Over 17 days, they rode the rails as far as they could go, from the northernmost tip of Katra in Kashmir, to Kanyakumari in the south, from Dibrugarh in the east to Okha in the west. “At first we were planning to take the longest train ride we could, the 84-hour Vivek Express journey from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari. But trains got cancelled because of the Jat agitation, and when we changed our plans, we decided to go mad, and touch all four corners of India,“ says Mahajan.They travelled in the unreserved “general“ compartment, and tweeted many of their encounters with the hashtag #unreserved, so thousands of people followed the sights and stories. It’s not about the train, but about the people, they stress. “Each of those individuals is on a unique journey , and they happen to be together on this train. We just wanted to know and hear more about them,“ says Mahajan.
They chose to travel in the general dabba, imagining that it would make for more interesting tales. But there was no single narrative. “Because it is the general compartment, we thought we would see a lot of migrant labourers, students and so on, and we did.“ But in the hardscrabble lives they described, they found a lot of determined dreamchasing too. “There was a staggering amount of positivity,“ says Divekar.There were exams and medical emergencies. They met a woman escaping her abusive husband, with no destina tion in mind. A migrant labourer, heading to Goa, who chose his place of work depending on how mellow the people were and pleasant the place was. An Assamese woman who fell in love and moved to UP without knowing a word of Hindi.
Some preconceptions were confirmed, some others busted. “We knew east UP and Bihar are poor, but it was still a shock to see the number of people crammed into that dabba, sleeping in the toilets,“ says Mahajan. They were surprised by Kerala’s prosperity as they met daily commuters there. While north India was predictably buttoned up, romance and love advice figured largely in the northeast.
Conversations around the nightly news seemed alien to most people. “Out of 100 passengers, maybe three or four had strong views on politics. Most of them seemed to be just getting along,“ says Mahajan.
Religion figured in a big way, though.“Jitna struggle, utna hi religious,“ observes Divekar. They met pilgrims on teerthyatras, and a man pragmatically considering conversion. “He didn’t have strong beliefs but becoming Catholic would give his children a subsidized education, and some medical benefits. However, it would be hard to explain to his social circle,“ he says. There was even a heated debate between two Muslim boys on the Iranian film `Mohammed: The Messenger of God’. One said it was blasphemous to even depict him by a shadow, another believed it was important to show his message. They met salesmen and performers, lovers and cynics. As they spoke to some, other travellers would chip in.They’d shoot the breeze, surprise each other out of their prejudices. As the historian Tony Judt wrote, “a train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, with a common view and a singular destination“.
This genre of storytelling was born on social media through blogs like Hu mans of New York and The Delhiwallah where we get a glimpse of others’ lives in single frames, with a line or two about them. Of course, the picture you get depends on the sensibility of the photographer-interviewer.
“I can’t really come away with a single insight or theme from this trip. There’s only one thing, it is about how all our stereotypes just fall away , how baseless they are,“ says Bhargava.