Only train travel gives you the sense of a journey taken
I love the drive to the airport. It is not the same as driving to the railway station. The airport always holds the promise of a take-off – take-off from your present circumstances, from the routine. It promises an instant break. Train journeys, on the other hand, never let you get away from reality. You travel with the same people that you want to escape, and when you stare out of the window, the emptiness of the lands passing by stare back at you. You don't really escape, you only endure a journey.
That wasn't the way I thought until a few years ago. I had always believed that if a journey has to be made, it should be made only by train because only then you got the sense of travel. Imagine taking the flight from Chennai to Delhi on a December afternoon: one moment you are sweating because of the humidity, the next moment you are shivering due to the ice-cold winds sweeping down from the Himalayas. You don't feel the transition.
Had you taken the train, you would have travelled through six large states, physically covering every inch of the 2,000 kilometres that stand between the two cities – in the process watching one culture melt into another, one landscape giving way to another. But then, those were the days I had no money but all the time in the world.
Today, I may have the money – at least a couple of credit cards that can buy me plane tickets whenever I need to travel – but I don't have the time. Bosses aren't exactly pleased when you ask for a week's leave, and if, of those seven days, three are spent in the train (36 hours each way), what's the point? You begin to think of the things you could do in those three days and eventually find yourself logging on to makemytrip.com. The airport, in any case, is a far more comfortable place to kill time than the railway station. You have a small army of courteous staff, the cabin crew included, who readily attend to your needs and calmly put up with your tantrums. In a railway station or in a train, courtesy is something you never take for granted.
Having said that, I now want to revert to my old belief. A journey must be made only by train unless there is an emergency. I am no longer going to think about all I can do in those three days but what I am going to miss out in those three days. It is during those three days that I get to see the real India, which I rarely get to see otherwise. And to understand a country as diverse as ours, where dialects and cultures and customs change every 200 kilometres, it is imperative that you travel on land.
With air travel becoming affordable and time becoming a precious commodity, there is another huge threat: the future city-bred generations might never ever get to experience the vastness of India as they plane-hop from one city to another. A time will come when they wouldn't have even heard of places like Warangal or Nagpur or Itarsi. They would have heard of Madhya Pradesh but they would never get to know what Madhya Pradesh looks like – simply because the plane, unlike a train, would be flying over the state.
Even if you look at it philosophically, air travel is only an illusion: one moment you are sweating and the next minute you are shivering. It is the train journey that represents human life. Life begins at one junction and ends at another, and in between the train halts at various stations, small and big, where passengers who have given you company until now get down and new passengers hop in. And even before you realise, the attendant is busy collecting the bedsheet and the blanket and the pillow – an indication that your destination is arriving soon.
Destination need not always mean death. It can also mean discovery. And a train journey is the only way to make such discoveries – it keeps you rooted to the ground even when you are flying high.