Sunday, 27 April 2014

Feelin' groovy? or perhaps not

The book I would write?  Well, it’s not a book, but half a dozen, half-written already! And no, I am not creating a nested metaphor within a metaphor in a cutesy reference to the book of my life or some such.  That’s also been half-written already, only not sure by whose hand, as I am kind of wavering and agonised agnosticklish, and I don’t want to open that whole can at all if I can help it, so forget all that.

The fringe benefits of being a trailing family member are manifold of course, but the most crucial of them is a heightened understanding of the word “random”. In the last eighteen years that I have lived in the Arab world, six of them here in Cairo, this has been brought home to me many times over. An expat is always acutely aware of the transience of relationships, even as the families come in and form friendships, they are aware of the fact that the depth and frequency of contact is directly proportional to the length of the breadwinners' posting there.  There are some friendships, both at an individual and family levels, which persist through stints in different cities all over the world, but those are exceptions rather than the rule.

I am essentially a narrator, whether in poetry or in prose, a story teller of sorts.  The longest story I have written so far, a novella, is about an Indian guy - Abeer, and his relationships, set in post revolutionary Cairo. He is a loner, an amateur artist, and a wannabe indoor gardener; his relationships, both unmarried and married, have failed.  Abeer is the typical expat, detached from the local population and their struggles; but on one of his painting forays into the countryside he comes across a young woman and is inexplicably attracted to her.  Sameer, Abeer's colleague and a family man, feels more rooted in the country as his children are being raised here.  But a crisis in the company where they both work turns everything on its head, a worker is injured accidentally and things get ugly.  Sameer finds that he is not as rooted in Egypt as he had thought after all.  Abeer, who nearly loses his life in the aftermath of the crisis, must come to terms with his own take on the situation, will he take a risk and stay? Resolve his ambivalence towards this young Egyptian woman? Or will he too cut his losses and run away? Like Sameer, like Abeer himself has done in the past.

This story began as most of my stories do - as a flash, but then it just kept getting more and more complex and lengthier, it stands at around 30,000 words now.  I wrote it in 2012, just a year after the revolution happened and almost finished it, only the denouement remains to be written. I left it for sometime to "cool", and it is my plan to go back this year and complete the ending and do the edits and tie up the loose ends.  The reason I have dilly-dallied so much on it is because I will have to rewrite the whole in the past tense.  Since it began as a flash, I started off with present tense, and then it was too much of a disruption to change tracks in the middle.  I never thought it would exceed 10-12000 words, and no problem, I'll change things around when I do the second draft, rather than start off again at the half way mark. Jo kal karein so aaj karlein, such an effective lesson this has taught me! Never procrastinate.

Over the past week, I have come to know that our stay in Egypt is over, we move out in another few weeks, max a couple of months' time. Out of Africa again.  Cairo has got under my skin like no other place, it has grown up my son and his mother in such unimaginable ways that it is mind boggling.  It is going to be a real wrench to start off again in a different place, but of course that is also an opportunity.  I am going to take the remaining time I have here, which is not much as I will be travelling in May and then again in June, but whatever is left to me here will be soundly utilised for the remaining research and revisions.  That is the book I want to write right now. I hope I will be able to finish the story I started in Cairo before I leave this magical, maddening and totally mesmerising city. Wish me luck, universe!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A giant leap remade into tiny

I just finished gorging on the radio drama of Chander Pahar a few days ago, a famous staple from my childhood, and my first introduction to Africa. That book is still there in my old room at my mum’s, a spontaneous gift to me from a much older cousin after he’d finished with it. My mother read it to me, chapter by chapter, through the afternoons officially meant for napping.  The only reason for that must have been her love for reading aloud to me, because by then I could read myself.  Very little napping got done, obviously.  She read it to me once, and then I read it on my own again.  I have been reading and rereading it and listening to it all through my life. It’s one of those timeless experiences that one doesn’t tire of, even after childhood is long over.  The book cover (which was designed by Satyajit Ray, no less, only he hadn't the cult status then) has come off and been sellotaped many times, the silverfish have got to it too, I saw one year on home leave, Kolkata is so hard on books.  But unlike my cousin, I have never managed to finish with it.

