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January 14, 2012

Me, seven languages and a train to Delhi


Travelling on an Indian train is never to be taken lightly. Unsuspecting family members, raucous school children and a diversity of cultures that can put any western anthropologist into a bind. I had not been in a good mood when we took the long train from Bangalore to Delhi. We had gotten a little late arriving at the station, mostly as a result of my experimentation with the increasingly complex Bangalore roads, and the husband and wife that we are, had a small tiff over my somewhat unnatural ideas. I got down of the vehicle, declining any help from the driver and we walked away in a huff. Me angry at no one in general and Samita at me.

The Rajdhani to Delhi defied expectations and the evening was surely going to be ruined a bit further. The entire train must have been an old reject from some popular route in the 90s, toilets being unclean and the appearance of a train I used to travel on when I was still a child. This was a not what we expected and in a fit of indignation, I asked the busy looking ticket checker whether this is the train or ours will arrive later. He was as frazzled as I imagined myself to be and replied in a gruff voice, Yes. God, this journey was proving to be as difficult as a Himalayan odyssey.

However, we soon found our seats and encountered the first rat, one of the several that we met during the long journey to Delhi. The rat scampered away but left a bad taste in our minds. And then we noticed the curtains, they were frazzled and felt dirty and the rubberized seats as well. Things were going out of hand when we noticed the motley gang who were occupying the other seats.

An ancient looking Punjabi uncle straight from the Pathan areas of erstwhile greater India, his wife, a Coorgi with a heavyset figure, a hyper energetic Marathi, a Bengali intellectual, A Malayali and a serious looking Tamilian. So there it was and the first smile came to me in a long time. We were in a compartment with six more people who spoke the exact number of languages as my wife spoke within our language enriched life. And we were the only ones looking out of scene, neither this nor that, neither a Punjabi nor a Bengali. We in our urbanized growth looked like we could have been from anywhere, but the general assumption was that we were from Delhi. So they spoke amongst themselves, in their respective languages, to their wives and friends, talking about us often, oblivious to the fact that we were able to understand just about everything. So the evening went past and the rats retreated. We slept, rejuvenated from this group, though no one spoke to the other, yet everyone was at peace.

The next began well for curiosity got the better of all our passengers. They asked, almost in unison and at the first opportunity that they go, are you friends, in college. What married, how many years… What 5 years, ohh where are you from. Oh, North and South, and finally they realized that we spoke all the languages. The curiosity turned to a childish grin as they realized that we might have eavesdropped. But the amazement continued right till we reached Delhi, though the rats never rested and the attendants were equally rude. It was a joy filled second day and all the pain of Bangalore got left behind.