by Akand Sitra
Posted on 3rd May, 2015
I had quit my job in October 2013, because I was preparing for Civil Services Mains, which was held in December that year. Right after Mains, and before the Interview, I thought of understanding rural India as it is. Not by reading in books, nor by watching movies, but I wanted to see with my own eyes.
So, I picked up my backpack, and started travelling. An IAS officer should understand the society well. True understanding doesn’t come merely by reading books, articles and reports. I was an urban educated regular middle-class guy. I had never seen true poverty of a rural farmer. I had never seen the crowd outside a ration shop in villages. I had never seen the quality of water, people actually drink.
Of course, I “knew” about all these. I knew the statistics. I had seen countless documentaries regarding the societal problems. I knew about female infanticide, I saw in movies about the bad upkeep of hospitals. I was empathetic, I felt bad for the people who couldn’t afford a decent meal every day. I was sympathetic and I wanted to do something for the society.
But, had I really witnessed true India? Had I seen with my own eyes people’s everyday living? I lived in Bangalore for over 16 years. But, did I know about the living conditions of the rest of the 70% of the population?
I can honestly say, No!
I wanted to travel the country. I wanted to see regular people in my journeys. I wanted to see true India. But, my savings were getting depleted very fast. So, I had to carefully plan everything I wanted to happen.
But, I didn’t know where to go!! One should realize that a journey without a destination is meaningless. It is akin to getting lost. So, my mother advised me to go visit far-away temples. I did not know what to say. I was an athiest, and going on a pilgrimage at such an age did not appeal to me. But, I then realized that I should concentrate on the journey rather than the destination. I wanted to experience and observe people around the temples. On top of that, I would get an extra incentive for going and visiting gods. It was funny that I was bribing God to give me a seat. I shouldn’t say this as it might be blasphemy.
Anyway, I started visiting nearby temples after making a long list. I wanted to cover 5000 km in 5 months.(And I managed to cover 10000 km including the Delhi trip) I had embarked on a journey which would change my life forever.
The 5000km I’ve Travelled:
1. Bangalore - Shirdi - Bangalore (1000 + 1000)
2. Bangalore - Vijayawada - Khammam - Bhadrachalam - Bangalore (650+200+200+650)
3. Bangalore - Tirupathi - Kanipakam - Sri Kalahasthi - Bangalore (700)
4. Bangalore - Delhi - Varanasi - Bangalore (2150 + 850 + 1800)
5. Bangalore - Tirumala - Bangalore (600)
Total - 10000 km in 125 Days
I did three types of travelling.
And in each mode of travel, I had new experiences and did learn a lot. I consciously observed everything in these journeys.
I always wanted to take the second class general coaches of trains. I had never done that before, and I assured my mother that I would be safe. So, whenever I traveled alone, I started taking general unreserved tickets. The first thing I realized was that they were dirt-cheap. And the second thing I realized was that the bogies would get hazardously crowded!
I truly started enjoying my train rides. The coach in the mornings would get so filled up that, in each compartment at least 12 people used to sit, where seatings for 6 were recommended. There would be 6 people sitting on the two upper berths too! I used to wonder how flexible they could be! Most of the time, I did not get a seat and I used to stand near the door and enjoy the beauty of nature. The trees and barren fields used to zoom past by me, and I would just stand there enjoying the air and would observe people.
In the evenings, I could see that many men used to go back home from work. They literally traveled for over 60 km every single day to work in the big city and then travel back again to go to their far-away towns. They lived too close for total urban migration, and they lived too far away for a less-tiring commute. I used to get frustrated even if I was stuck in traffic for a mere 30 mins. But, after seeing this so much hardwork for mere sustenance, I had to humble down a lot. They were brave dedicated men, who worked and traveled extra-ordinarily so that they could provide their families a decent living. All of them were small-time blue-collar employees and suddenly I had immense respect for them and applauded silently for the sacrifices they were making for their families.
The people in second class bogies were both very friendly and very short-tempered at the same time. I saw many small fights over small things, and used to get very amused by them. These fights were some sort of entertainment for the rest of the travelers. They used to fight verbally and physically over issues like seat-sharing or water spillage.
But, at the same time people were very understanding and helpful too. I was tired of standing and wanted to sit down. There was an aunty beside me sitting on the ground. When I tried to sit, she offered me a sheet of newspaper to sit on.(All seats were full, and one cannot imagine the crowd) Imagine sitting on the floor near the bathroom and the door with all the stench filling the atmosphere. I was supposed to get disgusted but for some reason, I was enjoying myself. I started truly experiencing what they experience. I started feeling what they feel.
