There’s Something About Train Journeys

It can be full of surprises, adventurous and even exasperating (especially when delays occur). But there is definitely something about train journeys. In fact, travelling by train to various locations across the country for work constitutes one of the key perks of the job for me!

Of course, there are all kinds of journeys. There are those undertaken with professional acquaintances who turn into friends as we journey together. Conversations ebb and flow and programme framework and emerging effects are discussed with as much intent as the environment in which all this is done. And of course, the mandatory discussions on weather (it is going to be very hot this year) and politics (should not even start on that one) crop up. Other passengers also chip in and before you know there is a very busy collective dialogue happening! The required energy for these interactions comes from buying and consuming all kinds of stuff from the vendors who pass through. Well, one has to contribute to their livelihoods too!

There are train journeys where you are on your own. These journeys help in catching up on sleep or work (and sometimes both). They also offer that valuable sliver of time to start or return to that book that needed to be read. We may sometimes stumble into an introspective space. And not having mobile network during such times is a good thing!

The people in the compartment become our universe for that time. Men, women and children from different backgrounds travelling to different destinations for different purposes – one becomes a part of this rich drama. Both the diversity in our conditions and the overarching commonality of human experience become visible.

And then we arrive at our destinations. Usually, for me, this is followed by landing up at a hotel, freshening up quickly, grabbing a bite and then  plunging into work. Unless of course, the Indian Railways chooses to rearrange the (much emailed upon and finally agreed on) schedule because we reach in time for dinner instead of breakfast. Well…that is a story for another time!

Food Tales

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to travel and sample varied cuisines. From roadside dhabas to grander not-to-be-missed establishments. From hurried but refreshing tea stops to the sometimes celebratory, end of assignment dinners. And the variety has been exquisite!

Since I love sweets, I always ask about that. I have had amazing sweets at a small roadside stall while travelling in Malda (West Bengal).  In Dumka (Jharkhand), I tried out a small shop that had been recommended. My host ensured that we took out the time for this – actually, we did this just before I had to board the train! In Jalandhar (Punjab), there was Lovely Sweets – a multistoried shop which, from its opulent exterior, looked more likely to offer gold jewellery than sweets and snacks! In Jammu, three of us went to a famous local eatery Pahalwan. It was started by a pahalwan (wrestler). Business had boomed and I don’t think his descendants ever needed to step into a wrestling ring for work. We ordered sweets and more. One of my companions had dhokla (which seemed to have successfully travelled from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir) for the first time. He enjoyed it!

There have been some other pleasant surprises as well. I was facilitating a workshop in Rajasthan. All of us had mentioned our favourite foods as part of the introduction round on the first of the four day workshop. On the last day, a participant cooked what I had shared – khichdi, potato fries and tomato chutney – for dinner. Drawing on her heritage, she infused a distinctive South Indian flavour to them. The tastes were unfamiliar but good and made even more special by this unexpected act of regard and generosity. It became one of those beautiful moments where good food and companionship combine to create a memorable experience.

So even as struggles with handling multiple assignments and deadlines continue, I know that the future will bring more possibilities of the gastronomic kind as well. And that is a reassuring thought!

The N Word

Nirvana? Well…actually I was thinking of another important N word (and I don’t mean nationalism) – Network! Many years ago, I had watched the film Identity with friends. There were many remarkable things about the film including the fact that a character got killed while walking into the wilderness looking for network on the mobile! So, in a way, we have been warned. Searching for network can be injurious to health.

But then, as they say, no man is an island and that urge to connect is addictive. While I can proudly proclaim that my life is not dependent on facebook updates and likes, messages and emails do need to be checked.  Since I am a consultant, my phone becomes the de facto office and that office needs to function! So I sometimes do end up walking through buildings/hotel rooms and premises searching for that elusive network. This is also when a certain degree of exercising happens – stretching arms through windows, craning the neck and even some feats of balancing.

But then, no network can also be a good thing. It offers a respite from well-meaning but over anxious family members, colleagues who decide to revert on matters that could have been handled earlier, clients who suddenly feel the urge to give feedback and those telemarketers (No…This is not the time to talk about my insurance policy…or maybe it is!)  You can focus, without interruptions, on the task at hand. It is a more immersive experience and respectful of those we are engaging with.

