Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why i write about trains..

I have often wondered what compels me to write about trains. I just went over some of the material I have written, mainly prompted by this, and I realized that they seem to pop up in the strangest places. Odd enough as it may seem to you, it has never been a conscious choice.

If i delve little deeper into the weirdness that lies within, I could probably come up with flaffy psycho-analytical explanations for the railroad theme - like feeling a constant sense of displacement, of always anticipating the next time I will move from where ever I live, and so on. However, I honestly think that is not the case, for then my focus would not have been exclusively restricted to trains (why not flying? or road-trips? or bus journeys??) . It would also not explain my obsession with abandoned railroads. I think there is a much simpler explanation. I like trains and railroads because they represent a very nice period of my life - a time when I thought that being a railway engine driver was the coolest job in the world. Like most other things, the obsession with railroads has to do with memories.

When I was little, there was a show on Indian TV. I think it was called Yatra, but I cannot be sure. It was about the stories of people who made this train ride along the Jammu-Tawi express from Jammu to Kanyakumari. To this day, I believe that it was one of the most awesome TV serials to have ever aired on Doordarshan. In any other country, the premise of basing an entire show on a single train journey would have been laughable - it made perfect sense in India.

I have many memories of trains. There are childhood memories of walks taken on the platform at Bhusaval station on the Bombay-Howrah line with the father, as they changed engines from Diesel to Electric. I remember getting anxious about the train leaving and being assured by Dad that it would not. Or, more closer in time, eating cold vada-pav (with gunpowder) at Igatpuri on a winter morning on the way home for the winter break from college, and watching my breath mist over as it rose in the cool air, and feeling good that I was only three hours away from home. Then there is the odd evening spent in a railway waiting room in Jolarpet, waiting for a connection to Cochin - and having my first full fledged south indian meal (mainly consisting of a heap of rice and lots of sambhar). Bribing cops and ticket collectors ("Bees rupaye se humaaraa kya hoga sahab? Kam se kam pachaas to dene padenge na?") while making a two day journey across the country without a reservation. Memories of being ragged on the way to college, of a girl who sneaked over with me to the upper berth, of an argument amongst friends long since scattered to different parts of the world - an argument that eventually came to blows and was stopped by the railway cops, and of the sikh gentleman (from Patiala, no less) sharing his booze from a water bottle filled with vodka (there - the obligatory reference to a stranger and substance abuse, all at one go).

It's been a while since I traveled on an Indian train. Things were quite busy the last few years I lived in India, and flying was the preferred mode of transport. And honestly speaking, the two day journeys from Bumblefuckpur to B'bay and back had made me sick of the concept of traveling second class. The last few times I did take a train somewhere, it was in the antiseptic environs of an air-conditioned compartment - no vendors, no noise, and only a muffled awareness of the clickety clack of the wheels. In short, no fun.

But I never quite took to flying - I never enjoyed it. Even long distance flights feel too short. Planes are very businesslike, trains much more personable. You make friends on a train, you get to know people, and at the end of the journey you part ways, in all probability never to see them again. Unlike the hurriedly cool professionalism of flying, trains are messy, raucous and interesting. Like life.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

My favorite flavor of ice-cream

Stalagmite, Postojnska Jama, Slovenia (August 2007)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Amongst other things..

A suspected confirmed tornado hit the houses on my block this morning. You can see a report here. I live about a hundred feet from where the reporter is standing.

I was awake and in the loo. It roared for about a minute and water poured in through the bathroom window like someone was spraying it in with a hose. The house shook.

A few houses on the street lost their roofs. My roof is intact.

I went back to sleep, only to be woken up by cops and firemen banging on my door as they evacuated the neighborhood.

Since I was fast asleep, they had to bang on the door real hard.

As is apparent, my life is very exciting.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Overheard in the elevator

"Hey, I see you a lot around these days. What are you working on?"

"Something completely useless"

"But publishable?"


"You know, when I was at Lehigh, we used to say that a drug is something that when injected into a rat, produces a paper"

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A story for PGP

Here's one that I first told the night before Holi eleven years ago, at a tin-roofed chai shop, over hot chai and chhota gold flakes. At the time, I was a sophomore at SWITBEI (Somewhat Well-known Institute of technology in Bumblefuck, Eastern India).


SWITBEI is located, amongst other things, at the site of a former political prison where freedom-fighters were tortured *and* the place where the USAAF XX bomber command (the one that later dropped the Atom Bomb), was headquartered for the better part of the war. There were several airfields within a radius of a few miles, some of them used for staging air-transport operations over the Hump to supply China, and others for air-defence. Three of them are used by the IAF to this day - one as an airbase, the other the site of a large ground control site, and the third as a bombing range. Others lie abandoned - surreal concrete runways standing out amongst fields of paddy and tall grass - the planes, aviators and hangars have long since disappeared. The military has a sizable presence in the area - there is a large Army-EME establishment right next to SWITBEI, and there are Eastern Frontier Rifles have barracks near-by.

