Yesterday I happened to catch a bit of a travel show where the host was travelling by the Trans-Siberian Express and thought how I would love to do one of the great train journeys-The Ghan,or the Trans-Siberian, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express or even the Palace-on-Wheels where surely,if I may be allowed to mis-quote Mr. R.L. Stevenson a bit,it would be better to travel than to arrive! Till quite recently, every train journey I undertook ( and believe me friends, I have undertaken very many indeed!) , was primarily to get me from Point A to Point B. But my trip on what was called The Overlander a couple of years back, was purely for the experience which I savoured and enjoyed! Big picture windows, ample leg-room, stunning scenery,and an informative commentary made the 12 hour trip from Auckland to Wellington one where the destination didn’t really matter ; the journey was sufficient. The Trans-Siberian railway apparently passes through 7 time zones over an 8 day journey covering over 5700 miles! What a journey that must be!
I wonder if I have covered that distance with all my travelling by the Indian Railways…I wouldn’t be surprised if I had! As my family hailed from Tirunelveli-Palayamkottai at nearly the Southern tip of India but lived in the Western peninsular part,our trips to visit my grandparents during the summer vacations were quite an odyssey! First we would travel by metre-gauge train from Rajkot to Viramgam junction where we would then scramble with the help of porters to the waiting broad-gauge train to Bombay. Included in our luggage would be a groaning food basket ,an earthenware jar encased in hemp for our drinking water, suitcases or trunks bearing clothes and gifts and a contraption called a “hold-all” which was like a gigantic sleeping bag into which were stuffed sheets,pillows and such bedding deemed essential for train berths . The porters would have jumped onto the running train as it pulled into the station,swarming all over the carriages picking up bags while their potential customers haggled and remonstrated with them. Once a price was sort-of agreed on ,we would transfer to the larger train after searching for our names on the reservation charts with rising panic till it was finally found mis-spelt and almost unrecognisable! Then off to Mumbai ( the night would be on the train)where we would usually spend the wait till our next train in a retiring room or waiting room or at a friend’s place if the gap was long enough. Then onto another Express train where we usually spent two nights ,finally chugging into Madras to transfer onto yet another train to Tirunelveli which we would reach only after one more night on the train. So 4 nights and 4 trains later, we would finally reach our destination ,our food basket now much depleted,our water having been refilled umpteen times on the way and all the bedding sadly in need of a wash!
And not just that, when I was a small child, most of these journeys were by steam train which meant that sticking out one’s head through the window bars meant pieces of coal in one’s eyes and in any case,if you sat facing the engine,you would have bits of coal and grit on the seats,embedded in our skin and in our food! Still, I enjoyed these journeys and always looked forward to them!
Till I went to boarding school that is and following that,to medical college. Nine and a half years of using the services of the Indian Railways four times a year,each journey lasting three or four nights with two or three train changes, soon made me less than enthusiastic about these train journeys . For four of these years ,I made the long journey Southwards;from Gujarat to my school in the Nilgiris hills and for the next five and a half years, I travelled northwards to Punjab. Both journeys were very different in terrain,travelling companions and safety! But it gave me appreciation of the sheer scale and scope of the Indian Railways.
What an absolutely extraordinary enterprise! It transports over 25 million passengers DAILY and over 9 billion passengers annually. Over and above this ,it transports millions of tons of freight every single day generating mind-boggling revenues. It is one of the worlds’ largest railway networks and the worlds’ ninth largest employer. It’s tracks line a distance of over 115,000 kms. servicing about 7,500 stations. The figures defy comprehension! It has it’s own factories and workshops to produce the carriages and locomotives and it’s own schools,colleges,hospitals and housing .
But these are just dry statistics. To travel by train in India is to be sucked into a vortex of wonderful and bizarre experiences ( not necessarily both together) ,to be swirled around the kaleidoscope of different sights,sounds,smells ,people and tastes and then regurgitated out with millions of others onto dry,sane,humdrum land!
Over various journeys,I have been invited to share the meals of strangers, listened to songs being sung, watched impromptu games of cards being played. I have had my future told,my life-history extracted from me and been obliged to listen to many other life-histories and medical woes! I have been asked point-blank how much I earn ,been startled by a lady pulling up her sari to show me her varicose veins and watched in fascination as travellers in Gujarat open up their many-tiered ,compartmentalised food boxes to cut raw onions,tomato,lemon and coriander to make copious quantities of bhel puri! I have resisted attempts by males of varying ages to be picked up or part with an address ( as will have all solitary female travellers in India) but have also met a very kind group of young men ,who on seeing that the school seem to have messed-up the reservations up for my classmate and I( we were only 15 at the time)bribed the Ticket Collector on our behalf,gave up their berths for us and along with other passengers,kept us fed and watered and shrugged off our heartfelt thankyous.I have had my gold chain snatched at through a window but also have had fellow-passengers watch over my belongings while I slept!Once ,I sat next to a policeman who had a prisoner handcuffed to one of hands! The prisoner talked philosophy to an enthralled audience and then bought all of us a round of tea!
Just the catering in the railways warrants a thesis written on it! Getting millions of hot meals to millions of people on time in a moving train…and get this……..one does not even have to book a meal or pre-order. A uniformed man with a pencil stuck behind his ear will come and take orders from you in a rapid-fire manner rattling off what you can expect ( rice,rotis/puri,two vegetables,dal,yoghurt,pickle,pappad,a sweet and a bottle of water) and voila, a couple or more or hours later, a steaming hot meal is placed before you! Trains like the super-efficient Deccan Queen from Mumbai to Pune serves as a commuter train but you can gain a couple of kilos by the time you reach Mumbai!
Travelling wedding parties may have garlands of marigolds strung on their windows adding some pizzaz and once,while on a school trip,our matron’s nursing capabilities was brought to the fore as she helped deliver a baby after borrowing a new razor blade from one of my classmates!
I could go on and on ……and then some more! But I will spare the patient visitors reading this and instead perhaps suggest that if you are bored/at a crossroads/restless/feeling adventurous -just open up your mind and take a trip on the Indian Railways….it will certainly engage you! Meanwhile ,I will look forward to the time when one day perhaps I will hold the ticket for the Trans-Siberian in my hands. And I will surely tell you all about it!