Right into Chander Pahar country

A year after my mum read it to me, she broke the news in her typical, gentle-lead-ups-are-only-for-sissies way that we were moving from Delhi.  Oh, really? So, we were going back to Kolkata, to my grandparent’s house?  No, to Africa! Immediately the simple but effective illustrations of the open African grasslands, peppered with the acacia and the baobab, the vastness and the majesty, flashed into my brain.  I had no problem identifying the first baobab I saw on landing in Kano. 

Unlike Shankar in Chander Pahar, my father’s job in West Africa did not require him to stay in tents rigged out in the bush, we lived in regular houses with flushing toilets and electric hobs, and I even got to go to school and all. However, the culture shock was severely truncated. Everything was new and different, but nothing was much of a jolt.  I sat in a classroom made out of tin sheets nailed to wooden stakes driven into the sandy ground.  We watched films at the officers club out in the open air, one of the officers doubled up for projector duty, sometimes the screening was interrupted by a viper slithering in between the rows of metal chairs.  I wasn’t very surprised at anything, not at all put out. Hadn’t Shankar, the protagonist of the book, faced down a black mamba, way more evil than vipers?  Hadn’t he been threatened by lions?  This was Africa! Anything was possible! A travel adventure story created by someone who had never set foot in this continent yet captured it accurately and magnificently in polished prose was my guide, buffer and comfort blanket all-in-one.

From a giant leap...

Much later into teenage I heard my mother relate an anecdote from her single days.  That someone had read her palm once at one of those light-hearted gatherings where all unmarried women of a certain age get their fortunes told; she had been given a reading that she will go into the “faraway lands of the rakshasas”, and the political incorrectness apart, had no difficulty in equating Africa with that reading and the accuracy of that long-ago prediction.

Neither of my parents come from lines of intrepid adventurers, the farthest anyone in both their families had settled was Northern India, in places like Chandigarh, Lucknow, Delhi, the really brave in Ahmedabad maybe.  For my mother, growing up and living practically all her life in Kolkata, moving to Delhi must have been daunting.  But at least she knew other family members, distant cousins, friends-of-friends there, people to help settle her in.  Delhi was the capital, it had the best infrastructure, the best prospects, so what if the language was different?  A postcard took only a couple days to reach, you could get on a train one evening and reach home 24 hours later. But Africa? No-one she knew in the whole continent, no-one except the cultural attaché in Delhi to advise her; and an old class-fellow of my father's who was working there already. Moving was a giant leap of faith. a tiny one

Almost twenty five years later, I watched a plane take off with my husband in it and understood exactly how high that leap was.  We were relocating to Bahrain, a country where we knew not one soul.  Six months earlier, I didn't know its coordinates.  I didn't sleep that night in a haze of diffuse anxiety. I have this hyper-active imagination, I dreamt up a massive range of somewhat negative what if scenarios in a short couple of hours. There was only a fixed telephone line at home, he called that almost a day later to inform about his arrival.  My mum-in-law and I sighed audibly in relief.  

Subsequently things have changed a little. We have relocated a few times since that first move.  From late nineties onwards, there's been internet at home, so that an armchair reconnaissance could be carried out as soon as postings were finalised. I have left messages in expat blogs/forums asking for help on the specifics, and got answers from perfect strangers who were kind enough to respond. Moving has lost that fear factor,  that huge, arching leap into the completely unknown.  It just retains a sense of adventure and anticipation. Expat life has its own downsides of course, but one thing it doesn't do well is boredom.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Does action speak at all?

This morning I got the news of the sudden passing of an old (but young) friend's father.  She and I were together in Bahrain for several years, before we moved away - I to UAE and then to Egypt, and she first to Saudi and then to Canada, the typical trajectories of trailing spouses.  But we all kept in touch albeit intermittently, she and I share the baggage and the privilege if any, of being the only child of our respective parents, and therefore our connect overrides the age difference which is substantial.  

I saw the message from her husband, and I rang her and we spoke for over half an hour, and at the end of the call, I realised I had said nothing of any "comfort value".  I don't have words for these situations, I have never been good with the spoken word, the right ones don't come for me when I need them the most.  What are the right words, even?  I have no idea if the call was of any use to her at all, just that I had an immediate need to make it, I didn't think what I was doing, I rang the number blindly as soon as I finished reading the message, without checking for the time difference or things that I normally would do before making a cross border call, almost like a reflex. 

