Of journeys and destinations



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.

13 thoughts on “Of journeys and destinations”

  1. This is one of the best salutations I’ve seen to the importance of “working through” rather than “working on” a personal experience. At least to me, it is the crucial difference between sharing experience and trying to forget it. Most of us need to remember where we came from in order to know who we are, and what we need to do with others. I don’t find that particularly easy myself. Turning loose of control is a real challenge for most people I think. It is especially difficult in large organizations.

    I watch my students (I didn’t mentioned I just started teach full time after three decades of full time corporate or entrepreneurial endeavors) try to do group projects and I tell them…Hey! I can see what you are doing in the discussion groups and I can see what you are contributing to the project in the wiki…and even at the small group level people have problems trusting one another not to loaf, or free ride as the economists might say.

    I don’t care what kind of accountability, or incentive, system any organization puts in place, if you don’t cultivate trust between the organization and the employees, and between the employees and the customer…it won’t work out well. Connecting together in a common dialog with a mutual purpose is key IMHO…

  2. When Stanford students apply for my course ( http://socialmedialiteracies.com ) I ask them to read the syllabus carefully and agree in writing to the part about participatory learning. But it takes a while for most of them to really get the message that I’m expecting them to teach each other — and me. Once they loosen up and start sharing, the experience can become magical, but I can’t guarantee that they will do that. I tell them about it. I give them permission to do it. I model it. It takes a couple of elements to work. First, one or two of them have to leap out of their usual mode of listening for what’s going to be on the test, having the answers if they are asked, and keeping their work to themselves. These are the lead learners. Then you need a first follower or two (you all HAVE seen the first follower video on YouTube?). But I’ve learned that another important ingredient is enabling them to form loose social ties with each other. Getting together for dinner early in the term is good. Also, I think I will do this next time: I will ask them to form groups. It’s up to the students to form groups of 2, 3, or 4. Then their assignment for the week is to get together in person, do something fun, and talk about how they feel about social media (the subject of the course) in the process.

  3. Nice one JP. Took me back to my school days as well, which as you know were virtually the same years as yours. My trips were the Calcutta-Delhi ones and I still remember vividly the first ever Rajdhani Express that ran from Howrah to New Delhi and the discomfort as well as the newness and novelty of being in an air-conditioned ‘chair car’ as it was known. Its precursor used to be the Deluxe which took 24 hours as against the 17 of the new and improved Rajdhani. I have a clear memory of people rushing into the carriage at Howrah station to “bag” the overhead rack space for their larger than regulation size baggage and the long queues outside the toilets early in the morning where bleary eyed passengers stood toothbrush in hand! I have traversed the Calcutta- Madras too in the mid 70’s when my father was posted there and I continued to live in Calcutta with my mother. Vishkapatnam was a stop for some reason I remember all too well – possibly because a family friend would met us at the station and slip us packets of neatly packed, freshly cooked home food ( north indian fare as opposed to the stuff availbale along the line ! ). Oh and by the way the book stalls at the station were A.H. Wheeler as I remember ( not Newmans ) and yes Higginbothams as we approached Madras, including the massive store on Mount Road.

  4. @viki Wheeler’s! You’re absolutely right. Newmans probably published the Bradshaw, which itself was named after the biggest publisher of railway timetables.

  5. You brought back so many memories JP – Simple ones like the holdall – it had receded somewhere and perhaps would never have come back. Most of my journeys as a child were from Bhopal to Bombay. Loved every one of those and looked forward eagerly every summer. There was much leading up to them, the exams, the concession forms and early exposure to bureaucracy – but finally the journey. The best part, and every nuance you describe, the ash and coal on the face, watching the tracks go by through the toilet and so on comes alive. I enjoyed standing at the open doors (am on a train right now and was just thinking how not being able to open the windows takes so much away from the experience – cannot get a sense of the places i am passing through). Perhaps the most important pleasure of the journeys fell in two categories – the people we met, strangers who shared so much, their food, their lives, their cultures, and the transitions – across state lines, language lines, food lines and so on. We all came back blended, and somewhat more than when we left. Thanks for sharing.

  6. “Journeys are flows. Destinations are stocks” aside, what a wonderful and nostalgic capture of childhood journeys. It reminded me of the summer train journeys from Roorkee to Patna and back in the 1960’s and 70’s. The childhood delight and excitment of a midnight start, the worry of two minutes to load family and bags, the summer dawns as we trundled through village after village and sped by the fields, the bumps and jolts of the late night switch onto the main-line train at Mughulsarai, the smells, the villages, the cities, the images, the chai wallahs, the coolies…. and, finally, the excitement of my grandfather meeting us at Patna Junction late on the third night. Yes, it is all about the journey, the flow. They are unforgettable.

  7. This is great! We have the same ethos and are trying to get our undergrads to be more ‘journey-centric’. Much more interested in the route they took and what sights they saw along the way than the unpacking of their suitcases at their destination. After all, each destination is just the starting point of a new journey. We’ve been using Facebook to try to get students learning about statistics. They had a choice of traditional lectures and computer workshops ( like us buying them rail passes, planning their route and booking their hotels along the way) OR they could go back-packing (metaphorically speaking) and make their own way there…long’s they posted regular updates so that we could see whereabouts they were. Results have been fascinating ???? Both groups got to their destinations OK but the journeys of the 1/3rd that opted to back-pack were so much richer.

  8. Apols for typos…combination of tiny phone keyboard…bright sunlight and being on the move ????

  9. @shyam that’s the whole point. I’ve now seen comments from a number of people here, on fb, on li, and they have one key thing in common. The start and end points might have been different for our journeys, but once you actually consider the journey we see the similarities

  10. @mark corrected the unintended spelling errors in your comment, assuming that it was okay for me to do so since you sent me a separate comment explaining the reason/

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