The Slow Train
April 12, 2013
Clutching a metaphor on that last rail commute in Kerala.
It's my last train ride home – a ride that normally takes half an hour at top speed, jammed between lumberjack-style check shirts and bright saris, fending off or responding to stares depending on my mood.
Today, however, I'm sitting in a near-empty carriage, motionless at Murukkampuzha station, having switched over from the Vanchinad Express to the slow Thiruvananthapuram-Kollam Passenger so I can sit down and write. I am probably the only person on either train that does this, and coupled with my saip status, it almost guarantees constant attention. Today, however, everybody's looking listlessly out the window or gallivanting about on the tracks. There's a long delay – an hour and counting, the longest I've ever had on this route – and I have no idea why.
Normally this would frustrate me. I would want to be home in my three-bedroom house, eating a salad and scrolling through Twitter. This time, I welcome the opportunity to remain in my daily routine a little longer as it ends today — now. Next time I set foot on a train will be to go to Mumbai, from where a plane will ferry me first to Kuala Lumpur and then to Auckland. There I'll have a chance to catch up with family haven't seen in two and a half years and friends I haven't seen in four, to experience cold weather for the first time since early 2009, and to get acquainted with reverse culture shock. I can't wait.
Right now, though, I'm on this train, thinking about the life I've lived here in Kerala and what it all adds up to in the end. What solid anchors are there with which to judge how worthwhile my three years at the tip of India have been? How many spokes are there on the wheel of metaphors, and which is right for me?
Well, this train is one. Looking around, I feel like I understand it, and most of the people on it, in ways that I had no concept of when I first arrived. The middle-aged married couple next to me are reading Manorama newspapers and flirting with their voices in a lively, fluttering chatter. They sound like they have a loving connection within clearly defined gender roles. Two men are sitting opposite each other by the window and taking part in a deep discussion; they may or may not have known each other before getting on this train. A kid in a red-and-white check shirt has been glued to text messages on his phone for the past twenty minutes – to his friend? girlfriend? brother? Mom?
All that said, they probably understand me in just the same way as they always did. A saip. A curiosity. Probably a tourist. Now we're moving again, and the kid has looked up at his cellphone and is looking over at me. So are most of the others, except the married couple. That's okay. I know the deal by now; I never get to be 'inside', not really, unless I really make the effort to get to know someone. I'm lucky that I've gotten to know a few people really well, such that they treat me basically like a local. And to be honest, the 'celebrity' feel of having eyes on you in public is flattering.
For the next thirty minutes, the train starts and stops, over and over. India can be alternately exasperating and satisfying, even from moment to moment. I bash out more sentences when the train is moving, as if our progress on the tracks translates more directly to words on the page than the inexorable march of time. And when the train stops, my mind drifts like the many palm fronds waving in the wind.