Railfanning – A traveler’s gaze on railways & rail travel


Between 2010-2012, I was a frequent traveler on Chennai-Bangalore rail route. Quite often I traveled on an unreserved ticket and invariably standing by the door of the coach. The door side of an Indian railway coach (for those who aren’t familiar) is quite a vantage point for the tribes of sociologists, anthropologists, aimless wanderers, intrepid travelers, mendicants and anyone under the sun who doesn’t care about having a place to sit and is curious about the world around him, including the lovely landscapes that the train traverses. Understandably, I have always held that I belong to the doors and rightfully take my place by the door as soon as I board the train.

Now, once the train is on the roll a slice of the grand Indian bazaar unfolds in front of you – books, pirated cinema DVDs, cheap toys, key rings, wallets, handkerchiefs, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, that typical puffed rice tossed with fresh greens, tomatoes and a dash of lemon, snacks from the pantry (if the train has one), tender coconuts, a range of fresh farm produce depending on the season… the list is as diverse as the land and its people!

Blind, partially blind and not really blind people, all hawking wares as blind men seems like a thing going on forever in these trains. Elsewhere in the coach young men and ladies take a look at a range of key rings, parents browse through a collection of cheap coloring, sketching, cursive handwriting and story books assuming that their kids better have one of these than bother about those toys being hawked. The highway like aisle is occupied by sellers of everything that can be sold in this market on rails. Pantry vendors call with trays of whatever the kitchen on wheels is cooking that evening. As stations roll by, the range of offerings from the pantry change.  This activity filled train rides are an idler’s delight and perhaps a sociologist’s curiosity. And for a writer, inspiration and stuff worth ten pages at least!

This fascination for the railways, travelers and the sheer variety of thing happening on rails made me look at some of them more closely. Of this milieu, hawkers are one set that have interested me. Joining them at work for over three weeks last year, I have learnt a great deal about another form of quick to emerge and quick to adapt form of livelihood which exists somewhere on the boundary of the legal and illegal ways of earning a living. A bit of that was posted here as fieldnotes. Illegal? This really is the imagination of Indian Railways and which is something I am trying to understand. But, this aside I think we (my team) as entrepreneurs don’t even half the courage and half the risk taking ability that these people take in their work and lives. This post is just an admiration and appreciation of these awesome folks who not many of us happen to notice on our journeys.

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