Book review – Rail Romance by Krupa Sagar Sahoo

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Having grown up in 1990s India, train journeys are familiar territory for me and they hold a special place in my heart. I connect them with carefree and simpler times when happiness was eating the fluffy son papdi that hawkers sell and getting a seat by the window, looking out at the ever changing terrain till I fell asleep. Trains are still the most affordable mode of transport for most middle class Indians but I suspect more than that it is the comfort of the familiar. The author of Rail Romance, Krupa Sagar Sahoo, is a Sahitya Akademi awardee and is a well known Odia writer. When I was offered a chance to review the book, I was excited to read the book (full discolusure – I am an Odia).

The first thing I noticed about the book was its cover (I always judge books by their covers!). I loved the vibrant cover designed by Tina Patankar which was so detailed that I was transported to the railway station. Incidentally this is probably the first book with a red cover that I own which isn’t gag worthy or too cutesy for its own good.

The stories set on the Coromandel Express appear in the first part of the book. Here Nakua, the fly travels on the Coromandel Express to see more of the world. In this section there are 7 interconnected stories. It was entertaining to watch Nakua’s thought process as he tried to make sense of why humans do what they do. His journey offered new insights into the 1999 super cyclone. As he saw different places, along with his worldview, mine appears to be shifted as well. I remember the gale force winds and the days being as dark as the night. There was no electricity for days. Of course, in Odisha we are no stranger to cyclones. When Cyclone Raya made its transit recently, the memories came rushing back.

The second part contains 10 independent short stories. Deftly woven into his stories are the conditions prevalent in the society. There are insights to be gleaned by reading between the lines. I am a product of this society and I may not agree with how it functions but the milieu was certainly familiar to me, sometimes to the point of being uncomfortable. It is his narration with a sense of humour that kept me turning the pages. Some of the stories had me thinking long after I finished them. The Daughter, The Gypsy Girl, The Hidden Stream, Party on a Pay Day and The Curse of the Cobra were the ones that stood out.

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Of letters and epistolary connections

Writing letters was quite common during my grandparents time when telephones weren’t ubiquitous and very few households had it. They wrote letters to each other to apprise each other of the happenings in their lives. They speak very fondly of those days, of waiting for a letter. They didn’t see each other for months and it was letters that connected them to each other, bridging the distance effortlessly. Look at us with our smartphones, connected on multiple platforms but still there’s something missing. In saying too much too often we are perhaps missing the point.

We are surrounded by words, we use words to connect with others on social media and on the phone. How many people write letters (=epistles) or for that matter long emails in the age of WhatsApps, which is the opposite of instant and needs some time to be responded to. Letters are the epitome of personal. There’s something about the act of writing letters that makes me feel like I’m not a part of this dog-eat-dog world or that I belong to a different time than the one I am living in (my sister says it’s a way of keeping illusions intact and delaying it being shattered by the real world).

Somehow a letter seems less intrusive but more revealing (if you know what I mean you have penpals) than a conversation when you only know the person online. It gives us the liberty to shape and build a narrative we want to present (quite like the image we create on social media) while being true to the self. Online or offline we are always telling our life stories. Also, there is the romance of it, how a letter feels in your hand. It is far more real than an email could ever be. Internet offers us many chances of finding like-minded people and connecting with them but texts can never be as personal as a letter.

The people I write to and who write to me, we have formed a unique bond that surprisingly goes beyond words. Even if communication happens via other channels the letters remain special.

Seeing the handwriting of someone you have never met is very personal but nobody thinks about it because of the way things have always been. Handwriting is a practical tool to write answers and get marks.

Writing to someone you have never met in real life teaches you to have faith beyond  what you see. Pen pals or email pals allow us to escape the tedium of reality without completely endangering ourselves. We think the person on the other side of the table can’t really hurt us. Apparently this is both naïve and idiotic. It can be foolhardy and dangerous if the person on the other side isn’t honest about who he or she is. And finding out later is nothing short of betrayal. Count yourself lucky if it doesn’t result in heartbreak.

Do people write letters in this day and age? They are dying tribe but they do exist. A lot of trust, patience and faith in the universe is required to sustain this habit. In life we get hurt. Our trust is destroyed by people who call themselves our friends (or acquaintances). So how do we sustain such a connection with so many unknowable variables? Is it by believing in the persona created by words but nothing to corroborate the fact in real life? Or something else? It works because we want to make it work and believe what the person on the other side says is true. Other than that, getting letters in the post is a feeling which cannot be described in words.

Did you have a pen pal? What has been your experience like?