Was it a self indulgence, then?  Can anybody except the close family and/or people physically close provide comfort at a time like this?  I don't know. I felt better for having spoken to her, whether she felt the same I will never know, but I suspect not. No matter what comfort anyone offers, grief too is something we ultimately must tackle and come to terms with alone, completely unaided. All the hype about being there for each other etc works till the halfway turnstile and stops, the rest is a trip no-one can undertake by proxy.  

Never forgets her first

There is a proverb somewhere in the Mediterranean, Italy? Spain? one of those places with those TDH romantic types, which in sum means that a woman doesn't forget her first love. Maybe.  But I know for certain that she doesn't forget her first brush with sudden death.  I wasn't a woman, I was a girl of 6-7 years, those days we used to live in New Delhi. My father, along with two other friends, was in the process of establishing an architects' firm. We lived on the first floor of a rented house, the front three rooms were the office, the back rooms were home.  The two were connected through a balcony. I sometimes disobeyed strict orders to keep away, and walked across that balcony after school into the office.  The staff there indulged me with gifts of pencils, and showed me those meticulously detailed architect's models with their greensponge trees and little people with briefcases and fascinating bluerippled pools of water in teeny-tiny swimming pools. 

Across the road from us was a three storied house, a large Punjabi family lived there, they had a teenage son, he vroomed in and out of the street on a motorbike. No young children, otherwise I would have remembered going there, and I never stepped into that house. My parents might have known them to say hello on the streets, but nothing more.  The social barriers were more strictly observed then, my parents as young middle class people, still struggling to make ends meet, were unlikely to be on intimate terms with a rich business family which could afford motorcycles for its youngest member.

One evening there was a commotion in that house, a lot of people gathered, a whole line of cars came to be parked there. I saw men with the gravest faces, and saw - for the first time in life - grown women crying with the corners of their pallus pressed over their faces. My father stood by with an equally shocked face on our front patio. I will remember those expressions if I live to be a hundred.

I learnt that young man had died in a road accident, hit by a lorry at the AIIMS junction, no signal there then, just a roundabout.  He was thrown from his bike, and he wasn't wearing a helmet, safety wasn't paramount in those days either, no fines for not wearing one, he took a direct hit on his head and died on the spot.  At that time he seemed grown up to me, but he must have been what? all of 17-18 years, must have just got his licence or maybe he was riding alone on a learners' in a sudden fit of daring, breaking rules has an irresistible attraction at that age. 

I saw his body being brought home late in the dark, and my father remained out on the patio with the lights off most of that night, keeping some sort of vigil with his mourning neighbours' for a young life lost so needlessly, so heart wrenchingly.  He said he was unable to sleep when I asked him why he wasn't going to bed, I remember his cigarette glowing in the dark as he paced. Maybe my mother joined him after I fell asleep, perhaps she went to condole with the women after the cremation was over. Most likely she did, with the appropriate words and a mandatory basket of fruit.

"You hear of somebody in trouble, you go to them and make yourself useful," she said to me once, when I was much older but equally as unwise as I had been at 7.  

"How do you know it's not an intrusion?" I had asked her sassily.

"It's what you make of it," she had replied,"If they feel like talking, you offer your attention, if they feel like tea, you make them some. You help any way you can and then come away and let them get on with it. As simple as that. I can assure you, they won't be thinking of who's gawking and who's come to help.  It's not about the visitors at all, it's not about you."

My mum, unlike me, has always been good with the spoken word.  Apart from being less uncertain, less diffident about things, less self-absorbed with the nitty gritties of her own perspectives. Their entire generation, it seems to me. They know when to observe those barriers, and when to topple them and reach out.   They don't obsess about their degree of usefulness, they know their roles and they play them without wondering if the playwright has got it right and if the script can improved.  Maybe it's their faith, in god, in an afterlife, in following scripts.

Going to the turnstile

Before my friends came to Bahrain, in August 2000 there was a ghastly air accident just off the island of Muharraq. A few hundred feet from the runway, flight GF 072 crashed into the sea.  No-one survived.  The passengers were a medley of nationalities, but most were Bahrainis and Egyptians.  Many were children, returning to school after the summer break. 

Bahrain is a tiny place, everyone knew someone on board that flight.  I checked the passenger list the next day but didn't find any familiar names, big sigh of relief.  But later a friend rang in tears, her nephews were on the flight, returning alone from Cairo after spending their summer holidays with friends. The mother was a wreck, the father had gone that morning to bring back the bodies. My first reaction was a shocked silence, and the second one was just the same, I wanted to drop everything and rush to her house that very minute. 

