Monday, September 2, 2013

The Great Indian Train Journey

It is a coincidence that I should finish a book titled Around India in 80 Trains while travelling from Mumbai to Vadodara aboard the August Kranti Rajdhani Express. I love Indian trains so much so that the excitement of travelling in a coupé in the first class of the Rajdhani Express matches that of hanging out on the footboard of a Mumbai local. In the early 1990s, we would journey across the country from Mumbai to Patna aboard the notoriously slow Kurla Bhagalpur Express during our summer vacations. The train did not even have a pantry car. As children, who had previously enjoyed breakfasts of steaming hot omelettes aboard the Magadh Express from New Delhi to Patna, we hated it. Dad would have to alight at stations, scour around for reasonably hygienic food joints and pack up some samosas or kachoris for us to eat. 

Then one vacation, we decided to try the Dadar-Guwahati Express. It had a pantry. What I liked more about the train was that during the course of the 32-hour journey to Patna, I would have made many friends from Assam and the North East. Of course, we would never see each other again, but it did not matter. All important information about our schools and teachers, filmstars and heroes, books and magazines, video games, sibling fights and friends had already been exchanged.

In January 2005, six of us — full grown students —  squeezed into three side-berths of a second-class for a 24-hour trip aboard the Chennai Express from Mumbai to Chennai. Like every other journalist, we too would be heading to Tamil Nadu to get a first-hand account of what the tsunami had wiped off and what it had left behind. Of course, the trip was planned only a couple of days ago and all we had managed to get were six RACs (Reservation Against Cancellation). My two little girl friends had squeezed into one berth and dropped off to sleep. Two other friends — both tall men — took turns to sit in their single berth and I had to share my space with this other male friend of mine. He asked me if I wanted to sleep. I had never travelled in non-AC before. I did not even know if I would get some sleep. He propped up his pillow and dozed off, without waiting for an answer. I stretched out my legs till my toes were next to his ear. He did not even feel them. Then someone left the door between the cars (compartments) open and it became so cold inside that my arthritic friend's knuckles looked like knots on a twine. Only the chips and khakra that mom had packed into my bag gave him some respite. The next day, we were entertained by cucumber-sellers, mobile magazine libraries, peanut vendors, beggars, clowns, musicians and other passengers. The only thing I  had missed out on was sleep.

My last long-distance train journey was in 2009, from Mumbai to Jamshedpur on the Howrah Express. Since then, I have only done the short-runs aboard the Rajdhanis, Shatabdis and August Krantis between Mumbai and Vadodara. 

Nothing can teach you more about a country than a journey on a train. You see the landscape, the people, the food and the efficiencies of the systems at one go. It is for this reason, I prefer to travel to countries which have good public transport and disdainfully look down upon those that have not been able to come up with an efficient network of railways. Trains are the most economical way to get a sense of India. Like all things in this country, they are full of contrasts. There are the first-class coupés for the wealthy and the unreserved sleepers for the poor and the desperate. For people in India, the train is both a symbol of hope and despair. For the millions who leave their native places to work elsewhere in the cities or factories, it spells hope, for it brings with it the fragrance of the new. For the ones who are left behind in the villages and towns, each passing train brings in grief, for their loved ones aren’t coming back. 

In her book, Monisha Rajesh has managed to capture the essence of Indian rail travel. A British citizen, Rajesh travelled to all the four tips of the railways —  Kanyakumari, Dwarka, Udhampur and Ledo — covering a distance of 64,000 km within a span of four months, even aboard the world's first hospital train, the Lifeline Express in Madhya Pradesh. She blends humour, wit and sarcasm with factual information on the railways. Around India in 80 Trains is a tale of freedom, exploration, courage and determination. It’s a great guide for those who want to see India the way it is. To read stories of some of the people who travel on these trains or recollect your own experiences, do pick it up.

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