The Vasco (da Gama) Express has cut across Tamil Nadu and is gobbling up the miles through Karnataka on its way to Goa. It is a 16 hour journey before I get off at half past 6 in the morning in Hubli. The five other people in the cramped yet familiar confines of this three tier air-conditioned cubicle are friendly. The middle berth will be raised closer to bed-time and we sit three on either side on the lower-most berth. It comes naturally to them to ask me if I’ve eaten and I’m touched when they offer their snacks – I’d forgotten the easy generosity that’s commonplace on a train journey in India.
My companions are all social workers from different parts of rural Tamil Nadu on their way to an annual conference in Goa. Some know each other already but they all seem to have done this before and are relishing the prospect of tasting feni (alcoholic drink made from cashew nuts), buying the two bottles of wine that they are allowed to bring back and generally having a good time. Eavesdropping on their conversation is keeping me entertained. “Did you know that even women drink wine and some drink many glasses at one time?” Food remains top topic – they’ve ordered dinner and are wondering what they’ll be eating when it arrives. They refuse the non-vegetarian option as they all say they don’t like to eat meat at night. Fried rice, vegetable korma and pooris. The older woman is disappointed that they won’t be serving paneer. Its her all time favourite.
When the chat turns from the banal to the political – things get even more interesting. The word on the train is that Mr Modi really doesn’t deserve to be PM – “after all, he’s separated from his wife and apparently has a Muslim girlfriend”. Gossip perhaps – juicy nonetheless. More surprising was the conversation around the Tamils from Sri Lanka. They seemed unimpressed with the recent plan to release those accused in the Rajiv Gandhi trial – “its not our country’s problem,” which to me was unexpected. The youngest of the group, who happened to be female protests about rape and abuse of women in the struggle of the Tamils in our neighbouring country. That she says cannot be condoned. I get up to throw the rubbish out and she comes behind me and expresses her dissatisfaction to me. I’m still thinking about what really constitutes a Tamil identity. The door outside the A/C carriage is kept open and fresh warm air gusts in – for a brief moment I worry if I’ll be flung out to be thrown on the speeding heaps of discarded cartons and plastic bags that are permanent blots on the landscape outside.
The young woman and I talk about the work on gender equality and women’s education that she’s involved in with the NGO she works for. Alcohol, she says is available from the morning in all the villages she goes to and was the main problem for all domestic violence. She blamed the government for opening liquor shops all over to get quick revenue from taxes. She confides in me about getting married at 15 and being divorced three years later. Her husband didn’t hit her, she says, but smoked marijuana all day and drank. I ask her why she didn’t marry again. She says she has a daughter who was being looked after by her mother while she was away. Her girl wants to work for the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) – so that she could investigate the government’s practices, she says with a proud laugh. She speaks of her daughter’s intelligence – especially when she tells her that she won’t make the same mistakes as her mother, ‘who got hit by her husband’. She laughs, ignoring her slip – its a bold sound that throws the past to the racing wind. We soon return to our cubicle.