At this time, I truly admired the Indian Railways. The tickets were very cheap and it helped millions of very poor people travel. Even if they were very crowded, there would be a sense of belonging. I cannot imagine what would happen to those millions of commuters who use the long-distance trains to go to work everyday, if suddenly the railways increased the fares. I am sure there would be fuel-surcharges that would be added to the cost of the ticket in the future, and now, I was dead against to it. Truly, the Railways was a welfare organization, and I wouldn’t mind it running in losses if it was giving life to so many poor people who are at a disadvantage.
The food items that were being sold in the General section were also very cheap! I ate a small packet of hot and tasty sambhar rice for a mere Rs.15! I started understanding the true meaning of a welfare-state.
In the above picture, one can see sitting together on the same berth are a well dressed government employee, a small scale industry businessman, a college student and a farmer belonging to various castes, classes, religions and regions. The line which divides people along castes and classes is truly blurred in a second class coach of the Indian train. The trains are the single-most unifying factor this country has seen and one should be proud of it.
Yes, the train gets this much over-crowded. I was sitting on the corner most seat trying not to fall off and I could see Biharis, Tamilians, Christians, Mizos, Gujjus etc. sleeping all over each other!! Where else can you see this beauty!? Trains are truly the melting pot of various cultures and depicts the true India.
The next type of new experience came when I was traveling with my parents in reserved 2A sleeper coaches. Here, the people were of a different class who were educated and were informed about current affairs and news. My father has an unusual habit of chatting up with co-passengers every time we travel. (I think all old uncles have this annoying habit). The discussions usually would lead up to politics of various states. Till then, I never listened to all the grown-up talks, but this time I started listening more. (Civil service prep mentality I guess)
This time, I understood the differences in political perception of urban city people and other people from smaller towns and villages. Urban young people talk a lot about politics on social networking platforms like facebook etc., but would have never been to a political rally. They wouldn’t even know who would be contesting from their own constituencies. Urban young citizens do not talk about manifesto points and usually many are lost in the crowded busy city life that they do not vote also. (Bangalore had a 50% voting rate).
They have strong opinions about a particular party and usually support one top charismatic leader. They wouldn’t care about the rest of the 500 odd MP contestants. They usually wouldnt even know what ideology each party stands for.
But, on the other hand politics plays a huge role in smaller towns and villages. This might be due to the slower pace of life, villages being much more peaceful and the people who are not rushing so much everywhere. Villagers would go to a political rally atleast because they are bored at homes and need some form of entertainment. Elections are a very exciting phase of life for them, and they believe in local mass leaders than the party high command. Most of the people who were discussing in the train would talk about their local leader in their constituency and not the party itself. So, an established local leader can get votes even if he changes the party frequently. It may be due to caste lines, but it is the name of the candidate which matters more and not the party itself.
These kind of exciting political talks usually happen over a long train journey. I truly believe trains are the best modes of transportation and one can learn a lot about life during a long-distance train journey.
Once, we were driving to a nearby temple (Around 150km) away. We had to go through some villages to reach that old temple.
On the way, we stopped near a local tea-stall to drink some coffee. I got out and ordered for all of us from the tiny tea shop. There were few people sitting inside already sipping their coffee from a ‘glass’ tumbler. The tea shop owner gave us four cups of tea in a ‘stainless steel’ cup. I'd seen a documentary about casteism, which showed that the glass cups were used by lower caste people and the tea shop owners usually give stainless steel cups to higher caste people. Maybe, by seeing the car, he thought we were from a higher caste. When I realized this phenomenon I asked him to give me a cup of coffee in the glass tumbler to check his reaction, he and the others looked at me weirdly for a second. He then gave me in the glass one and I went back into the car and explained the story to my family members. It was amazing to see discrimination on such a large scale.
These travels have taught me about poverty, welfare-state, caste, religion, region, politics and basic human behaviour. The journey into rural India opened my eyes and showed the naked truth of the country that we live in. With such an enlightening experience I was truly ready to contribute. I had inculcated many new qualities and had strived to become a better human being from that day.
Those 10,000 km and 125 days have truly changed my life, and I think everyone should travel within their own country properly, atleast to understand one's own life better.
A 23 year old, who is on an eternal quest for adventure, excitement and adrenaline.
India, Discovery of India, Train Travel, Destinations, Rural India