(This beautiful picture is from Flicker… (BY Ujjawal). This post celebrates 162 years of Indian Railways)
Last July, I was on a flight from Ahmedabad to Bengaluru on a budget airlines. I had ordered a cup of coffee to kill my boredom. Seeing me sipping the frothy coffee, my co-passenger (with whom I had not even shared a hello) asked me, “Why don’t you have a samosa which I am carrying with me?” I politely declined. But the immediate thought that came to mind was, “Oh, it seems like a scene straight from the Indian Railways.”
There’s always something alluring about Indian railways.Strangers become friends in a matter of few minutes. ‘Adjust, just adjust’ becomes the vocabulary. Adjust your luggage, adjust the passengers who are travelling without reservation. Life needs to be lived on an ‘adjust’ mode. Food like love becomes a bonding factor.’No’ for an answer when food being offered is not even entertained. Is everything about Indian railways so intimate, colourful, vibrant, full of life? The obvious answer is NO. But you know, life need not be an Oscar award winning movie. There’s beauty in imperfections too.
When Indian Railways turned 160 years, Google, the uber cool search engine paid a tribute to the Grand Old Lady of India by doing the doodle (well, pardon me for giving a gender to the railways) of a steam train curling around a palm-flanked setting. The world needs to celebrate this even when you are not a part of it.
I grew up in small town India with an awe-inspiring fascination for Indian Railways. My earlier memories of a train was in a train called Konark Express (from Bhubaneswar to Secunderabad). As a child, I used to find it fascinating that the train’s name used to change to Minar Express even as it chugged along tracks from Secunderabad to Bombay (Changing names of cities was not politically fashionable then). As I saw in front of my little bewildered eyes, Konark Express becoming Minar in just a matter of few hours, I thought of having two names for myself. Years later, I created an e-mail id in another name just for the memory of a journey with beautiful memories.
Built by the British Empire in order to open up and facilitate commerce, and link the people of this vast country, the railways changed the lives of Indians, making travel much easier and connecting the north, south, east, west of this fascinating country. And in the last 160+ years, the railways have given a whole new meaning to the word ‘metamorphosis.’ If you have the money, you can savour a delicious slice of a royal life in the luxury laced ‘Palace on wheels’ and if you want to soak in the lingering beauty of the mountains and probably wanting to pick up some wild flowers, then hop on to a toy train in the Nilgiris.
On many occasions, when my mind draws blank, I turn to the Indian Railways for taking that journey of fancy. On such a fancy flight, I found myself discovering the Vivek Express, from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari which is the longest route on the Indian Railways network, in terms of distance and time, and the 9th longest in the world. Imagine 82hours 15m with a mind-blowing 56 halts. (Doesn’t it sound exciting).
To travel in the trains in India is to experience a slice of life. Where else would you experience the landscape changing colours probably every 200 kilometres, voices whispering different dialects with equal speed and the platter of India taking a roller coaster ride. From puri aloo at Kharagpur, oranges at Nagpur, guavas at Allahabad to mango jelly at Moghul Sarai, the variety is unbelievable and irresistible. A meal which is neither gourmet nor exclusive. Yet gives a sense of fulfillment.
The times are changing. The budget airlines have taken over the travel itinerary of India’s vast number of middle class souls. The Railways as per the government statistics is going through heavy losses. The mineral water bottles now have taken over the old world jugs which used to be filled at stations earlier. Yes, now people are hooked on to their mobiles. Listening to songs, playing games or just messaging even as the train chugs along in a languid fashion. But still then it’s yet to become as cold as a flight journey where it’s impolite to strike a personal conversation.
In the autumn of 2013, I took a train from Delhi to Ahmedabad in the Rajdhani express and I had refused dinner which was complimentary. In the morning when I made valiant efforts to climb down from my upper berth, my co-passenger asked me, “Why did not you eat your dinner last night? It’s not nice to skip your dinner.” For a moment, I basked in the glory of that warmth. I couldn’t help but think of a long harrowing flight journey I took (from Ahmedabad to Bhubaneswar) after my dad passed away. I didn’t touch a glass of water throughout the long flight and nobody really noticed it. I was alone in my grief even though I was sharing a middle seat in a row.
Strange as it might sound, for years I have nurtured this desire to travel across the country in an AC first class coupe (I have never travelled in one) with the man of my life. This is one romantic journey I have always held close to my heart. Even post budget airlines.
PS : The steam engines might be a thing of the past in the tomorrows to come. But I hope, as the train chugs along the lush green fields, swaying trees, little houses unfolding dreams within their four walls, there will be a middle aged man reading a Hindi novel called ‘Maine maili ho gayi (I’ve become impure) and there will be always a smiling woman/man offering you some home-cooked food in a train compartment moving in a zig zag way and thereby bringing you smells of home. Even if home is far far away.