The familiar bleak friable landscape interspersed with algae ponds, cattle and livestock in different stages of thinness grazing on non-existent grass, the sparsely cultivated fields, thatched huts, semi naked children chasing mangy dogs, men huddled on charpoys or walking listlessly with the familiar ‘lota’ (metal mug) for their morning ablutions, women head covered engrossed in washing, cleaning. I was aboard the Prayagraj train, named after my home town Prayag and present Allahabad, after a gap of nearly 20 years and sat glued to the window not wanting to miss out the familiar sights.
The excitement was visible as on night of travel I arrived at New Delhi station at two hours before departure time to a deserted platform and wondering if had got the day wrong. Maybe I had the Freudian fear of missing a train and arriving at railway stations two hours ahead of time though unlike Freud I did not associate train travel with death. For Freud ‘Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey’. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’).
My misgivings proved wrong and within minutes the rush started and was in the surge was deposited near my berth, second ac sleeper top berth near the entrance and the toilet. I was looking to swap my berth for a lower one. Second AC has two berths instead of three of Third AC sleeper, but my frail appearance did not soften male hearts. As one person I requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’.
The ticket collector too was elusive and for a moment I was tempted to pass on some bucks, but an unbeliever in bribery, resigned myself to the continuous footsteps and the all-pervasive urine odor from the rusty, rickety toilets (one is western and other squat).
An overnight train, the Prayagraj, is ideal for business or work commute but not for viewing the dusty plains of North India. I was awake early morning, 4 a.m. to preempt toilet use and for the first glimpse of the Gangetic plain awakening to dawn. I had done this journey umpteen times but the gap of 21 years made me curious about the changes as we crossed obscure hamlets, familiar not for their names but appearance, decrepit stations with platforms stacked with parcels and human bodies asleep or the in between naps, oblivious to the rattle of speeding trains. The familiar food carts, the tea stalls displaying the mud cups or kullars and their owners parroting ‘chai chai’ ( tea-tea) were missing. Station tea tastes best in earthen cups with aroma of leaves mingling with the mud smell. Fathepur,beyond Kanpur, had been my favored station to drink the special brew as the train arrived here early morning. Now we have the railway canteen authorised tea flasks and ceramic cups leaving us no option but to drink insipid tea.
Around 5 a.m., the filtering sun exposed derrières along tracks and at one place a group of boys ( four to six years old) appeared to be playing a game sitting in a circle. Not a pleasant early morning expose. There are no major cities on this route, till we touch Kanpur or Cawnpore of British India history. The motley procession of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees and being a history buff visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain. The Mutiny of 1847* .
There was still an hour to reach Allahabad and as I gazed into the horizon I compared the passing scenery with another train journey in 2009 from Hong Kong to Beijing – Shanghai and back to Hong Kong. Then it was T 98 a superfast luxury train and the Soft Sleeper (four berths)compared with present situation had felt a luxury on wheels with clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights, air cons and new colored slippers for each occupant. The toilets were clean but towards end of journey, toilet hopping, it is a through train, appeared a better option.
The train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains, leaving behind the pastoral countryside metamorphosing into a clinical landscape of barracks and factories, the occasional residential complexes with children frolicking in puddles and the elderly smoking, squatting or working in fields.
Next morning we got a glimpse of the grey skies, a continuous phenomenon of our 10 day journey, as we approached the humongous Beijing station mid afternoon. Few days in Beijing and another train ride to Shanghai and this time in the swanky D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand-new 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating and we slid in quietly so as not to disturb the other passengers in the upper bunks of the 4 bunk Soft-sleeper. It was a twelve-hour nigh journey and we missed out the country sights.
Shanghai station is a throwback of stations back home, except for its voluminous interiors, with escalators not working and no one to tell you where to go. The return journey to Hong Kong via T 99, in hard sleeper of 6 bunks, was a journey closer to real China train experience. The upper, middle and lower bunks cushioned bunk stacks and I had spent my waking hours in the corridor with folding table and chairs placed along the corridor, observing passengers trussed amongst bales, packets and luggage, playing Mahjong. We had planned the train journeys for a view of the countryside and to interact with the locals but it was nowhere near the ‘family’ atmosphere of Prayagraj, of camaraderie with friends, foes, acquaintances and strangers.
My bonding with trains is probably a residual baggage of my mother’s accounts of journeys aboard the British India Railways, the compulsory every six months winding up the hills to Simla and return to Delhi. Her stories, peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies, were about her vigil of the steel trunks carrying the family ‘silver’ …clothes, ration, and household stuff.
The steam engines wove their magic in my psyche and as a six-year-old I would dream of traveling the Indian countryside in the chuk-chuk trains. My elder brother, probably in line with family tradition, joined the Railways via Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) Jamalpur, an institute started by the British to rope in the best brains to manage the railways. His first posting was in Bhusawal, Maharashtra and my mother, me and younger brother spent a summer in his cottage in the railway colony. At night we would be woken up by frantic calls from the linesmen about some derailment or another and often my brother had to rush to the scene. He had been assigned a carriage, with bunks, washroom and kitchenette, that was attached to a goods or passenger train, depending where he was traveling. We joined him once for a regal ride from Bhusawal to Mumbai and Pune. The carriage, coupled at the end of a goods train for most part of the journey, was a dancing box and our mother spent the entire night worrying about being looted by robbers or being stranded in some vague station. It was an experience having the humongous railways at our service, the linesmen, station attendants waiting to welcome the Sahib and train travel took on another meaning.
New modes of transport did not lessen fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across the dusty plains whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.
Here, I was two decades later re-living the romance of the philistine wheels not on an unknown journey but a journey to my past.
Photo taken from moving train with my iPhone on way to Allahabad.