Train Journeys- Past and Present

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New Delhi Station

The Prayagraj: 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 without undue effort 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 had requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’.

The ticket collector was Scarlet Pimpernel clone, elusive, and I 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 khullars 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 arrives 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. A history buff, I visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees. (The Indian Mutiny of 1847* ).

China:  Train Journey

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Beijing

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.

View from trainThe train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, while a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains and 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.

Grey skies‘ would be 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 night journey and we missed out the country sights.

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Shanghai Station

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 spent my waking hours in the corridor sitting in one of the chairs placed for passenger comfort, peeping into adjoining cubicles with 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.

Past Journeys: 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 Shimla, in the Himalayas and return to Delhi. Her stories were peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies safeguarding 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 chug-chug 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 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 with fruit and sweet baskets. Train travel took on another meaning.

New modes of transport did not lessen my fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across swathes of land whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.

 

Train Spotting… New Delhi to Pune….

Backwaters......Mumbai
Backwaters……Mumbai

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 Terminus or the present Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with its  Victorian-Gothic style of architecture, constructed in 1888, a reminder of the British Raj pre-independence and more recently the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack.

The August Kranti train, named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement, launched in August 1942 and the train metamorphosed into more than a steel contraption. I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene is concerned. Late booking of tickets had resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for senior travellers to climb up is nothing less than an acrobatic flaying of limbs. 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 Hong Kong-Beijing segment we were toilet searching for usable ones.

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Personal fiefdom…Mathura Station

The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and jogs, judders, lurches past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, 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 giving credence to Santosh Desai’s words… ‘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 cages 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 squabble over beef bans and Marathi supremacy instead of channeling their energies towards making the city clean and livable.

(Did not click any train and station pictures)

Duronto Express….Return from Pune

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Pune Station

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.

IMG_2830We 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 velour 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; 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 actor Aamir Khan on-screen. The station is least inviting and I leave Khandala and my humming behind and look forward to, two more stops,  ‘shining’ Gujarat. There is very little to differentiate between the villages and towns of the adjoining states, Xerox copies of each other, and it is the signboards that are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries. 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. By this time the velour comfort takes hold and i stretch out,  breathing the rhythm of ‘back and forth’ as the train trundles on towards the desert plains of Rajasthan…..it is night by the time we cross the Gujarat border. The clacking over the rail joints and brief stops in middle of night fail to rouse me from my sleep.

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Green cover

Train food is nothing to slurp over, a slight improvement, and the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Continental fare  accompanied by ice cream, were edible. Being First class the service was good and the chicken cutlets with steamed veggies a shade better than the lunch fare.

A.H.Wheeler...still continuing
A.H.Wheeler…still continuing

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. What more could one ask for? 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.