India on a train

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Riding the Indian train is a life experience, where one comes across not just people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, but one confronts the very soul of India. Gustasp and Jeroo Irani describe the journeys of a lifetime.

It was to be a holiday to remember … in Rajasthan, with members of our extended family flying in from the US. We travelled in two taxis to the railway station, quite a distance from our home, and we were running late. One taxi (with the adults) sped ahead thanks to our constant screaming and nagging at the driver; the second one with the 20 -somethings trundled along at a sedate pace, more suited to a dowager with arthritic knees.

We reached the station and ran down to the platform as just five minutes were left for the train’s departure, and the second taxi was another five minutes away. The driver was already in his cubicle, fingering the controls, ready to start. We ran up to him and begged him to delay the train for three minutes as the rest of the family was on its way. The driver looked shocked: “What!” he exclaimed in Hindi. “You want me to delay an Indian train? How can I do that?”
But, thankfully he did delay it by three minutes! In the meantime, the second taxi had arrived and we dragged the lot of them into the first compartment even as the train jerked and shuddered and started on its way!

A racy thriller!

Tibetan monks and a mother and daughter waiting for their trains to arrive at a station; (bottom right) Mysore railway station from the railway bridge

Travelling by an Indian train is like seeing a racy thriller unfold in front of your eyes; the narrative is generally brimming with surprises and, in the old days, the ending was often unpredictable in terms of whether one would reach on time.

This is why it is often said that you don’t see India from a train, but on a train; a somewhat timeworn cliché. It is estimated that over thirty million people (that’s more than the entire population of Australia) on average travel daily on Indian trains, and it’s the best way to take in the beauty of the country, its colour, and its sheer size.
Indeed, we enjoy chugging by the iron horse, absorbing the heat, dust and the limited space with a motley group of pilgrims, raucous travelers with heaps of baggage, and hyper-kinetic kids. Gorgeous landscapes sweep past in a blur—green fields smiling under a bright sun; dilapidated forts that brood on a hill; a palace with turrets and domes; a chortling river that snakes its way across the land; craggy mountains that seem to rake the sky; deep mysterious forests …

At night, the train’s whistle rents the deep quiet, and the iron horse resembles a long moving pencil of light, even as it seems to rock on the rails as though in a hurry to reach its destination. Deserted stations with names that are redolent of a past long gone, loom outside our windows – Sawai Madhopur, Vasco Da Gama, Castle Rock… A man sleeps peacefully on a bench while within the train, the quiet of the night is often shattered by loud snores and other sounds; and sometimes the whispered sweet nothings uttered by newly-weds, embarking on the first journey of their life together.

A new day paints the sky in pastel shades and then come the fiery colours, even as the train continues to race across a landscape lit by the rising sun. As it pulls up in the day into a lively station, a kind of nasal cacophony breaks out. Men with flasks of tea (earlier they carried metal tea pots), run up and down the corridors, shouting “Chai ya” in different tones and pitches, while others push steaming hot vadas and oily omelettes under our noses.

On one of our excursions, we shared space with a group of maroon-robed Tibetan monks, and a village chieftain who was carrying several sacks of grain, and a pet pup in a plastic basket back to his village. As the train steamed out two hours behind schedule, the hum of the Tibetan chant, Om Mani Padme Hum seemed to vibrate in the lamas’ barrel-like chests, and gently wafted on the air to mingle with the click of small spinning prayer wheels that they held in their hands. The chant was soothing and seemed to restore order in a wonderfully chaotic world.

When the Tibetans rose and left their seats to stretch their legs and buy some tea and snacks from the station, they lost their seats to incoming hordes who bulldozed their way in, sans reservations. The Tibetans’ despairing cries of “Mine! Mine!” (they spoke very little English) went unheeded. They were as summarily ousted from their seats as they had been from their ancient homeland! Finally, a sympathetic TC and some helpful passengers dispatched the encroachers to an unreserved compartment.

To travel by train is to get a close look at the real India

On another occasion, we met a bunch of sadhus in flaming orange garb, carrying small tridents. One had forsaken his family and the bright lights of Mumbai’s tony Peddar Road to retreat to the Himalayas. We chorused: “That’s amazing!” and commended his courage and freedom from earthly wants. “You too can do it,” he said, eyeing us like we were ideal candidates for sanyas. “In the Himalayas, you don’t need your family nor earthly trappings. The Himalayas are vast and you are never alone… you have your soul.”

As dusk gathered, the sadhu shared our dinner and we were ready to sleep, but a group of young men decided to play a round of rummy. As the excitement of winning and losing peaked, we decided to exert our authority and told them to quit. They did so obediently like chastised school boys.

It was then that another gent, afflicted with insomnia, decided to regale us with the story of his life… his wife (woe) and mama (joy) were the protagonists. His wife had left him for another man, taking their kids with her. “Go East, go West, mama is the best!” he said.

Better late than never…

Many years ago, we discovered to our horror that the train (Pawan Express) that we were booked on was 24 hours late! The booking counter would not open till 9 am, which meant we had very little time to purchase fresh tickets. However, the Pawan Express of the previous day was due to steam in – 15 minutes later. We had less than 15 minutes to explain to the station master our plight. A ghost of a smile crinkled his face; he agreed to issue fresh tickets and soon we were pounding the platform even as the train came tooting in. We ran alongside to locate the right compartment and vaulted in, while a wall of people seemed to materialise from nowhere, blocking our porter and our luggage from view. We screamed at them to move and they fell back in horror even as the porter flung our suitcases in with unerring accuracy even though the train had started to move.

The Indian Railway system comes close to John Kenneth Galbraith’s idea of a “functioning anarchy!” The miracle of watching this functioning anarchy in action is well worth the cost of a rail ticket.

Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

Gustasp and Jeroo Irani are travel companions for whom life is a never-ending journey. Over the last 25 years they have travelled exten- sively across India and the globe, taking the rough with the smooth; sampling different cultures and cuisines. In the process they have trekked in the Australian Outback, slurped snake soup in Hong Kong, have danced with the Samburus in Africa, stayed with a local family in a Malay village, cracked the Da Vinci Code in Paris… For them, writing and photography are more than just freezing moments of that journey; it’s a passion.

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