The Great Indian Railways

I was half leaning against the sideboard, tying my hair,  eyes still groggy with sleep, when what do I see – a peacock strutting on the dusty road adjoining the rail tracks. The sun was still rising at this point as I gaped at these birds from the coveted side lower berth during my journey to Kolkata via Allahabad. This was somewhere in Madhya Pradesh on the second day of my three-day haul. Of the two months I spent wandering the country, half a month must have been in these bogies, climbing the top bunk or trying to find a comfortable leaning spot on the side berths. The long hours involved plenty of gazing out of the dusty panes and chit-chatting with fellow travellers, sometimes with choice, sometimes without. But that’s the beauty of these mechanical beasts, as the hours trickle by slowly, they provide a window not just to the outside world but also into human nature in a way that the airborne wings can never do.

On my way to Bengaluru, my first destination, I played Chess with a family, whose kid was an enthusiast, and lost. Game after game followed, with the kid always playing, losing only to the father.  On the short ride to Mysuru, which is littered with picturesque white grass weeds, I met a girl, who was on her way to an Air Force exam. We ended up spending the day together, gazing at the Mysore Palace as the light played tricks, and the palace, obeying, changed hues. And when the nature’s lights turned out, man-made ones made an appearance, giving it a golden bath as the orchestra played in the background. The charm only lifted when we exited the royal gates.

The Mysore Palace just as the sun was setting

In Pondicherry, a Sindhi family was occupying the better chunk of two cabins, with just me and a couple being outsiders. It took them all of ten minutes to learn my name, profession, travel itinerary, about my family – the whole works. As it turned out, we were staying in the same hotel and more time went on that. Needless to say, I had to swap my side lower berth for an upper berth. We also had to pull out bags and run other errands, which was discomforting as we were only being mindful of their age. But just the next moment, they opened their dinner bag and wouldn’t listen to our cries of being full, and ended up feeding both me and the couple second helpings!

Just before take off

Aboard the Coonoor-Metupalayam Express, along the Nilgiris, I met my idea of the perfect couple. Andy and Allison were about my parent’s age, met in Cambodia when they were volunteering – she a teacher, he a doctor. They were budget travellers, with Andy even travelling in local coaches from Allahabad, which even I haven’t done so far. Here he was clicking a picture of Allison, something so mundane with couples that I didn’t care, until she started laughing, telling me how he clicked her picture with the first class sign to send to the kids. It was endearing, this moment, and you could see the affection spilling out of this Scottish couple.

Misty Mountains

The couple aside, the ride to Metupalayam is a must for the panoramic view of the Nilgiris it offers. A green spread at arms length dotted with pretty pink, purple and yellow flowers, a misty cover that reminds you of Lord of the Rings, gushing waterfalls and tunnels! What more can you ask for?

On the way to Howrah, I met an old Catholic lady, who was going to her nephew’s place for Christmas. Our train had been delayed by over 20 hours and we were constantly debating if it made sense to wait. She was scared that I was travelling alone, warning me to be on my guard always. A young Indian couple, newly married I suppose, was shocked as were most people. Andy and Allison had plenty of advice, including an itinerary for Scotland and Cambodia. But no matter where I went, there was always a helping hand.

On the same train, a woman was travelling with her two kids to Allahabad. She was a little scared as one of the kids, around 11 years, had a berth further back. But the guy, who had the lower berth, didn’t want to part with his seat. I got anxious glances whenever I passed her, but it all ended well.

At some station past Allahabad, a family on the opposite platform was waiting for their train. The youngest of them was the photographer in the pack and the middle one the model, with serious swag. From Rajesh Khanna to Salman Khan, replete with bandana and sunglasses, that kid must have gone through a dozen poses till our train passed them by.

Sunset through the dusty panes

It was also on this train journey that I passed regions I had never been to before, right from Madhya Pradesh to Bihar, Jharkhand and the paddy fields of Kolkata. From the dusty prism of the window, past barren lands, lonely trees, wilderness, pockets of civilisation and even peacocks, I traversed regions I would like to explore on my feet someday.

On my way back from Kolkata, a girl my age, the eldest among three sisters, was telling me she would have to come back again next month for her sister’s wedding. Her father had expired a few years back and all she wanted was to buy a flat in the city for her and her mother. Marriage would happen if it happened, she went, with a guy who would be accepting of my mother. In our society, where marriage is equated to happiness, it was a bold stance to take.

These were just some of my conversations, there were plenty of side ones too. From people talking about the lure of Dubai to debating national politics, talking about Railway blankets, food, employers, a mother talking about her Army son, to little kids called Gullu, the cries of which ran across the corridor, to families who wouldn’t stop talking, a contentious charging point to shared meals, the Railways is a little world in itself.

2 thoughts on “The Great Indian Railways

  1. Wonderfully etched. I agree that the Railways are far more interesting than a flight. The best thing is even though you don’t really meet the people after a journey mostly, you still end up sharing the most intimate and personal stories. Above all, trains are perfect for long haul journeys, especially because it allows you mobility to move unlike a flight. Your post has inspired me to consider doing my own Bharat darshan type train journeys now. Any idea on how to go about booking tickets for such circular journeys?

    1. Thanks Akshay. There are multiple routes you can take, depending on the places you want to visit. A guy on twitter is doing so right now. You can check out his route on the @MishterApu handle. Hope this helps and all the best 🙂

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