On Amtrak, awake interrupted by sullen sleep


A scene from one of my train’s many stops

(I wrote this onboard an Amtrak train yesterday but could not post it because there was no net connectivity)

Amtrak is like the Rajdhani Express but without the served food, pillows and blankets. There is a dining car, of course, but who can beat the tender loving care of the Indian Railways employees plying you with frequently heated food and blanket even when not asked and more when indeed asked?

My journey from Chicago’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station is little less than half accomplished when I write this post. Yellow sodium lights of the passing stations flicker like candles in the winds as my train hobbles past. The extent of standardization in terms of the look and feel in America, about which I have written before, ensures that you feel as if you are moving without really getting anywhere. That is because much of what you see at stations and around them is often exactly the same. McDonald’s, for instance, or ATM machines or Subway joints or Domino’s Pizzas are so standardized that the feeling of having covered any distance at all is completely erased. That and the fact that I have not slept all that well may also be making my mind play tricks.

The train, or at least the car that I am in, seems like about 40% full which means that I managed to get two seats for the price of one. And yet, even with those two seats I couldn’t sleep because my body is not used to the fetal, Houdini like contortions needed to fit into tight spaces. I stayed awake mostly interrupted by sullen sleep. The transition from the dark of night to the light of day is like a gradient of black to grey to ivory white to mauve yellow. As I write this I am still going through the deep grey part of the gradient, the kind when silhouetted trees managed to look mysterious in an unfriendly way.

Returning to New York after three years makes me wonder whether I may have lost the city’s urgent gait  and the look of “don’t talk to me sense of purpose”. I think it is entirely possible that I may feel like a bewildered villager or, at the very least, a somnambulant suburbanite when I finally reach. It is equally possible that I may slip into the New York state of mind of effortlessly.

Staying with an old and dear friend, not to mention an omnipresent photojournalist, Jay Mandal has no downsides to it. Nothing in terms of South Asia-America news happens in New York and Washington D.C. without first seeking Jay’s permission. It is only when he approves that news chooses to to do what it must—that is break for others. Jay and I will spend the next week covering the first visit by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United Nations, Madison Square Garden and the White House. Since the prime minister is “not the not working” kind of man as he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, I suspect the media will have its hands full. There is a contingent of Indian media that will be covering the visit. In keeping with his policy of keeping an arm’s length from the media, I am told a majority of Indian journalists is traveling on their own, flying commercial. The tradition until recently had been that senior Indian journalists were given a free ride on the prime minister’s official aircraft. It was a junket with some pretension of serious news reporting. Modi the “not the not working” type will have none of that.

I think I have stretched a thin story thinner enough to write this post on board Amtrak.

P.S.: The train was about six hours late. I reached NYC only around midnight to be received at the Penn Station by the ever gracious Jay. He had no reason to do that, other than that that’s what he does. He shows grace and generosity.

The train made stops at every station and everything that resembled a station and everything that did not. I thought at least twice or thrice it even slowed down to gossip with passing trains. It is for the first time in my life that I spent 25 hours on a train. Since it got so delayed, we were offered a choice of food, which included beef stew and rice. Being a painful vegetarian I had to settle for a pack of roasted almonds.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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