Existential Prose: A Train’s Journey by Boris Glikman

Woman and man walk on train tracks

I live in a train. I have food, warmth, a place to sleep.

I feel certain that I am its sole occupant, for if there were anyone else on it I would know by now, as I have lived in this train my entire life.

Where it is heading to, I can not tell. On occasions, it stops entirely or even begins to move backwards, but I can never get off for all the exits are hermetically sealed.

In earlier times, I cherished the hope that the train contains something that would help me escape it, this unwieldy metal hulk, and separate my existence from its course. I searched exhaustively for a button that would throw open all the doors simultaneously or a lever that will allow me to prise open a window. Yet I dared not to go through every carriage and compartment, partly out of fear that I would find nothing of use and that thereby all of my hopes would be terminally dashed.

I can only perceive the outside world as it appears through the windows of the train. I know not how veracious my perceptions are, for it may well be that the windows are made of distorting glass. I often wonder what it would be like to experience life directly.

Occasionally, I see other trains go nearby and catch a glimpse of their solitary dwellers. My train might run parallel to theirs for a short distance but then the tracks diverge and I never see them again. There may be time enough to wave or shout out a few quick words but the words get mangled by the noise of wheels on the tracks.

Once, and oh, how the memory of that event heartens me still, my train travelled close to another with a young woman occupant for a considerable period of time, maybe as long as two minutes. I put my palms upon the window and spread my fingers and the girl did the same in her carriage. Our hands were perfectly aligned, and despite the glass between us, I was sure that I could feel her body warmth.

I can not jettison my dream that I will see her again, that our trains will run side by side forever and we will never be apart. In every train that I see, I continue to search out for her sublime features, yet at the same time I am wracked by doubts as to how I appeared to her, whether the windows of her train distorted her vision of me.

Does my train have a driver? Is there any purpose to its voyage? Is it moving of its own volition and choosing its own way through the land or has its journey been pre-planned by some unknown hand? Is there a Master Scheduler who has organised the timetables and the routes of every train? Shall I direct my prayers to him to allow me to see that girl again? These are the questions; the answers to which I am still searching.

With time, I grow to accept having one’s existence tied up with the train. The desire to leave the train now appears to be no less preposterous and unnatural than the idea of a foetus trying to make its way through the world, a walking miscarriage. Existence outside would be so precarious and haphazard, without protection from the elements and other vagaries of fate. The train gives me solid cover, carries me forward, brings certainty to my life.

There may be things in the unexplored compartments that would make my journey more meaningful and fulfilling, things that would allow me to grow as a person. For all I know, treasures and tools, placed there especially for me, might be waiting for my discovery.

But lulled by the rhythm of the train upon the tracks, I remain seated in my seat for hours, days, weeks, years on end. I look out of the window and watch the world go by, not moving, indeed afraid to move, so accustomed have I become to seeing things from this vantage point. In my deluded periods, I imagine that I can influence the train’s course and destination just by wishing for it hard enough.

Lately, I’ve been seeing vaguely familiar landscapes. Is the train taking me to the place whence it commenced its voyage and will my journey then be over? Will there be someone waiting for me when the train pulls into its last station, someone that knows where and when my train will make its final stop? Perhaps it will be the Master Scheduler himself and he will then explain to me the purpose of my voyage and why my journey took this particular route.

I live in a train. Although I have food, warmth, a place to sleep, sometimes a feeling comes over me that I have nothing at all, but I quickly push it away.

 

A TRAIN’S JOURNEY: Further Interpretations and Ideas by Boris Glikmantrain tracks to heaven

