Traveling on an Indian train is a series of mechanical exhalations, specifically for an Indian, whether in general second or cattle class or in First A/C. The surrounding levels of odors set the tone of the journey and with olfactory senses already in a limbo by the time the train streams out of the platform it is the sights and sounds that keep you engrossed.
An adventure prudie, guided by age, my the finger zeroed on Rajdhani Express for the rumbling journey in mid April 2015, across the plains of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan to Mumbai and from here a taxi ride along the Western Ghats to Pune. An ambivalent travel decision, to fly or track it, had resulted in Second a/c sleeper in the August Kranti Rajdhani, a clone of the original Rajdhani, clanking between Delhi’s Nizamuddin railway station and Central Station, Mumbai. A disappointment as I was hoping to touch down at Victoria Terminal, the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack. A Google search introduced me to the train named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement was launched in August 1942 and I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene was concerned.
Late booking of tickets had also resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for travelers hovering on 50+ borderline it is an acrobatic exercise to climb up. The consolation is that one can ask a younger traveler to exchange seats, but our luck was on back-burner. There were senior citizens on the other two berths and an elderly lady on the berth along the aisle leaving us with no choice but to butt up.
Discomfort forgotten, this was the first long distance train journey in India after a gap of nearly thirty years. The earlier train journeys had mostly been short distances, to Nainital via Kathgodam or to Mussorie and Shimla and later after marriage between Delhi and Allahabad. The August Kranti would be covering nearly 1,377 kilometers in 17 hours and 15 minutes and In train speak it was one of the reliable ‘on time’ trains. The diehard BJP supporter, in adjoining berth, attributed this to present government’s railway policies and we hoped for the best…clean and sit-able for 17 plus hours.
The coach was clean but it was the morning train toilet smell that I dreaded. In 1998 I had traveled Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong by express trains and sitting in the Indian train it was a reflex comparison with the lux coaches of the Beijing-Shanghai express, the spiffy uniforms of attendants, the bathrooms, the hot water availability though by end of journey on the Hong Kong –Beijing segment we were toilet searching for clean ones.
The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and screeched past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, picking up speed crossing industrial townships of Faridabad and Palwal towards Mathura- the land of Lord Krishna and his shenanigans. The Mathura platform played host to a cow or bull, could not make out from the moving train and I wonder how it came to the platform. So much for ‘Clean India’. The phone service provider had kept us updated about territorial boundaries as we crossed Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra…the last two in the night and early morning. Nothing appeared to have changed as the setting sun highlighted the stark villages, the mud houses in between newer brick constructions. As sunlight faded I turned inwards, to the compartment and its inmates.
We were sharing the lower berth, sitting with the lady, a silent request granted silently. The gentleman was not so obliging and stuck on to his lower berth. They were seasoned train travelers judging by the way they made themselves comfortable. The lady was enterprising, carrying her gastronomic condiments along…crushed cardamoms to add to the train tea and pickles and chutney as food asides. More interesting was her bagging the sachets of tea, milk, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, served with tea and dinner, and by the time the train touched Borivili (Mumbai suburb), her departure point, she was richer by a few sachets. Her preferred mode of travel was train because of airline baggage restrictions and this reminded me of what Santosh Desai writes, ‘We never travel alone… we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin’ (Mother Pious Lady..Making sense of Every Day India).’ Santosh Desai.
The gentleman, a shoe trader, was returning to Mumbai after attending his Guru’s camp in Mathura while the lady was on her way to attend the sermons of her guru in Mumbai. I found him taciturn and vocal by turns and the duo turned us into mute audience of their wisdom talk. Within time the conversation veered towards professions and economy and I watched how the lady inveigled an interview/assignment for her shoe designer granddaughter.
Finally, it was time to clamber up to our berths and In between toxic stares at the shoe trader, for not offering me the lower berth, I dozed into dreams of clean toilets, clean stations and gourmet cuisine. Waking up I realized that I should accept that ‘travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away’. (Pico Iyer).
The early morning scene of the peaky backwaters of Mumbai was a pleasant sight till we nudged closer to the city and the whistling local trains or steel frames transporting herds. Finally Bombay Central and a vortex of human bodies, stench and luggage, and we made a hasty exit for the taxi stand for commute to Dadar station. A 20-minute journey extends to more than 45 minutes, as the streets/lanes are jammed with humans, vehicles vying for tarmac space. The scene was reminiscent of Indian movies, of village bumpkins lost in the clamor and chaos of this tinsel town that is more squalor than cheesecake. One wonders why the state’s political parties instead of squabbling over beef bans and Marathi supremacy do not channel their energies towards making the city clean and livable.
(Did not click any train and station pictures)
Duronto Express….Return from Pune
The return train journey was no Continental soiree across rambling Alpine villages or prairies of North America, but a staid rumbling in another superfast train, the fully air-conditioned Duronto express, across the plains of Central India towards New Delhi, the capital city of India.
We were advised to book berths in the Duronto, as it is the fastest train on the Delhi – Pune sector covering 1520 kilometers in about 19 hours and 45 minutes. The luxury is the fairly comfortable padded first class berths and the freedom to stretch, burp or loll. The full day cooped up in a coupe was slightly discomforting and I segmented my hours. I spent the first few hours, till lunch time, gazing out at the flashing landscape that was no ‘Picasso blur of light and color’ but burnt sienna of the Deccan soil. The patches of green fields, the flat mountainous projections in the hazy distance add occasional people brightened up the dull scenery of the Western Ghats.
The train makes it first stop at Lonavla and later at Khandala and I start to hum ‘Aati kya tu Khandala’ from film ‘Ghulam’, sung by Aamir Khan on-screen. We leave Khandala and my humming behind and two more stops and enter ‘shining’ Gujarat. The signboards are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries as villages and towns are Xerox copies of each other. The people waiting on platforms mirror the city or state, the train had stopped at Surat and Vadodra, and we had a brief glimpse of colourful Gujarati turbans shielding business-dead pan faces.
Lunch was vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian platters accompanied by ice cream. The food was edible, nothing Michelin starred, and being First class the service was good. Dinner was Continental non-vegetarian, chicken cutlets with steamed veggies, and shade better than the lunch fare.
We had opted for train travel, probably trying to relive the romance of the railways and not compare it with airline travel. The one advantage of land travel is that there are no long queues, security pat downs, luggage restrictions and most important, the space or leg room. Stretch, exercise or play along the aisle, as the young mother and her two kids were doing, and no reclining seat-in-your-face. I finished a 250-page novel, curled up on my personal berth served by polite attendants, oblivious to the occasional flares of light from villages and stations as the train hurtled into shadowy blackness.
The 5.30 a.m. knock on the door and the smiling attendant placed our tea trays on the stool. It was time to unwind and prepare to disembark. A journey to relive the past had come to an end, a sanitized journey minus the shenanigans and subterfuges of past journeys when we had to chain the luggage for fear of pilfering during the night. The caution is still there, despite armed guards and security on board. Also missing is the constant stream of vendors, not allowed in First class compartments, climbing in and out at different stations. The stations too bore the ‘bare’ look as the proliferating books, fruit and snack stalls regulated leaving the platforms for travelers and their luggage.
On time and we were in Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi….the beginning of the end.