Ultimately, of course, one does have to return to the world of mobiles and deadlines. But then a temporary, free from technology break may also help us to look more closely at ourselves and others around us. Who knows…it may show the path to that other N….Nirvana as well!

On the Road

There is something about journeys by road. My work has provided ample opportunities for such travelling, especially to locations for fieldwork. There have been innumerable fellow passengers and countless conversations. Sometimes, that is when the magic has happened through the bursts of animated discussions interspersed with periods of companionable silence.

Barriers have come down with free flowing conversations. In fact, this is when a lot of that famous ‘subtext’ has revealed itself through the juxtaposition of what had been seen and heard before during stakeholder interactions with the enthusiastic explanations and vehement rebuttals being offered now. Failures have been conceded and learnings (from hindsight) shared. Multistakeholder dynamics have been unpacked, sometimes with generous dollops of, yes, even gossip!

Of course, journeys do come with problems as well. Bad roads don’t exactly help. You can get stuck in traffic jams on highways or other busy locations for hours. Herds have to cross when herds have to cross. You have to hunt for places to eat, discovering some gems and some others that live on in your memory for the wrong reasons. And yes, you hunt for toilets too!

But even with the misadventures, I remain a believer. Very often, the journeys have not only helped me with assignments, but also created beautiful and memorable moments. Stories of personal and professional triumphs and losses have been swapped, common frustrations articulated and bonds forged. It has been about these moments of human connection in a transient world where a lot rushes past us, much like the constantly changing scenes outside the car window.

Joys and Pains of Collaborating

Many people far more experienced and distinguished than me have spoken on the pros and cons, the joys and pains of teamwork. Sometimes, it is exhilarating and we may even end up striking great friendships. But all of us who have been through the trajectory of group assignments in school and college to teams for projects in the professional domain have our own personal horror stories as well. Of that one person who didn’t ….. Of the one team which wouldn’t….

Lately, I have been working very closely with a team on some research studies. It has, undoubtedly, been enriching and amazing. It has also provided me insight into the transient and interchangeable nature of ‘joy’ and ‘pain’. Well…decide for yourself!

Constant travelling         Enjoyable road trips         Hours together in cramped spaces

New experiences           Wow! This music is good   Seriously dude! You listen to this?

Working together         Learning from others          This is so unplanned!
sometimes in a             and on the move
chaotic environment

Dividing work            Capitalising knowledge         You think this is all I can do?
responsibilities          and skills

Blurring of                Knowing each other          I need to know about your family-why?
personal and            well, Stepping in to           And your digestive system – WHY?
professional             support when needed

So you are a… WHAT?

I have had this reaction – uttered in tones ranging from absolute lack of comprehension to sinister suspicion – countless number of times. When does this happen? When I am asked my profession. By relatives. By acquaintances. By strangers trying to make polite conversation. The answer invariably stumps most.

Sometimes, I say ‘social worker’. There is a moment of silence. Maybe, it marks the end of their hopes of a dizzying career for me. Then the questions come out, hesitatingly for a few and but like torrential rain for most. ‘So, you do exactly what?’ ‘And you get paid for it?’ ‘How much?’ ‘By whom?’ ‘Are foreign agencies involved?’ Here, invariably, the voice drops – ‘The church…from abroad, na?’

Sometimes, I say – ‘consultant’. Often, nodding of heads follow. Some then state approvingly– ‘Aah…for the corporate sector. Very good.’ Then, I have to jolt them from that surety! Now, I get to pick from ‘NGO sector/not for profits/development sector’. And that quizzical look returneth. When I add, helpfully ‘child protection’ and ‘adolescent health and nutrition’, it does not help. Does not help at all.

After years and years of this torture, I have (I think) developed nuances in my tone. So now, my tone does more of the talking. Sometimes, it suggests – Yes I do this. End of discussion. Very rarely – Ok…I am willing to tell you my entire professional story. I have found that being open, particularly while traveling – is often downright dangerous. Before you know it, someone has asked you how to ‘open an NGO’ and also shared that it has been their sole burning ambition for varying periods of time. One may even be assailed with episodes of their goodness and voluntary-ness in graphic details. These are possibly the only times I wish I did something else for a living!