Thursday, December 31, 2015

A house that built us

It came into our lives by accident. My dad was out with an old friend when they passed a rundown house for sale, and he saw something there that nobody else did. When he brought my mother to see it, she was horrified but decided to trust whatever vision he was so keen on. So it was bought, between him and my brother. Then for three months he walked about making complicated drawings (and inflicting them via email on those who’d hoped Dubai would be a safe distance from the epicenter). He was practically eating and sleeping with a pencil and ruler, spent his days in huddles with masons, plumbers and electricians.

The rest of us hampered and hindered proceedings in our usual aggressive fashion. We fought at the dining table (the most favoured arena), in the car, on the phone and in hardware stores. Deciding on a simple kitchen tap could include every grievance - real or imagined - collected from birth. But there came a day when that dingy place was transformed into a thing of light and space, complete with pink bathroom for the daughter and blue one for the son. And we could fight afresh about furniture placement.

It has hosted a spectacular housewarming, a happy wedding, birthdays, anniversaries, parties of all kinds. It welcomed a wonderful daughter-in-law and grandchild. And a running stream of family and friends. It healed returning prodigals and sent them forth again. It had its fair share of slammed doors and “discussions” that require yelling and angry tears, and also much of the opposite. Not to mention the regular complement of poisonous snakes, squirrels, birds, bandicoots and dogs that have generally surrounded us (all as noisy and ungovernable as the human inhabitants).

The new owners plan to raze it and build anew. So the home remains intact, playing out the scenes in the photo albums until the end of time. A quiet guest who’s slipped away from the chattering dinner crowd is forever curled up on the beanbag in the book room upstairs. A close group of cousins or friends talk into the night on the balcony. My brother and I are sharing confidences, plotting and/or fighting in a continuous loop. No matter how far I go, I stand always in the doorway of the kitchen chattering to my mom, or the entrance to the “workshop” talking to my dad. And a large German Shepherd remains here, purposefully quartering the yard, from raintree to silver oak, bamboo to bougainvillea (with breaks to be fussed over like the world’s biggest puppy)

Now we look forward to arguing over setting up the dining table in a new place to continue the conversations that have fortified us all our lives, making our journeys possible.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The man in seat 61

I found him first in 2007 when I was planning my first epic train journey, across the US. I was startled to find that someone had listed practically every train in the world, with detailed information on how to plan your journey, where to book tickets, and everything else you need to know. He’ll practically tell you what platform it’ll arrive on!

Over the past seven years, he’s become an essential part of my travel planning. Somehow he is bound in my head with a bar in Providence, having a drink with my cousin as we waited for the release of the last Harry Potter. Because he's part of the journey of that book we bought, which my cousin read first, I read on the train across the country, and then left for a friend 3000 miles later, in LA. He is another cousin who put me on a train in Boston Station, and the one who met me at the end of that trip, a continuity of childhood travel completely unaffected by the distances we have all gone since. He is part of my own writings in a Buddhist library in the foothills of the Himalayas, involving a very different kind of train journey through Middle India. He’s the reason I was able to brave the trains of Vietnam, and buy tickets in the most bewildering language in the world.

He demystified the Italian and Spanish railways for me. He helped me plan an even more epic train ride from Saigon to Moscow. The fact that my trip didn’t eventually work out is less important than the fact that it exists. The same goes for Norway’s Flam railway, the Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific, and the Tren Crucero in Ecuador.

When I plan a holiday, I do the usual searches, read the advice about cars and drivers, go through the apocryphal information on travelling alone, all the highly subjective views on Trip Advisor. I listen in on uptight backpackers giving each other misguided advice. And then I turn to my main man, who has what I need, carefully organized, fully thought through, answering not just the questions I have but those I hadn’t thought of asking. Most importantly, he knows you’re probably not a shoestring traveler, and would like some information about the most comfortable form of train travel.

Having grown up with a father who is passionate about trains, a family that ran the Southern Railways, and an India where the train was pretty much the only viable form of long-distance transport, I have always been used to train information that is accurate, precise and detailed. So I have immense respect for this labour of love.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, every train contains at least one passenger per car who can glance at a pair of orphan rails in the night and tell you which station it is, or wake from a deep sleep and know instantly where we’ve stopped, why, where the coming freight train is bound and at what speed. It’s the man in seat 61*.

*PS: If you're on an Indian train, this is probably my dad. If you're on a plane anywhere, that's definitely my brother.

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