Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet begins when Al Mustafa is about to return to his homeland from his adopted city of 12 years. His followers beseech him to stay on but a wise woman recognizes that he must go. Before leaving, she asks him to dispense the wisdom of “all that is between birth and death”. The rest of the book is about the Prophet’s poetic utterances on love, life and the human condition.
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In the format of that beautiful, cult book, is an imagined scene where a group of railway passengers gather around a wise prophet and consult with him about the travails of their travels in the Rajdhani Express.
A young mother said: Speak to me of eating and drinking O Master! There is enough food in the Rajdhani, that I cannot deny, to keep our bodies warm in cold compartments and our stomachs filled to fulfil our greed, not just our need. But must we be served cottage cheese dumplings in gravy in every meal? On one trip from the capital to the sunny south, the train which takes 36 hours was delayed and we were served five meals with paneer in every one of them! Is that not cruel upon the passengers, O Master, to our palate and to our arteries carrying lifeblood to our hearts? And what of the vile brew that is served as coffee? For thrift, a packet of brown powder that costs a single rupee is stuffed in a white cup with a creamer and the passenger left to his fate to drink it as he pleases. Can we not do better than that O learned one?
The Prophet: If only you could live on the fragrance of the earth and like a plant be sustained by light! But since mankind must rob a young calf of its mother’s milk and curdle it to make cottage cheese, let that not become the curse of the vegetarian. Let it be served just once and the rest of your meals on train contain other bounty of the earth. Green beans and peas and cabbage leaves, not the ubiquitous tuber that fills our samosas, cheaper though it may be.
If it is money that is stopping the good men and women of the Railways from serving better beverages, may they get it by cutting any of the fried lard that comes disguised as snacks to befuddle the innocent. As for the brown, fragrant bean that God put on earth, may a better pre-mix be served, like they do in some vehicles of the skies, where some water is all that has to be added by the drinker. There will then be in your heart, a song for each such cup that you raise to your lips!
An old innkeeper said: Speak to us of choice O Master. Should not a passenger be given a choice of ticket? One where the price includes food and one where it does not? A section of passengers would get fare from home if their ticket did not include the price of the repast. Once, O Master, I watched this advocated fiercely by a group of men travelling from the merchant city on the west coast to our capital.
The Prophet: You speak the truth. Scarce is the human heart that does not fret about money spent on goods not consumed. As the travellers have already paid for their meals on the locomotive, they decide to eat what is offered. If there was a choice and they could spend less to travel, but arrange for their own suppers, many would prefer that. Who is the husband who does not want to open a box and behold the theplas and morabba that his wife has lovingly packed for him? Is there a son who will not prefer idlis, as soft as his mother’s heart, to the attendant’s cold chappati on a tray? Does there exist a traveller who will not melt at the aroma of home cooked paranthas that wafts through the compartment, when the foil is unravelled? And later, much later, they will remember these pleasures with gratitude like they would the harvest of a summer.
A doctor said: And now speak to us of cleanliness O Master! The white sheets offered to the travellers to keep them warm are often unclean with stains whose origins we dare not imagine. With every meal is a salad of cucumbers and onions and a wedge of lemon. These we shun, O Master, for they are cut and sliced by men of the train while squatting on the floor near the room of ablutions. That room, where travellers are to wash and clean themselves, becomes by a few hours, a place both foul and fetid, with slushy floors that no one but the brave or desperate will venture into.
The Prophet: A great fakir of this land compared cleanliness to Godliness but alas, you, his children, have forgotten his words. For the Railways to begrudge a weary traveller a clean place to perform his acts of hygiene or offer him unwashed quilts or unclean vegetables, is to be inhospitable to a guest and unfair to a customer of their transport. May more money be demanded for the Rajdhani, as it is not the very poor who are its passengers, but let the Railways work with joy for those who travel in their carriages . Let there be food made with love and good sanitation and clean accoutrements, so that those who journey by train revel in the pleasures of passing groves and meadows; valleys and vineyards and arrive at their destinations fresh as the morning mist.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com