Sophomore year was also when I discovered the blessed plant - supply being cheap and plentiful in those parts.


We had decided that Holi would be celebrated in a celebratory haze. Bhang was considered an inefficient way of doing it (takes too long)- we were all about smoking it up. Me and a few other herb lovers set off to find the perfect place to get stoned. The old runway beyond the fields of the agriculture engg department was decided to be one such place.

The runway stands at least a mile away from the nearest road, separated by a huge expanse of tall grass. There are a few high power transmission lines in the distance, and a couple of villages. There is an old dilapidated radar tower, and a couple of watchtowers, but nothing of note for miles around. This being bumblefuck, the villages don't really have electricity. The train lines running to chennai can also be seen far away. You can almost see all the way to the horizon, only to be occasionally interrupted by clumps of trees here and there.

I had been to the runway once before, the night they shut down all the lights on campus so that you could have a clear view of the Leonid meteor showers - I remembered lying on my back on the grass and counted 300 shooting stars in the space of a few hours. So i knew my way around. We crossed the fence and we set out for the mile long slog through knee-high grass. It was a beautiful night - thousands of stars in a crystal clear sky. I had few worries. All was well with the world.

I was the first to get on to the cracked concrete runway. The others followed through. We sat in a circle and started rolling. SD had brought along a portable boom-box, and there was Floyd playing. A couple other first-timers had brought bottles of Old Monk, in case the green stuff wasn't to their liking. Off in the distance, two passenger trains crossed each other window-spotted caterpillar-like - the view uninterrupted such that we could see their entire lengths on both sides.

AB was the first to notice the man walking towards our little gaggle. "Shit, i hope its not a guard". We quickly stubbed our stuff out and hid it. As the man came closer, it was apparent to us that this was not a watchman - but a military officer of some sort, in a khaki uniform. This wasn't entirely surprising, because the EFR barracks were only a couple of miles away. We were clearly in trouble.

"Who are you chaps?", he said.

AB looked at his watch, and said, "Um, students"

"Students? What are you doing here?"

"Enjoying the night, sir"

I had already noticed that the man's accent was rather *english*, and then he said, rather sternly, "You have to clear the runway and come with me. The planes are about to land."

"Planes? here?"

At this point, we looked up, and saw that the sky was overcast. Over pouring rain, we could hear the drone of planes circling overhead. There were hundreds of twin-engined propellor planes lined up in the hardstands along the side. The officer was yelling at us by now, as a plane touched down at the end of the runway, and headed toward us. We got up and scattered. I set out to make my way to the road, and the safety of SWITBEI. I could see the planes landing one by one.

Then a huge blue arc of electricity raced down the high voltage lines and the planes were gone. It was no longer raining. The sky was clear.

I ran the three or so miles to the western gate without a break. So did the others. We reached the institute watchman's shack. He was puzzled to see us drenched.

"Kaise bheeg gaye?"

"Baarish mein"

"Kaunsi baarish"

We were scared to death and tired, and in desperate need for some warmth. So we headed back to the chai-shop next to the dorm, eager to tell our story to the regular crowd there.


I ordered my third double chai. Bangu lit up another chhota, and said, "Either you are making it all up, or all of you hallucinated because of the G"

"It's possible I am making this all up," I said, "It's also possible that all of us hallucinated, difficult as it may have been for all of us to hallucinate about the same thing at the same time. And how do you explain the fact that we are all drenched? In any case, it's up to you to believe me.. I am not going to prove it to you."

"The first one is easy to confirm", V.K. said. "We can go there and see if the ground is wet. If it isn't, they are making it up, since if they got drenched, and the thing really happened, the ground would have to be wet too."

I told them I was too tired for an excursion. So VK and bangu decided to retrace our steps and I went to bed.

I must tell you here that the reason I was drenched was because we'd had a water fight after we had spent a couple of hours getting stoned on the roof of the dorm, that night. The runway was too far, and we were far too lazy.


Sometime late at night, there was a knock on my door.

"(My nickname), you m*%&@, wake up. Something's wrong with bangu!"

I stumbled groggy eyed into the lobby of the dorm. V.K. had rushed to his room and was refusing to speak to anyone. Bangu was sitting on a plastic chair - pale, drenched, chain-smoking and mouthing something about a "Saala C-47's pankhaa" having almost cut his head off. We coaxed him into bed.

The next day I asked him what a C-47 was. "How the f&#* do i know?" he said. I would quiz both him and VK occasionally, but they never really spoke about that night again.

In hindsight, two things stand out in my head. The first is that the sky had been absolutely clear all night, so I don't know how he got drenched. The second is some thing I would get to know years later - that the C-47 was the USAAF designation for a prop-driven transport plane that was widely used during the operations over the hump. Whether bangu knew of it at the time, it is impossible to tell - he claimed he didn't. This having happened before the internets had come in a big way to india, I like to believe him. I also like to believe that on an abandoned airfield in Bumblefuck that Holi night, strange things happened in a way I had imagined they would.