The romance of the rails is unforgettable, but flying heavenward has its charm

I love airplane journeys. It may be because it gets you from Point A to Point B with minimum wear and tear.

Within India, for an Indian, of course air is the best way to travel. You can have breakfast in Chennai and lunch at your village 100 km north of Ahmedabad the same day, which is exhilarating. It frees you up to focus on what is important, the purpose of your visit — meeting your relatives.

Trains had their charm. I remember when those two-day train journeys undertaken with the extended family used to stoke endless excitement in us kids. I used to dwell in anticipation on what colour the coaches would be: would they look important with multi-coloured bands running along them? Oh, how I used to silently pray they should not be just drab iron oxide red! Ordinary coaches of an ordinary train.

After the colour, what mattered was the length of the train. How, when it negotiated a bend, looking out with one’s head pressed against the bars of the window, the corner of the eye watering in the wind, one should be able to count the coaches ahead and behind. Ideally it should be in the mid-20s, to make it a good competitor against all those long, multi-coloured, fast trains that one met going the other way.

Often at the end of a journey I looked out for the locomotive at the head of our train as we were leaving the station: always shrinking from its harsh complicated sounds, but at the same time wondering at its dusty robustness that had pulled us all at such speed for so long a distance.

I remember once we were returning from our village. Since the train leaves Ahmedabad early in the morning, we arrived at the station by taxi from our village the previous evening itself, and had spread ourselves on big chaddars on the floor and on the benches of the waiting room adjoining the platform. We were a group of four or five cousins in the age range of 12 to 15 within the larger group, and we had already made our plans of how to spend the night. When the elders looked visibly asleep, we quickly slinked out of the waiting room and spent half the night on the platform, looking at trains arriving and departing, marvelling at the different looks of the engines, the coaches, and getting excited at being all by ourselves in a busy public place.

That was in the late-1970s. Since then, countless train journeys have slowly dispelled many of the romantic notions associated with them. Nowadays only if the group is large, and we are travelling in an air-conditioned coach, and all one’s favourite sweets and savouries have been packed (the first and third conditions becoming rare), can one barely look forward to a trip. Otherwise thoughts of the heat, dirt, and endless hours can kill the more positive associations.

Just as well that airplane journeys have been few and far between till now. There is no doubt that making the flight a habit will bring to the fore its own tediousness.

But still, till now, that rapid acceleration on the runway and the gentle glide onto the shoulders of the wind, all the time aware that we are progressing, at another level, at almost ten times the speed that is possible on the ground, and thus living a life, for a short while, ten times faster than the lives of those we leave behind, gives a subliminal joy, that seems to be predicated on the joy that our soul will feel when it leaves its mortal body and climb heavenwards.

Often when I take my kids along, I can see that these plane rides evoke in them the same excitement as did those train journeys in me when I was their age, even though they have lesser company now to share their excitement with. Or perhaps it is the company itself which increases the quantum of excitement… anyway, this gives me a pleasant purpose to journey…

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