regular ones rattle off what train would be crossing momentarily. And by the time you point out the yellow board and explain reassuringly to the fidgeting gentleman how you could expect a faster run now that the train had passed the 'T' board, the railways has broken the ice elegantly. For, after a few minutes of getting to know each other you are no longer the different-looking fellow with the weird accent and the bulky bag. Bharat couldn't have put it better when he said:
"Your coach becomes your home, fellow passengers become family. There is food shared. There is old Bollywood music played. There are bets won and lost on card games. There is a unified sense of frustration when the signal stays red. And when it turns green, there is a deep, fulfilling sense of going. Somewhere. Anywhere."
Somewhere in the middle of recovering from chicken pox in high school and battling boredom from bed on a fine summer holiday, I stumbled upon the fact that I wasn't really alone in being drawn to trains as a kid. Over the years, IRFCA played more than the part of just an online group of crazy railfans. Although the list and its character has changed over the years, some people whom I near-idolised, whose travels I was virtually a part of and whose writings I read for hours on end, ended up inspiring me to do so many things that none of my tenth standard classmates had ever thought of or fancied. From regular blogging (oh some of them were the finest and funniest travelogue writers I had read, and still are) and photography to forcing my parents to let me book tickets so that we could take an elaborate (albeit much beautiful) route to our destination, railfans are truly one classy breed of humans. To this day I have talked to and met people some of whose full names I still have no idea about but have enjoyed many an interesting conversation and a cup of chai with. It's the very same group that has grown into a huge network with people of all ages who would be more than happy to meet you at stations all over the country. It was much more than a fleeting teenage craze, and for most of us it stayed well into adulthood - some finding their fix of pleasure in spotting locomotives, some in being entirely up to date on timings, crossings and the like, while some were just as content in heading to the nearest station every evening and watching the various cogs turn in their organisational wheels.
In the words of Krtgrphr, "There was always something to look at, some goodness to munch on, someone to talk to. Some of us grew out of that, yet many of us are reminded of that bond well into adulthood when we find ourselves suddenly awake at 2 in the morning, a sudden thud or a gentle jolt from the train’s entry into a station the cause. There, by the light of the yellow sodium vapor lamp from the platform, we crane our necks and try to catch a glimpse of the sudden activity on that sleepy platform through the grimy metal bars on the window. Years on, the world — the stations, trains, timings, announcements — everything has changed, yet the smells and sounds somehow remain the same."
And what better place to be at peace than a solitary train journey sitting at the door or chewing the cud by the window. It is the very same train that has soothed the mind off bitter thoughts and angry tears, as much as it has added to the general feeling of well being at happy moments in life. And it has been so for many a traveller - People sitting right opposite each other, looking out at exactly the same blur of green and gold in the sunset, yet lost in their own different worlds.
In the rush to come up with yet another IRCTC joke or making the stupidest of comments such as accusing the driver of not taking the right-side track while it was free, not many realise the fine web the Indian Railways has spun across the entire country and its populace. It is this subtle and unobtrusive unification that we take for granted and seldom stop to notice, yet it is the one of the most essential things holding the twisting, complex, battered yet beautiful fabric of the country together.