Travelling by train in India used to be a wondrous experience. That is not to say it no longer is one: I have no current information on which to base my opinion one way or another. I lived in Calcutta between 1957 and 1980. During that time, I must have spent a dozen summers or so in Tambaram, on the Madras Christian College campus where my grandfather was professor of Chemistry. My mother would take us every summer for a month or so, and my father sometimes joined us towards the end of the break.
It’s a journey I remember well, particularly since I must have done it maybe thirty times over the time I lived in India. In those days, it used to take us three nights and two days for the fast version, the Mail, and five days/four nights for the slower version. The Coromandel Express hadn’t been conceived as yet, let alone commissioned into service. [Incidentally, the photo above is of a commuter service near Patna at a later date. I rarely travelled on commuter trains, and never on that route]. We travelled to other places in India as well, principally by train.
I can recall going to Bombay in 1962, and being fascinated by a wandering flautist playing Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par. [That may well be the earliest memory I have of anything]. We went back in 1972 for sure; I can remember buying my first single with my own money (Ten Years After, Love Like A Man) and watching Love Story on the big screen, man-tears throughout the last twenty minutes. I can remember going to Bhopal in 1964, which involved changing trains at Nagpur after spending the night in waiting rooms. It was the first and only time I had a Christmas stocking. I can still remember the lights as we approached Bhopal at night, and falling into a pond in Delhi in 1965; funfairs on the Parade Ground, ivory penknives and monkeys in hotels in Bangalore in 1966; and watching my father drive off the mountain in Darjeeling in 1969 (he was shaken, not stirred: the car jammed into railway lines twenty feet below the road). There were smatterings of Dindigul and Asansol and Durgapur and Salem, a few Kodaikanals, but the staple fare was Calcutta-Madras.
Every May, as we approached the time we would leave for Madras, to stay on campus with my grandfather, I started getting excited. So much to look forward to:
- Having a staring contest with the cobras and the toads in the outside toilet. [I kid you not. They looked for the shade behind the door, and, like any other seven- or eight-year-old, I was originally torn between the fear of the creatures and the shame of being too scared to pull the door shut. The only licence I have used here is to call it an outside toilet. It was a toilet that was integral to the house but approached only via an external door, a few yards from the front door].
- Climbing up the guava tree to the right of the front door… they were great to climb but extremely hard in terms of the bark and wood, taking the skin off you if you made the slightest slip.
- Stealing quietly into the room near the upstairs terrace, where my uncle kept his incredibly delicate balsa wood model planes.
- Stealing even more quietly into my grandfather’s Locked Room, where he kept the souvenirs of his trips abroad. Ball point pens. Postcards. Books of matches (even though he detested smoking). Tiny bars of soap (of the hotel kind…The entire room smelt gently and fragrantly of soap). Notepaper. Polaroid cameras. Dymo Labelmakers. A garden of delight. What self-respecting child would ever allow a locked door to keep him at bay?
- Learning to throw scalpels at the tree that dominated the turning circle in front of the house. Real medical scalpels. Real sharp. I must have left little bits of finger there every summer.
- Going into the chemistry labs with my grandfather, a rare treat. His boring lectures about the periodic table were anything but in hindsight.
- Dwelling on untrodden ways in the jungle that surrounded the house, having learnt basic snake etiquette.
- Pretending to be ill, being careful to make up symptoms that would pass muster, in order to be taken into the Holy of Holies: a session involving the opening of a beautiful rectangular wooden box filled with hundreds and hundreds of small white balls all of which tasted the same, yet had very different names. There was a good chance that I could be given a tiny tiny dose of arsenic or belladonna….My grandfather practised homoeopathy.
- Actually leaving the campus to have a Gold Spot with ice. We were not encouraged to have fizzy drinks.
As you can see there were many things I looked forward to doing, every time I went to Madras. But none of them formed the highlight of my journey.
That was reserved for one thing, and one thing only.
The journey itself.
Getting on that train was magical. Three days and two nights of magical. Going to the station: that was a delight in itself. Because each part of the journey had its own peculiar smells. Parking the car in Howrah Station (I think it used to be between platforms 8 and 9) and getting out, that’s when the journey began. Getting used to the “station” smell, slightly damp and dark yet familiar and comforting. Coolies who’d been lazing, smoking beedies and sitting on their haunches, sprang into action like cheetahs. The family used to travel with two suitcases and two holdalls, I can still see them now. The holdall was this strange beast, resembling a suit-bag with pillow-sized pockets at each end, designed to be rolled up and strapped tight. It would hold oodles and oodles of stuff. Never seen one since.