  • It’s true that the most obvious interpretation of this story is that it is about isolation and alienation from society. However, there is another possible interpretation of this story, namely that this is an extended allegory about physical existence, the train being a metaphor for the body and being stuck in it, the windows of the train (which are possibly made of distorting glass) being the unreliable senses that are the only way we can perceive the outside world, the unexplored compartments that might hold the tools needed for liberation are the unexplored areas of the mind and the journey itself as an allegory for life, not knowing if it has been pre-planned. etc.
  • So, this story actually works as an allegory on several levels, for not only is it an allegory about isolation, but it’s also an allegory about the deep philosophical problems of solipsism, the unreliability of our senses, of how we could ever be sure if there’s anything out there and it’s not our mind that’s making it all up, predestination, free will, the meaning of life, of whether there is a God who has pre-planned our lives, etc.
  • Train as a symbol of destiny that carries us forward, despite ourselves and over which we have no control, no control over its direction, the route it takes, whether its route has already been pre-determined and we are helpless to change it, its destination point, when it comes to a stop or how fast it moves.
  • One is destined to be forever alone, for we all just pass each other momentarily in our own trains and then continue along our divergent train tracks. The most you can hope for is a fleeting connection with another being. We cannot connect with anyone; everything and everyone just passes us by and we are unable to make any meaningful or long-term connections with anyone. People and things just pass us by in our lives, you can’t/don’t have any control over them and they are never seen again. Life just passes you by, you can’t stop or control it. Each and every day we are closer to reaching the terminus, the terminal/final station of the train.
  • “In my deluded periods, I imagine that I can influence the train’s course and destination just by wishing for it hard enough.” – an allegory for trying to affect, control and influence one’s destiny/life through praying, by wishing for it hard enough. Not by doing anything, but just by desiring it hard enough, deluding oneself that one can change one’s life/destiny just by wishing for it or praying for it hard enough.
  • “But lulled by the rhythm of the train upon the tracks, I remain seated in my seat for hours, days, weeks, years on end.”  – symbolises the acceptance and resignation that comes with age, just weariness and loss of desire to change anything or change one’s life.
  • “I look out of the window and watch the world go by, not moving, indeed afraid to move, so accustomed have I become to seeing things from this vantage point.” – being afraid of change and so not changing our lives or our perspectives because we have become so used to particular lifestyles and we take comfort and security from that stability and consistency and so are loathe and afraid to change it in any way, even if the life we have chosen leaves a lot to be desired, is not ideal or is actually harming us in some way.
  • The glass between the man and the woman represents the social conventions, the pride and the ego, the prejudices, the unfounded fears, the preconceived ideas and the pre-judgements, the non-caring and selfishness, the rush of life and all the other things that stop people from establishing meaningful, friendly, loving connections with one another. The fact that the glass is transparent (so that the woman and the man can clearly see each other), invisible and impenetrable only accentuates further the parallel to real life in which invisible barriers prevent people from making real, authentic connections with one another.
  • The empty train that the protagonist lives in can symbolise the emptiness of our lives, whether physical emptiness, i.e. isolation from others, or emotional/inner vacuum/emptiness. As the train can be a symbol of the body/mind as described above, its emptiness can clearly represent the emotional/mental/innert vacuum of our lives.

 

People walking on train tracksA TRAIN’S JOURNEY: Interpretations from Other Readers

“One other interpretation of A Train’s Journey could be that the narrator just died but doesn’t know it yet, as in the movies “Ghost” and “The Sixth Sense” and “The Lovely Bones.” So he lives between two worlds, life and death, and he crosses another train where there is a woman living in the same two worlds.”

“I read the Train story, and though I found it beautifully written, it left me with a feeling of great sadness and loneliness (probably the feeling you intended to convey). I feel that the existential philosophy conveyed by that story is one of futility and impotence in the face of an incomprehensible universe, over which we have no power and against which we are totally helpless.”

“My interpretation of the story is a long metaphor about life.  Why are we here? What sense is there to be here? What’s the purpose of our life on this earth? On the Universe? We are born knowing nothing and we will die knowing nothing. We are born owing nothing and we will die the same way. Even in the middle of millions of people, we are alone in our own self but we can sometimes connect with another human being, even if it is for a very short time.”

A Train’s Journey is such a great story. I catch the train regularly for work now, and always catch myself thinking of it as a metaphor for life’s journey and the choices we make.”

“Intriguing but sad as I feel this is a lost soul from an aborted fetus.”

“I believe, at one time or another, we have all felt like the train in this story, trapped in the vacuum, we call our lives.”

“Feeling like you’re different from others and trapped inside your own world in your head. Thinking you are the only one to feel this way and to be in this situation and on the very rare occasion meeting someone who is possibly just the same. But this ‘someone’ usually just comes and goes because they are following their own path, their own journey, in their own train.”

“Train tracks represent your path in life. Tracks can change, take turns and lead you to things you never experienced before. But if you’re not in control of the train, if you’re only a passenger, then your life is not in your hands. You can choose to let this train take you on a random journey or take your life in your own hands and lead the train. Stop the train when you need to. Change the tracks when you have an option to do so and take the path you believe is right at any point in time. The other carriages may also be full of other passengers in this story. But I don’t think so. I think it’s your own train. It’s your own personal journey through life. You are the only one who can take the conductor’s seat or choose to remain a passenger.”

“A Train’s Journey is surely a journey through life, highlighting the way we’re all inclined to become fixed in respect of direction and speed of travel, and the way in which we ultimately all find ourselves alone. At the same time, it drew attention to the dubious ‘reliability’ of our sensory information about the world through which we pass. I felt (as I often do with your stories) that there was a touch of the Aesop in it, though the comparison with Kafka is no less fair.”

“One aspect of the train journey I liked is that lately he feels like he is seeing vaguely familiar landscapes. That is a lot like life, like the first time you see cruelty or love, it seems so shocking, and then, as you get older, you see it again and again, it has an air of familiarity about it, still distasteful (for cruelty) or encouraging (for love) but some of the shock value has leached away. It does make you wonder if you’ve seen it all, but I guess the traveller on your train often feels like he hasn’t quite seen anything properly.”

“The story’s opening and closing paragraphs start with a simple sentence, ‘I live in a train.’ Food and shelter are mentioned next in both paragraphs – the basics. But there’s more to human life, of course. The following paragraphs explore the existential questions of our journey through life, from longing to escape the train from its predestined course, its conformity, to reach higher grounds with our dreams fulfilled to connecting meaningfully with other people and finding answers not only to the purpose of life but also to the existence of God and afterlife.

