How The Train Chugged Memories

It has been a great pleasure to see that my article on the little blue train made it to The Hindu (a leading publication in India) The article also mentioned my email address as a contact and I received many messages from readers. I cannot make a sweeping statement for humanity based on the emails sent to me, since most of them were sent to me by retired and/or educated folk, but I have to admit the comments were overwhelmingly warm, sincere and helped me reaffirm my faith in the basic goodness of mankind.

Of course, there were a few meant to make me skip a heartbeat. Some insurance salesmen sent me devastating statistics on disease and dying and how it is imperative for all to buy a policy (from him) in order to survive.  Then, there was this furniture salesmen who extorted his wares and offered me free shipping from some place in Hyderabad, India to anywhere. I wonder whether I should have ordered some furniture and had them shipped to California.

But such emails were few. Very few. Or my spam filter was very good. Many readers mentioned their own train-related experiences, and I enjoyed reading most of the emails.

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Train Tracks Through a Forest

One person wrote to me about the heart warming story of his train journey in the Gir forests of Gujarat. He himself was traveling there from an urban area. Apparently, the train made many unscheduled stops along the way – there was no station, no station master and no ticketing machine, but people clambered on in these unscheduled stops. This traveller thought something fishy was going on and asked folks what the deal was. It turns out that many rural stations were closed along the way due to lack of funds, but the people in these villages still needed to use the train for various activities, so a truce with the engine drivers was reached, and the train stopped at the erstwhile stations.

“What about the tickets?” asked the fiscally conscious urban dweller, and the train clamberers shook their heads at his ignorance and said they usually purchased their tickets with the engine driver up front before climbing on.

“But what if you don’t? People can cheat this way!” said the shocked traveler.

The train clamberers were indignant. The urban dweller was told that cheating their way out of a ticket is not something that appeals to the simple and honest rural folk in that area. Every one of them held up the ticket they bought. With dignity.

Many letters came from people who had lived in the Nilgiris, or do so now,  and they wrote of their own experiences with the train. One reader even helped me track down the engine drivers who served in the approximate timeframe of my writing and narrowed it down to one or two people. They may have actually been the ones who waved to my mother.

One thing is clear, I enjoyed the ride with the little blue train all over again simply by reading the reminiscences of these readers.  I am immensely grateful for that.

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We Are The World, We Need Kindergarten

There was great excitement as the children in the toddler son’s classroom got ready for their Spring program. Girls in pink dresses tumbled with boys in white shirts. The hustle and bustle: bazaars and marketplaces paled in comparison. I was wondering how these children could be made to calm down enough to start the program, when their teacher turned as if on cue, looked at them and said, “Now children, don’t tire yourselves out before the program, come let’s all sit and play nicely here.” and the frolicking lambs all smiled at their teacher and sat together and played.

Just like that.

I am always awestruck when I see young children behave in classroom atmospheres with their teachers.

Within minutes the children were lined up, and eagerly awaited their recital.

The heart warming program was put up by the children to the accompaniment of the Piano by a brave piano teacher. Brave, not just because he walked into a classroom full of children who can comfortably seat themselves in a doll house, but also because he did his duty marvelously. The singing that should have been in D-Major could be in C-Tenor or Z-Furore, but did that distract him? No Sir. He played like Ludwig Beethoven with that piano, and the tots shouted along as best as they could.

The children seemed energized and took us all along on a wonderful ride together with their singing and dancing, song after song.  My eyes misted up as the little ones sang at the top of their voice, carried little LED lights and sang a beautiful song. The lights dimmed and the children picked their way gingerly around one another, careful to not step on each other’s toes.

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There comes a time when we hear a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people crying 
And its time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So lets start giving

In other news, I recently finished reading the book by Dilbert creator, Scott Adams: How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Make It Big

The book itself was a good one and Scott Adams peppered his book with anecdotes and humorous writing. He took up the saga of his diagnosis of spasmodic dysphonia and along the way explored topics related to general happiness, optimism, good diet and so on.

