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‘A book is a train and the train is a book’

Palask Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

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Many a literary discovery is made from the comfort of train berths

I’d love to read a book on a bicycle, left hand on the handlebar, the right one holding a Doris Lessing, legs peddling away furiously, the crowded Indian street parting to make way for the intelligent hoodlum.

We read and write in all kinds of places, from bars and cafes to parks and gardens, where one can get distracted by other pleasures: People-watching and bird-watching. You lie on your back and let the blue sky lift you up and carry you away on a fluffy cloud; the book is left behind on a grassy slope. Which brings me to trains and long train journeys. This takes me back in time.

It began with weighing one’s options: Which books to take on the trip. I’d curate several lists before the final shake-out happened the evening before departure. The best berth for a bookworm has to be the side-upper with the thatched reading-lamp. If the side-upper had windows it would be perfect but we can’t have everything. The lower berth sees more human traffic but it allows one to combine reading pleasure with viewing pleasure.

Come to think of it, a book is a train and the train is a book. The prologue is the steam engine, the epilogue the guard’s van, the chapters are like stations. One sets targets for oneself, chapter four by the time the train reaches Satna, chapter eight by the time Itarsi rolls in.

The Indian child learns early how to protect her travelling library. Do not display your stash. Indians are great borrowers, and when boredom gets the better of them even the non-readers become readers. I learnt this lesson as a 10-year-old. Two hours into the 30-hour journey from Allahabad to Bombay, I found myself having to launch a massive book-hunt. My Melanie Brown Goes ToSchool had reached S4, the Folktales from Telangana was in S2, while my copy of Tamworth Pig Stories had somehow travelled all the way to the pantry car, ready to be turned to pork. When I grew older, I figured that books with difficult titles were safe to expose to the eyes of fellow passengers. No one will want to borrow VS Naipaul’s The Overcrowded Barracoon or Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’.

I associate particular train journeys with specific literary discoveries. I’d gone to visit my college philosophy professor in Kerala, and he presented me with a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn from his library. This I read on the upper berth of the Kerala Express with a chuckling breathlessness. I discovered Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre on the side-lower of the Prayagraj Express, from New Delhi to Allahabad. I bought my first Erica Jong from a pavement bookseller in Flora Fountain, Bombay, and finished half of it on the local, in the time it took me to get from Churchgate to Borivali. I also associate the Bombay local with rows of Marathi manoos reading Saamana with great diligence and concentration, while I took in Busybee’s column in The Afternoon Despatch & Courier. It’s what made me want to be a columnist in the first place.

Reading on the train is not always a smooth ride. We Indians tend to sleep early, especially on trains. Everyone is up at half past five in the morning, crowding the steel basin near the loo, vigorously brushing their teeth. If one is in a non-AC coach with no personal reading lamp, its lights-out in the dormitory at 10 pm. Here you are, in the middle of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, moving from one enemy to the next (alcohol, children), and the coach is plunged into sudden darkness, while a forlorn blue light mocks you gently. Not to worry; there is a way out.

If there is one thing we Indians respect, it’s examinations. Exams can’t happen without books. I stumbled upon this trick in college and used it for a good 15 years, until I no longer looked like a college student, even though I pushed it as far as I could, taking the lead from Aamir Khan and Rishi Kapoor, who continued to play college kids on screen well into their 40s. I’d started balding by my 30s, which is when I switched to pretending to be an IAS aspirant. Just cover your novel with a newspaper and when they turn the lights out, jump out of your seat and say, ‘Uncle, Aunty, I have an exam tomorrow!’ Nine times out of 10, they will let you keep the aisle lights on till late and even shower you with blessings in the morning for burning the midnight oil.

There is something mysteriously fulfilling about performing the reading act in a moving train, snug as a bug in one’s little nest. One reads slowly, in a state that falls between melancholy and euphoria, raising one’s eyes every once in a while to take in the changing landscape, the mind making connections like criss-crossing railway tracks, connections it will never make sitting in a room.

On one such journey, as I was about to finish Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a whispering huddle formed around the side-berth opposite me. A boy who was being taken to Bombay for cancer treatment had breathed his last. His relatives got off with the body at the next station. For the rest of that journey, I didn’t feel like reading. I continued staring out the window until it was dark and the bearers on the Rajdhani began serving tomato soup.

 

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on October 16, 2020
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