With maturity comes acceptance of conformity although the wish is still there to change the train’s course. The last two sentences leave me with a sense of sadness, but then, I need to push that feeling away too.”

‘I live in a train. Although I have food, warmth, a place to sleep, sometimes a feeling comes over me that I have nothing at all, but I quickly push it away.’

 

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts: The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

Book Review
Title: Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Released: 2003
Pages: 944
ISBN-10: 0312330529
ISBN-13: 978-0312330521
Stars: 6.0

The sensational epic novel Shantaram by Australian author Gregory David Roberts is one that I don’t think I will ever forget for as long as I live. It is the best book I have ever read and giving it 5 stars just isn’t enough to express how much I loved it and what a profound effect its author has had on the way I look at the world.

This is a book I savored like a last bottle of water in the desert, while reading several others in between over a period of five months, because I never wanted it to end. Its gripping, visceral descriptions of prison life will make you squirm in your seat and its heartrending passages about the loss of loved ones will have you weeping uncontrollably, but it will also make you daydream, smile, and laugh out loud.

The theme of Shantaram is the exile experience, alienation, and man’s quest for meaning. It’s also about shame and self-loathing, sadness and hope, fear and forgiveness, poverty and true wealth, understanding and catharsis. And above all, it is about love.

Shantaram (which is actually the second book in a trilogy that has not yet been published) for the most part takes place in Bombay (Mumbai) and the author’s knowledge and love for the Indian people is so intoxicating and infectious that it will make you want to visit India with the hope that you will come to know its people in the same way. He describes the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of India (as well as his romantic retreat in Goa and the war torn and ravaged Afghanistan) with as much perfect detail, love and care as a famous artist put into his masterpiece with each strategic brush stroke.

Shantaram is the story of the indomitable spirit of a man who has lost everything – whose will to survive is astonishing – and the lengths to which he will fight to climb out of the abyss, absolutely astounding. The main character who has a number of names: Linbaba, Lin, Shantaram…is a man who feels damned and beyond redemption because of the crimes he’s committed (robbery, smuggling, gunrunning, counterfeiting, and working as a street soldier for the Bombay mafia) but who manages to find light, peace and salvation through the relationships he shares with the people he loves.

“It’s forgiveness that makes us what we are. Without forgiveness, our species would’ve annihilated itself in endless retributions. Without forgiveness, there would be no history. Without that hope, there would be no art, for every work of art is in some way an act of forgiveness. Without that dream, there would be no love, for every act of love is in some way a promise to forget. We live on because we can love, and we love because we can forgive.”

Based on many of the true life experiences of Gregory David Roberts – who after the failure of his marriage in Australia became a heroin addict, robber, inmate, escapee, and finally a refugee hiding out in India – Shantaram is stellar fiction that will leave you with many questions about how much of the story actually happened and how much was devised by Roberts’ literary genius. You may also find yourself falling in love with its author because of his intellect, charisma, and the sheer magnitude of his gigantic heart.

This book should be required reading for every college and university student on the planet. It’s a story that should be read, if possible, before embarking on the major part of your life’s journey. It is filled with so many exquisitely written passages and profound and remarkable quotes that you will be able to find something in it to express almost every situation you could possibly encounter.

“Everything you ever sense, in touch or taste or sight or even thought, has an effect on you that’s greater than zero. Some things, like the background sound of a bird chirping as it passes your house in the evening, or a flower glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, have such an infinitesimally small effect that you can’t detect them. Some things, like triumph and heartbreak, and some images, like the image of yourself reflected in the eyes of a man you’ve just stabbed, attach themselves to the secret gallery and they change your life forever.”

The characters, particularly his closest friends outside of the mafia council, such as Prabaker, Johnny Cigar, Qasim Ali Hussein and the slum dwellers, and the European crowd from Leopold’s Bar: Karla, Lisa, Didier, Ulla and Modena, Maurizio, Lettie and Vikram, Scorpio George and Gemini George, as well as Abdullah, Khader Khan and the other members of the Bombay mafia, are richly developed and fully realized and as a reader you become invested in them as you experience their joys and tragedies. I believe that some of these characters were amalgamations of several different people who Roberts knew in India in the 80s, but the world he creates through their eyes is as complex and colourful as the one we live in at this moment. Rarely, have I read a book that so completely transported me into the author’s world and seldom have I thought of one so much after I’d put the book down.

As I read the last few pages of this giant tome, tears trickled down my face, because of what Roberts had written in ending this part of his tale, and because I had come to the end and now I have to wait for the sequel to be published; hopefully in September 2011. Having a writer’s work that is this good, to look forward to, is something exceptional indeed. Gregory David Roberts’ life has been beyond extraordinary.

I won’t say anything more but READ THIS BOOK. You can also read an essay, The Architecture of the Novel on Roberts’ website at www.shantaram.com under the Author Notes tab.

Here is Gregory David Roberts talking about Shantaram and his experiences in India for CNN’s Talk Asia:

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

NOTE:

Johnny Depp bought the rights to this book for the making of the movie but the project has been stalled in development for quite a long time and there is no telling when production will begin.