He mentions multiple times that it is prudent not to take medical advice from cartoonists. But cartoonists and humorists have a way of packaging material in a manner palatable to the human brain, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

What annoyed me was that I had borrowed the copy from our local library and the whole book was underlined in pencil by a previous reader who had no idea how to extract the main idea from a paragraph. Probably someone who did not pay attention in Elementary School, or one of those people who forgot what summaries were as time progressed. If the cartoonist had written a one-page paragraph that said something like : ‘Be active daily’, the bubbling baboon brandishing a blunt pencil had taken the pencil across the whole paragraph.

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I have had cause to remark on this before and I shall do so again: What kindergarten children know, adults don’t. It may not be a bad idea for every adult to attend kindergarten classrooms once every decade. Yes. Every decade. All adults need to spend a school year, coloring within the lines, standing in line, learning to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’, reading marvelous children’s literature to open our minds out again, singing hopeful and uplifting songs, playing whole-heartedly in the playground and getting a time-out for scribbling on books.

All recent kinder-graduates will do their part in keeping the so-called adults from slipping again, and just when it looks like they won’t listen, off they get sent to kindergarten class again.

Instead of spending all this money on law enforcement, I am sure a simple time-out like that will do marvels.

The Telling Problems

I enjoy looking at the projects put up on the class room walls in Elementary Schools. Good though my schools were, when I was young, the walls were pristine. Nothing covered the walls. An odd calendar maybe, but nothing more.

Whereas the schools of today have beautiful art work done by the children covering the walls. Cows looking like dysfunctional zebras pushed through a rectangular pipe, lions with sunny, smiling faces, water-melons so red that the sunsets beg to be pink instead.

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One evening, a couple of months ago, I walked into a 3rd grade classroom, and I could not help noticing that the topic for the session was New Year Resolutions. I am always curious to see what runs through the minds of children. Their disclosures are never disappointing, and often amusing.

The new year resolutions of the third graders were sweet. A number of them had confessed to being warring partners with their siblings and resolved to address that issue pronto. It was also apparent that it was the area in which they received active feedback from the parents.

In the New year, I will try to be nice to my little brother

In the New Year, I will not fight with my older sister

In the new Year, I will look after my little brother and be nice to him.

Heart-warming notes all, in varying levels of penmanship, and most of them emphasized the be-nice motif. All very heartening to note in the younger generation. If these are the children who are to grow up and work towards World Peace, it seems a good place to start.

A few months ago, we went to a Science Fair for middle school and high school children. The topics under advisement there were marvelous and varied. Some of them were telling of the immediate problems they faced, and it was interesting to note that their concerns had moved on from the play-nicely-with-sibling motif:

Is yawning contagious? 

Do grades improve with playing games?

How music affects our coherence while doing homework

The number of projects in Environmental and Earth Sciences was the largest bucket, and that in itself was encouraging.

If peace and conservation of earth are occupying the minds of the young, I think we shall be okay.

The Snoof Struck Dumb

I love Spring. Every flowering tree bursts out in glorious bloom and the bushes are all brimming with flowers. Primroses, roses, jasmine, chrysanthemums, snap dragons, hill lupines,  and wild clovers jostle with each other making one’s eyes dance with joy. It is also the heady season of wondrous scents wafting through the air. Eucalytpus scented trees mingled with creeper jasmines and roses should make a highly pleasant combination, but I would not know.

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Come Spring and I also become a snoof https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/snoof. I can conduct an orchestra of sneezes, sniffle-puffs and croaky throats. Like an orchestra in which owls, bats and frogs are the main participants. This Spring, I also had the privilege of silence. The throat was affected. At times, there was a competition between the scratchy throat and the stuffy nose. For some time, things were rocking along pretty smoothly with an achoo here and an achichoo there, when one morning my throat gave out completely and nothing emanated.

It was marvelous I tell you, simply marvelous. Our culture suffers from a talking epidemic: it is as though talking is an art, a hobby, a vocation even. Everybody is encouraged to voice their opinions and to have a view point. Sometimes, we feel the need to say something that we don’t really mean or understand.

