The Great Indian Rail Journey
“I made my way through the classes to the dining car: first class air-conditioned had carpets and cold door handles and fogged windows and there was a shower in the Indian-style toilet but none of the awful booth designated (and this was an intemperate libel) ‘Western Style’, the first-class sleeper had bare cells and plastic-covered berths. The chair car had seats arranged like those on a plane, and people were already tucked in for the night, with blankets over their heads to shut out the air- conditioning and the bright lights overhead: there were card games in the wooden second-class compartments and in the third-class sleeper berths were fixed to walls in tiers like those on trains in old Russian movies. People reclined on the boards with their bony knees sticking out, and others queued in puddles at the toilet doors.”
Paul Theroux – The Great Railway Bazaar
Each summer vacation we would pack up for two months for Mumbai, leaving the dust devils of Delhi far behind. We’d leave for Old Delhi Railway Station, with five hard cover VIP suitcases in tow. Their camouflage covers were tightly strapped down with leather buckles. A holdall or two would be thrown in with the luggage, which would be weighed and deposited in the luggage compartment behind, with a few bags shoved under our seats. Sometimes we were wait-listed, and among countless others, we would peer at the waiting list slapped on the side of a train bogey. For a family of five travelling, the father would be in a separate section, usually in front of our four-seater, till the abominable three-tier system wheedled its way in, bringing a stranger into our tiny sequestered space.
As young gangly teenagers, our obsession with food was understandable. The mugs of hot tea and the cloying biscuits. The food trays, carefully balanced in stacks of ten by a bearer, who came screaming in ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’. Once in spectacular fashion, a food tray was flung by the bearer at a particularly precarious jolt, its contents emptying out in the passageway, which smelt of chicken curry the whole night. But before the food made its appearance came the soup, a hot thick broth, sometimes as tasty as dishwater. But mostly, it was a dank green pea soup which we loved and would empty tiny salt and pepper sachets by the dozen, the flecks settling on the surface like moss floating in a swamp. The cherry to end this meal were the small little cups of vanilla ice-cream, or strawberry if you were very lucky. Then, we would clamber up our berths like monkeys, lay out the bedding, and trying to fall asleep before the corpulent uncles next door could start snoring.
And then the window seat. Being the youngest I always had the privilege of shoving everyone out of the way to gawp and India’s lovely countryside. Dry and barren in Rajasthan, lush and green in Maharashtra. It was a voyeuristic journey into the homes and lives of others who were seemingly unperturbed by the clanking metal box which lumbered by their homes. Every time we passed Virar I would think, Govinda is from here. But like all superstars, glory fades.
I remember standing forlornly on the station on the way back, not looking forward to the 17-odd hour journey, only to stare into the faces of some hip kids from my school on the platform opposite me, looking back gloomily as their brood also waited to board the Rajdhani to go home. The great Indian railways was a great leveler in the ‘90s. Whoever you were, you would travel by train, whether you berthed in a first-class cabin with liveried attendants fawning over you, serving a continental meal of grilled chicken with some tasteless over boiled vegetables, or just a family travelling on their annual summer holiday in the three-tiered compartment.
The Rajdhani back then had some magic in its wheels, lulling me gently into sleep, drawing the curtains close of our tiny four berth compartments. Things, of course, have drastically changed, with air travel becoming so affordable and so ubiquitous.
We travel to explore. We travel to escape. We travel to leave behind our inadequate, cloistered lives for a few days of freedom. We want everything now, we want more and now, we choose the airplane – a clinical little bird that safely deposits you from point A till point B, with no romance, with no soul.
Once upon a time journeys were simple, as was life. But, we don’t want those journeys anymore.
Illustration: The Conoor toy train has been made by Anmol Arora