Better sense prevailed and I went later in the afternoon, when the family were formally receiving condolences, and I had no need for any words, because I didn't know any language that my friend's mother, the bereaved grandmother of those two boys, spoke.  I sat on the floor amongst the women, someone made tea and poured me some in the clear beakers that Arabs serve it in, and the lady sat with the weight of her grief and a dry-eyed dignity that was more heart breaking than free-flowing tears. It turned my brain inside out, the rawness of that mourning and pain in that quiet women's majlis.  From there too, I had come away without knowing if my mostly-unexpressed sympathy, served any purpose. Did it matter who came to share in the mourning? Does it count who comes with you to that halfway turnstile? Do actions speak at all? Forget louder or softer than words.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bread for thought and thought for bread

Despite being a Bengali and way too fond of my rice and fish combo, I have a thing for wheat. Wheat in any form, baked into bread, leavened, unleavened, flat, loaves, fancy, whatever; non-bread as in pasta and noodles; stirred as thickening and taste-enhancer into sauces and gravies. Nothing like the smell of a freshly puffed phulka coming off the fire and on the plate, eaten plain or with a smear of ghee, dipped into daal or if you prefer, into honey. I can eat it straight without anything at all, standing right next to the hob, so hot that one has to move it from hand to hand, the morsel from left cheek to right, searing on the palate. Bread is the ultimate comfort food. Let the gods keep their ambrosia and amrit and whatever other godfood there is. 

The Longest Connection 

Wheat has the longest connection with humans.  It was among the first grains cultivated somewhere in the Levant around 10-15,000 years ago. The switch from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture was made on the backs of wheat precursors. It started with gathering wild grass seeds for eating, and then someone, very likely a she, got fed up of all the trudging over rough terrain to find the next patch of einkorn, maybe also of the packing and unpacking of heavy stone tools, and the rounding up of screaming kids and looking for a cave dry enough and warm enough to sleep the babies already!  So she saved a handful to scatter on the soil next to the current camping grounds, and of course there was no moving out of that den till the seedlings came up and yielded their seed, and then she saved a handful of that yield to plant the next season.   

Meanwhile, the hunters found it more and more tedious to have to keep up with the herds of bisons or whatever, and bring back the kill over increasing distances to the same spot from which the women refused to move because some straggly new seedlings had come up.  So the men got hold of some wild animals, sheep and goat, and penned them in. They were fed the leftover grass stalks and they were happy and gave meat and milk, and the latter was curdled in the sun and the first yoghurt and cheeses were made. Presto, the Neolithic Revolution and settled agriculture!  And before those hapless humans knew it they had become settlers from nomads, producing insanely beautiful rock art to decorate their homes; comparing the merits of this patch of soil to another, and whipping up livestock races, for all we know.  Laying the foundation for suburban competitiveness and keeping up with the Joneses - "Arrey, uski gufa meri gufa se safed kaise?!" and leading to all manner of delicious and marvellous stuff such as sewage treatment systems and custard sauce.

Unleavened flat breads, to which category our chapati and phulka belong, have an even longer connection, because they were being baked much before we learnt to grow the grains. The first breads were being baked 30,000 years ago, from pastes of wild cereals, the foreparents of grains such as barley, rye, wheat and oats in Europe. Bread wasn't the staple it is now, obviously humans ate it as and when they found the wild grasses, and it formed only one of the food sources.   That changed with settled agriculture in the Levant, and grain based cultivation meant the wide and steady availability of bread, and so it gradually became a staple, eaten at every meal with varying accompaniments.  Initially, wheat bread was reserved for special occasions, and coarser grains were used for daily meals.  By 500 BCE, baking and retailing of bread had evolved into a specialised profession, people could buy breads and cakes from a baker's shop in Athens in Antiquity.