But you see, all that was stripped from me when I lost my throat. There were no expectations. I spend the most gleeful week possible. I would walk into meetings and try to look apologetic as I pointed to my throat. It was hugely introspective and rewarding. Like a time-out for myself in a noisy world. Colleagues had tea with me in companionable silence, marveling that it did not feel awkward at all to not have a single word between us.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/13/paul-goodman-silence/

I quote from article:

Like Paul Goodman writes:

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

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I wish we could all choose one day of the week, every week, in which to stay silent and just observe what is going on around us. I am sure it will make us better listeners and more appreciative of the gift of the gab.

Lessons From The Little Blue Train

The Article below also appeared in The Hindu in the Open Page on May 10th:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/looking-back-at-a-little-blue-train/article8576823.ece#comments

My mother ran downhill through a steep slope in order to catch her little blue train to get to school, where she taught, everyday. We lived in a small place nestled in the Nilgiri Hills, where everybody knew everybody else and even though we might not have been invited to Tea at the train driver’s house,  he obviously knew my mother. He would see her pelting down the hill, practically skating on the little seeds dropped from the Eucalyptus trees above, as he maneuvered the train around the mountainside. He would wave a friendly hand to her telling her to slow down indicating that he would wait for her to board. What is a minute here and a minute there was his philosophy, and one that entirely suited the place and times.

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The Nilgiri Mountain Railways was not competing with the Rajdhani Express or the electric trains of Mumbai. The little steam engine was a joy, and intended to show people that true joy in living came from hard work with a dose of huffing while going uphill and a friendly toot and speed moderation while going downhill. The journey, it steamed, was the most important thing. Chug past the lakes and mountains, cling to the cliffs, take deep breaths of the nippy air and keep moving while you can.

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From Wikipedia: Picture Credit: By Nsmohan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37242880

When people ask me about the banes of urban living, I rank not knowing the train driver quite high up on the list of grievances. I have to run up 50 stairs like an asthmatic calf to get to the platform.  So many times, just by virtue of being stuck behind a set of folks who refuse to budge on the escalator, I have missed the train. More often, I charge into the train just in time to have the doors close behind me and then stand there panting and mooing for breath.

When one considers how often I have flown past steps and hopped past debris and skidded into the train, I suppose it is only fair. A matter of tempting fate long enough. One day last week, a quick look at the watch (set to two minutes past the actual time), and another look at the car clock (set to three minutes past the actual time) revealed that I have a 30% percent chance of making it to the train if it was on time and a 43% percent chance if it was a minute late. Give me a chance at something like that and I mysteriously transform into a demonized matador bull:  I will lower my head and point head train-ward and charge like a demon with horns. However I was not feeling sufficiently bull-like that day, more like The Reluctant Dragon.

reluctant_dragon

The Reluctant Dragon is a marvelous children’s book written by Kenneth Graham. In the book, the villagers are keen to slay the Dragon assuming all dragons are vicious. The Dragon, however, wants no fighting or flame spewing. He simply wants to rest his back against a rock, think and write poetry.

The train doors above me opened and I looked upwards while running. I forgot about the raised platform around the 57th step. It was then that I took a toss. Now, when I say ‘Toss’ in that flippant manner, it does not truly capture how much an ass it makes one look.  Well, there really is no comparison with the animal kingdom, I mean have you seen deer trip or donkeys slip on the mud? That is set aside for the two-footed I believe.  The point is that the step hurled me and I fell spectacularly. My bag flew one way, my legs the other, while my knees scraped along trying to keep the bag and legs together. I lay there trying to resist a bizarre urge to laugh out loud, though I could feel the stinging pain in my scraped knees. I did chuckle to myself though – I must have looked like a prized fool sprawled there first thing in the morning when folks have important things to do and places to be. One cyclist evidently late for her own train, said, “You okay?” and I said “Yes”. She gave me the Thumbs Up and cycled off.

As I stared at the departing train to see if I could detect a smirk from anyone on the train, I need not have worried. The shiny silver train streaked off glinting against the morning sun as efficient and indifferent as ever. I did not know which was worse, the physical pain from the bruises or the indifference of the departing train. Just as quickly as laughter had come, I found much to my embarrassment, that tears stung my eyes.

No one knows whether the kind train driver who waved to my mother is still alive today, but I miss the likes of him in today’s world.