I was traveling to Ferozepur, Punjab, circa May 2005.
The bonus of traveling by train is the pleasure of seeing the Real India, her lands, fertile or brutal in variegated colors and hues. Flying takes away the pleasure of seeing the land one is born into and grown up in, does it not? Never mind the bonus of being quickly deposited at one's destination. Does anyone actually make friends at an airport lounge the way one does in a train compartment?
As we puffed through the countryside, the thought that comes to mind is that this is the real India nurtured by the seat, toil and tears on which the rest of us survive.
Passing thru Rajasthan, I was amazed to see, not the earlier stretches of desert, but signs of cultivation stretching back to the horizon, as far as the eye could see; neat patchwork quilts of fields of different hues of brown, the burnt leftovers of the last harvest, ploughed in anticipation of the post monsoon next.
A man and woman stood over a pile of wood, the woman in her traditional ghagra and odhni. The man had switched to pant and ganji. Is that an upgrade? Our women have clung to roots much more strongly than men 'since time immemorial.
Historically it has been so. When the Muslims came, it was the men who succumbed, for job/opportunity/whatever; Akbar created a new religious model combining Islam with Hinduism but the lady, Jodhabai clung to her roots. So it was when the British came and the same Rajputs, and many others switched to pants and suits while their women clung to their saris and ghaghras. Was it when men reverted to their roots, in India's Camelot era with Rajiv Gandhi leading from upfront that the ethnic upsurge took place and that India revived and started shining?
No one had prepared me for the extent of green cover and ploughed fields in Rajasthan, otherwise our desert state. Where had they sprung from? Was this the miracle of the Indira Canal? Or the greening operations of the Rajiv period, which had seen digging of pot holes and tree plantations drive Rs. 2/- for a hole and 50 p for a tree which captured rains, raised water beds a couple of decades down the line?
Or the result of water conservation efforts by NGOs, since, for stands of rock, in between are prominent, grey and black often interrupting the green and brown, with meeker, bushy cactus and hardy greens dominating uncultivated patches.
Most of the passengers in the Ac compartment have drawn their curtains. Is it because they do not wish to see the Other India? The sight too brutal for the Multiplex generation? With dried out rivers, potholes of water, and patches of brown and khaki and open shelters with crude twig roofs. This world would rather not see them.
Throughout the Rajasthan train journey, there were old houses, with thick stone walls for cooling. All had flat roofs and terraces open.
I had been warned that no food would be available and carried mountains of snacks but the pantry car attendant took orders for lunch. At Nana, apparently in the middle of nowhere, vendors carried baskets of fresh vegetables, cucumber, tomatoes, onions and lime for salad into the carriages, bypassing the AC cars!! They knew from experience that the first class crowd would never touch vegetables fresh from the fields. I felt deprived.
Where had these fresh vegetables sprung in the middle of the desert? Perhaps this was the miracle of the Indira Gandhi canal, which was fought tooth and nail for decades, following the disastrous experience at the start.
At Ganganagar in its northern most reaches, the canal lands had been populated by farmers from Punjab who were used to rich lands and plentiful waters. Perhaps it was the transplantation of those methods of farming in the dry arid soil which created the mess of salinity and water logging which brought the entire project into disrepute.
Then the outcry that the waters of the canal were actually seeping across into neighboring territories of Pakistan. Should that be a reason to stop a project which has brought such agricultural riches to a desert land which ancient history insists was a land of milk and honey? Scientists are still trying to resolve the mystery of the lost Saraswati which is believed to have flown in this region in the hoary past.
Traveling by train offers one many insights into how India is changing. Amidst all the official talk of a falling sex ratio and the need to prevent illegal abortions, even school figures reveal that the girl child is becoming a rarity, thanks to so many selective births. What was evident on that train journey is that those that remain are more hyper, more outspoken and rude to their mothers especially. WHY?
I found the Papas pampering the little girl's silly and actually encouraging them so that the mothers take the brunt. No discipline, going overboard with pampering girl child, but the bottom-line remained ancient and firm ' serve the men folk.
The little girls were prompt to run up to help the mamas in feeding the men folk, be it fathers, uncles, cousins or little brothers, before settling down to their own meal.
The young mothers either could not or did not want to discipline their kids. It was too much of an effort and so much easier to let them do what they pleased!! When second one came along and grew to the age of disputing with elder sibling, the elder daughter is packed off to boarding school.
The old logic used to be that home schooling should come first and later the hostel as a finishing process. That has now been stood on its head. The first years of schooling in a hostel will, they argue, instill the required discipline, to make coming home easier and as a 'treat after the punishment' of being in the hostel for earlier undisciplined behavior.
What sounded a bit ominous was that most were opting for boarding schools run by the more militant religious organizations which operate under a 'secular' cover. Having heard some of the more rapid public speakers from some Hindutva organizations, one wonders whether there is any hidden agenda in the springing up of so many boarding schools for girls. To zero in on natural leaders among them and capture their minds early, brainwash and develop as future party/organization leaders, pracharaks etc.