I hadn’t been on a long distance train in a while. I was going back home to Hyderabad from Delhi recently. As the train chugged along the heartland of India, through UP & MP; all those memories of journeys past came flooding back.
There was a time when smoking was allowed in trains and there used to be ash trays in every coupe. I have very faint memories of travelling in meter gauge trains as a kid, I would be propped up on a suitcase in the aisle, I’d rest my elbows on the window and watch the villages rush by.
As I grew older two things changed, firstly we had the broad gauge conversion and addition of the side berths and more importantly I no longer fit comfortably on the window sill. Against my mother’s wishes and much to my delight, my father then started escorting me to the door, so I could get a better view. I also remember being shown bogies being shunted out or added, engines being changed, was even lucky enough to enter the engine cabins a couple of times.
What fascinated me all along were the many quirks of travelling by trains in India. The hawkers and how their wares and calls varied every few kilometres, the smells from the packed lunch boxes of your co-passengers, the large families and their countless bags of snacks, the bunch of middle aged men sneaking in a peg or two while playing cards on tables made from suitcases, the announcements on the platform.
Of course it wasn’t all quaint and wonderful always. You sometimes are stuck with grumpy old men who like to sleep very early. They make you turn off the lights, shut the windows, pull down the middle berth; all way before you really want to. Standing at the door is the best way out at times like these. I’ve also had to spread a newspaper out and spend the night near the doorway on occasions, but all this is part of what make travelling by trains a fascinating experience.
I searched for ads that the Indian railways used to run in the 80s & early 90s, but couldn’t find them on youtube. Sarkari ads, that laid out a manual of best behaviour and etiquette. A bunch of bratty kids, performing acrobatics in the compartment, egged on by their parents, they pull the chain, and much hilarity ensues. Hope someone has them on tape. While we’ve come a long way from those days and have luxury trains running certain routes, thankfully the quintessential train experience hasn’t changed much, just that people now jostle for mobile charger space and not berth space.
Airplanes get you to your destination very quickly, and that is about all they do. Air travel, is far removed from ground realities (no pun intended) and is suitable for business travel. Trains on the other hand let you take in a lot more, quite literally sometimes, you end up with the metallic smell of trains on your clothes and person. As you notice the water and sugar content in the tea vary across stations every few kilometres, as you chat up your fellow passengers, as you look out the window, you are acquainted with a side of the country and the world that never existed for you earlier.
We’ll be heading to Sikkim in a couple of days, another long train journey awaits us, 31 hrs from Delhi to New Jalpaiguri, making it possibly the longest train I’ve ever taken, in the past I’ve traveled from Hyderabad to Gorakhpur and to Trivandrum, both nearing 30 hrs. Hopefully, fog etc won’t cause much delay. I also hope to catch the toy train in Darjeeling. That should be fun.