People would come to see us off, my father occasionally amongst them. And they would buy platform tickets for the privilege. Every trip. All the time. Going to the station was a day out.
Finding our coach and compartment was the next bit. And encountering the next set of unique smells, that of “train”. I’d have to wait a bit before I could excuse myself and inspect the toilet, which smelt of “toilet”. Looking down into the commode and seeing the train tracks below. Flushing, just to see what happened. Looking longingly at the alarm cord and knowing it was not to be.
Whistles and hoots and people scurrying off as the train began its slow departure and gathered speed. Which introduced the next smell. “Coal”. Sitting by the window, trying to look out, pressing into the red protective slightly concave bars. Occasionally getting stung by a live ember. Soot-faced within the first fifteen minutes, happily so.
Looking at bradshaws to work out where the train was going to stop next, which stops it was going to whistle through. Waiting for the vestibule attendant to come and take orders for food. Railway food. Including the mamlette. Incidentally, a close friend made me aware of this: Railways to bring back its forgotten flavours. Looks like I shall be a nostalgic tourist on Indian Railways sometime soon.
As the journey proceeded, there was so much to occupy myself. Looking at the other passengers without being seen to stare, wondering what their stories were. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera.
Trying to position myself strategically in the toilet whenever we were about to cross a major river bridge (like the Godavari), so that I could look down a very long way.
And eating. Eating at every stop, as people pushed food at you, delivered to your window, fresh and insanely-good-smelling. Yes, another smell.
At the longer stops (faithfully signalled by the bradshaw), getting out to the bookshop. For the first two-thirds of the journey I think they used to be Newmans, and then as we went further south they all turned into Higginbothams. Who knew what treasures we would find. Heaven was finding an unread Archie or Dennis in the early years, and Mad Magazine in later ones.
Sitting by the window, figuring out the system used to number the telegraph poles, and then trying to predict when the system would change over into a new one. Or when the sequence would break, driven by the terrain. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Looking without seeing, gazing into faraway fields while daydreaming at scale. Occasionally observing something bizarre, something comic, something remarkable. [For example, every now and then I’d notice a few women sitting together, on their haunches, in the space bordering two fields. And as we came closer they’d flip their saris over their heads. It took me a while to realise what they were doing. And why modesty demanded they cover their faces. Even though they were far far away.]
As a child I was very privileged to enjoy and savour the journey for itself and not just the getting somewhere that happened as a result of the journey.
We’d go drop our father off at the club or the golf course, and sing during the journey. Savour every bump in the road, particularly the “dink”, a very large dip near the entrance to the golf club.
We’d volunteer to meet anyone coming in by rail, and go to the station to meet them. Even if it meant there was no space for them in the car, and a second car or taxi had to be arranged.
We rarely flew in those days. And people rarely flew to see us. So trips to the airport were rare. But we would go to the airport. As an outing. Even if no one was coming or going. Just so that we went on a trip.
Yes, we enjoyed journeys. Traffic jams never bothered us. Time was of no consequence. Journeys were there to be savoured. And savour them we did.
This journey-versus-destination construct was part and parcel of our schooling as well. Destinations, especially repeat destinations, were boring. Journeys fascinated us. There was something different about each journey, even if it led to the same place. If someone solved a maths question, the answer was irrelevant. It was all about the journey to the answer. How did you do that? Show me!
As we proceed towards becoming true learning organisations, we’re all going to have to learn how to focus on the journey and not just the destination. Peter Senge signalled intent a couple of decades ago, but the world of work has changed dramatically since then. Collaborative tools are considerably better now that we’re all connected and using cloud-based services; our ability to share, to aggregate our learning using collective intelligence tools, to apply that learning iteratively, all these have improved in leaps and bounds. The need for collaboration has never been greater, as we face new problems; some have to do with speed; some with complexity; some with hyperconnectivity.
People like Howard Rheingold and Tom Malone and John Hagel and John Seely Brown have been working on this for decades, the shift to a networked iterative collaborative organisation, borderless in comparison with the past, adaptive and learning and contextually aware, built around flows rather than stocks, able to operate with collective intelligence, connected with customers, partners, supply and distribution chains.
So expect a few more posts as I dig into the theme of journeys rather than destinations. Journeys are flows. Destinations are stocks.