..and a powerful symbol

It is not clearly known what languages were spoken in the Stone Ages, but our languages today certainly celebrate the primordial connection we have with bread.  Bread remains a powerful symbol across the world, in religion, in politics, and in literature.  Our needs are summed up by "do waqt ki roti"; we "break bread" with someone close; we have one or more "bread-winners" in our families; we ask for our "daily bread" in our prayers. Unrest at increasing prices or shortage of food is labelled "bread riots".  In ancient Rome, rulers had a simple maxim of "the bread and circuses" - in other words, keep people fed and entertained for stability. Marie Antoinette's famous (but likely falsely attributed) statement "let them eat cake" (instead of bread) is supposed to have led to the French Revolution.  And don't even get me started on the symbolism of bread in literature - from Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs via Khayyam and Rumi's mystic poetry to Neruda's romantic verses, bread has symbolised guidance and abundance and life itself.  

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--...”  (Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll)

I think I shall stop on that note, there really can't be anything more to add after that. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

What's in a name?

I was born with a short fuse apparently, I told one of my senior relatives "amake ragiyo na, raagle ami chandaal"*, at an age so tender that I have no recollection of that actual event.  My relative reportedly roared with laughter, ROTFL as they put it now. That is where I must have picked up the notion that laughter is an appropriate reaction to anger.  I find any rage, including my own, funny. I mean, I can be in the middle of a satisfying marital spat, with guns blazing on both sides, me ahead on point-scoring by miles, and then completely ruin everything by bursting out with a laugh at the wrong moment. I never manage a clear cut victory.  Story of my life.

However inconvenient that reaction might be, what strikes me now about that childhood episode is the cool acceptance of caste-ism in everyday language and life. Obviously, a young child would not know what a "chandaal" was, I was parroting an adult, overheard in a conversation around me, or perhaps, as I prefer to think, on my grandfather's radio. In all the telling and retelling and the accompanying mirth of that gaffe, no-one ever mentioned it was wrong to conflate viciousness and brutality with a group of people, with caste stereotypes.   

A few years down the line, I brought home a school report in Delhi, where a single letter of my family name had been omitted. My grandfather who was with us at the time, was extremely upset. I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. I was used to my name being misspelled, long Bengali, Sanskritised names were uncommon outside Bengal still; so I didn't understand what he was so annoyed about. He told me that one omission changed the family caste from the highest to a rung lower on the scale, intolerable in his view.  Caste? What's that, grandfather? And so I got my first lesson in it. I remember. I was seven.

Slicing the world  

Of course there's a lot in a name, and not one should ever be misspelled. Especially not on a school report and other important documents.  My grandfather did more than just teach me about castes that day.  He taught me a lesson in respect. Respect the work enough to want to do it error-free, respect the person you address enough to know their name correctly, above all respect yourself, know your roots without which pride and self-respect and respect for pretty much everything else is impossible.  Those long, heavy words weren't articulated, but were part of his message that day.  I have no issues with that, all good lessons and one is never too young to learn them. What bothered me vaguely is this way of slicing the world into us and them, where the last names of my friends were more important than the first. Really? You mean Renuka's perfect 10 at spellings didn't make her better than me? It was baffling.

A year or so later, my family moved to West Africa, where whole new ways to slice worlds into us and them opened up.  I learnt that every society has them, whichever cultural divides you straddle, whichever lines you use.  Being an outsider everywhere gives a kind of unique perspective, I was exposed to other bases of discrimination, and I was sheltered by the great distances from the ones in my own.

I came back to settle in Bengal almost twenty years after I left it.  India and the wider world had changed a huge amount in those years, humans had been to the Moon and back, our own Rakesh Sharma had confirmed that India looked saare jahan se achchha even from Space.  My grandfather's leisure was now spent in front of a colour TV, his radio had fallen silent.  His views on caste remained unchanged of course; that didn't surprise me in the slightest. Treat everyone with due respect, but marry within your caste, employ only Brahmin cooks.

Old people often hold onto the ideas of their youth as a last straw of reassurance against the avalanche of exponential, unfathomable changes they experience.  His generation had seen too much, felt too much for one lifetime to contain and adapt seamlessly - two world wars, the first aeroplane flight, the Independence, the bloodbath of the Partition, the uprooting of his family from the centuries old homestead, the famines, the 1961 and 1971 wars, the nuclear programme, the space programme, satellite TV, women's right to their father's property being made into law, my god just listing them here makes my head spin.  So naturally he held onto anything that felt immutable and stable, the ancient laws given by the scriptures. I could understand that clutching at straws, I didn't grudge him the comfort and stability of the status quo.

Everyday amazing

But what surprised me was the encounters I faced at my workplace, among my peers and younger people. Nothing very offensive or remarkable, nothing tangible that anybody could object to.  A remark about some particular double-barrel surname being part of a "shrewd" community, another one being "devious", an offhand joke cracked here, a smiling reference there.  It took me time to figure them out, because of my upbringing elsewhere I was unaware of the significance of the names, how each family name is linked irrevocably to caste, and sometimes to birthplace. A Tamil colleague  casually pointed out how he wouldn't be allowed to sit at the same table and eat lunch with me back at his own village.  A close friend mentioned drawing back from a relationship because the potential partner was from a different caste.  Even people years younger than me asked "what caste is that?" when they came across a surname they hadn't heard before.  I was gobsmacked how prevalent this caste business was, how insidiously common the slicing still remained.

That was several years ago, things have changed further. My grandfather is no longer with us, his radio, his wall clock and his house itself have passed out of my life.  Liberalisation, globalisation, the Internet, multinationals, pride in heritage coupled with greater openness, Indians leading global corporations, the rise and rise of the middle class.  More and more young people travel the world, work abroad, and also come back from abroad to settle back in India. Many old traditions have blurred, many have been discarded. The world has not yet become India's oyster, but perhaps we have got a finger under the lip of the shell.  

Last year on annual home leave, I got talking to a group of people informally  - and was surprised to come across the same caste associations, stick to your own class/caste/faith when it comes to socialising and relationships; you can't really socialise with the so called "lower" castes, the chasm is too wide. No-one was prepared to accept that this "chasm" was more a function of education and economic backwardness rather than caste. Our bases for slicing the world haven't changed all that much. My grandfather may have passed on, but everyday caste-isms are alive still, sadly; finding strange homes in hearts and minds much younger.  

* Loosely translated that means don't mess with me, I'm a Chandaal when angry.  Chandaals are traditionally associated with the cremation rites and death, and the word/caste is used negatively to mean vicious, mean, fiery tempered and a person of uncontrolled appetites.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

In praise of being grounded

I read a post somewhere last week, about a train journey in North Eastern India, and that took me back instantly to my own.   Once upon a time in my life all long distance journeys meant roads and rails, flying in a pressurised metal capsule on the silver side of clouds wasn't necessarily synonymous with travelling.  Air travel is fast, efficient, no-nonsense, very business like, just like the rest of our fast-paced urbanised-upto-the-gills lives now.  But I still feel I haven't really travelled a country till I have negotiated the bumps and the culverts of its roads, or waited interminably for the signal to turn green stuck in a train miles away from anywhere.  I still insist on a long-distance bus or train trip on every holiday, otherwise I feel I haven't really got my money's worth. 

The shortest train ride I have taken is maybe 20 minutes, the longest is around 45 hours, from Trivandrum to Kolkata.  I don't think I would like to spend such long hours inside a ladies coupe now, though I certainly didn't mind that trip when I made it many years ago.  A cousin and I went on a two week trip to South India and padded around - Bangalore, Mysore, Ooty, Kanyakumari, Trivandrum and then up along the backwaters of Kerala via Cochin turning east to Chennai (then still Madras) and up through Vizag and Rajamundhry to Kolkata.  Unforgettable, the little vignettes of rural India through the train windows.  Interesting travel companions too, two young women from Germany, much like us, they were nurses they told us, and had saved up for this holiday, travelling the whole of India on a budget. They ate only bananas the whole journey to avoid the dreaded bugs.  My cousin and I marvelled privately, we couldn't imagine how much money it took to go off to a different continent like that.  It would have taken me half my lifetime to save that much and go off on such a trip, beyond the realms of dreams.

That journey was a one-off, I have never again been on the same train or route, the opportunity has never arisen to travel so extensively in the South. Of course I flew in and out of Chennai and Cochin and Bangalore a few times, and took a cab up the Nilgiri slopes to Munnar on work-related hurried trips, where there was no time to walk around and smell the coffee and the flowers; I went on a holiday even, to Coorg just a few years back, but then we flew into Bangalore airport, with its flower export handling facilities and wifi in place, a very far cry from the old, ancient railway platforms and the colonial era red brick station buildings.  Just not the same thing, the feel of those trips.  Train travel is so much more relaxed and restful, so much more grounded, a longer, more in-depth learning opportunity in that close brush with the co-passengers, cooped up in the coupes, in those vignettes of life flashing past the windows.  Air travel can't ever hope to replicate that same magic.