Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Jul 06, 2008



Ticket to ride

Even as low- cost airlines are reverting to becoming
high-cost airlines again, a paean to the rail gaadi.

Addictive: Savouring the landscape at an enjoyable pace.

A recent news item said that all the short-haul trains,
the Shatabdis, Deccan Queen, Brindaban, were running
almost always full while flights were going near empty.
Oil prices apart, this didn’t surprise me one bit.

The thing is, I still remember the days when train travel
was plush. Really, no other word will suffice. There were
 attached bathrooms, attenders, the food was actually
good. If it was all a tad expensive, well, it was worth the
money spent. This was First Class, of course. I recall the
 slump, too. That was a long period during which I have
 travelled with mosquitoes, mice, roaches and nasty
 co-travellers, though the Railways can’t be held to blame
for the last. Trains would never ever arrive or depart in time.
 Stations were dirty as hell. As for the stinking toilets on the
 trains, no words can possibly do justice to their squalour.
All this in air-conditioned coaches.

And now, I find the pendulum has swung again. Someone
 — could it be Lalu? — has put the romance back in train travel.
 Oh alright, you do need the time for a rail journey. However,
 that is the only prerequisite.

I travel quite a bit and being first an army brat, then an army
wife, much of that travel has been, and is being, done by rail.
 Flights were always the last option when it came to domestic
travel. At first, it was because of the prohibitive costs of airline
 tickets, then it became pure habit. And willy-nilly, I became a
 convert and began to enjoy my train journeys. I became an
avid fan of travel writers who were also railway buffs, Stephen
 Alter, Paul Theroux and their ilk. While I don’t seek out branch
lines, I still miss those steam engines.

Leisurely affair
Train travel is a leisurely affair and the enforced inactivity
 forces you into a pleasant limbo. For most people, the
 rocking movement of the carriages is a sleeping aid. You
 get freeze frames of the Taj Mahal, the Doodhsagar Falls,
 the dense forests of Karwar, and these sights stay with you
long after you have sped past them. You get to sample chikki
at Lonavla station, oranges at Nagpur, peta at Agra Cantonment
 station, banana fritters at Alapuzha.

A few months ago, I did Rajasthan by rail. No, not aboard one
of those fancy royal saloons on wheels. I took ordinary trains
but in the First Class air-conditioned coaches. And once I settled
 in, I’d gaze about me. The cabins usually had light wood panelling,
 a wash basin, a panel with lights to show whether the loos were
 vacant or occupied. There was a slim cupboard to hang my stuff
 in, if I wanted to. The curtain rod was faux brass, the curtains
 themselves were thick and of a pleasing shade of maroon.
They matched the deep red upholstery, which was clean.
What’s more, there was a carpet underfoot too and that too,
 passed my keen scrutiny.

The attendant would come by and spray room freshener and
 instead of it inducing instant asthma, it gave the small cabin
 a nice pine-y ambience. There was a pink plastic dustbin in one
 corner, a steel shoe rack in the other. I was able to use my laptop
 and charge it, too. At mealtimes, we were served on real china,
with linen napkins, the personal steward pulling out a folding table
 from underneath the seat and laying it. And last but certainly not
 the least, the toilet had tissue rolls!

Somehow, even the harrowing train journeys of the past now
 take on a mellow hue, given the perspective of time and distance.
 I recall being stranded, many moons ago, on a bridge atop the
 river Krishna in Andhra Pradesh; floods had hit the area and all
 trains were halted. That was almost three days, and food and
drinking water ran out by the second day. Bad scene, but one
of my co-travellers was a delightful Irish priest, Father Kennedy,
 and some of his pragmatism rubbed off on me.

Elsewhere, I have run, in a scene straight out of a Hindi film,
 after a slow train chugging out of Bhopal station. It picked up
 speed just as I was within handrail-grabbing distance. Well,
I got to see the very interesting city of Bhopal in the time
it took to catch the next train out, so something was
salvaged after all.

Something, I have realised, is always salvaged from
the worst journeys.

Old-world charm
So much for the bad trips. There have been great trips,
delightful way stations with pots of flowers and names like
Runnymede, Victorian buildings with monkey tops. Disused
 tracks with wildflowers growing amok all around. Level
crossings manned by cheerful men. There have been convivial
 companions aboard trains, and much shared laughter and
 networking, too. A powder room in a Shatabdi, complete with
 full length mirror. The odd ones...squabbling families,
 aggressive men, insufferable bores, demonic children… well,
they have all fallen grist to my article mill, so I mustn’t complain!
 The toy trains in the Nilgiris and Shimla are charming rides
about which much newsprint has been expended, so I won’t go
 down that track.

And the landscape. Oh, the landscape. There really is nothing
like seeing India from a train window. The sands of Jaisalmer
or the Rann of Kutch, the neat and orderly wadis of Maharashtra.
 The sparse vegetation of the Deccan giving way to the verdancy
 and backwaters of Kerala. The emerald-hued gigantic ferns of
 north Bengal. The gigantic sal trees of Madhya Pradesh turning
 gold in the gloaming. The deep canals of Punjab holding
celadon-coloured waters. The sharp air when you get out at
Pathankot. The unforgettable coastline journeys with waterfalls,
 needle- thin in some places, and gushing torrents in others;
deep ravines, green valleys, the sun playing hide and seek
on the softly contoured hills. The shimmer of the sea beyond.
 Tunnels so narrow you can touch the sides; tunnels so long,
 you unwittingly hold your breath waiting for the glimmer of
 light. Bridges of all sizes and spans, rivers swollen and sparse.
 Impromptu cricket matches in dusty grounds by the tracks.

And then, there is the destination. For all one hears of the journey
 being more meaningful than the destination, truth to tell, it is
always good to arrive someplace, anyplace. As a certain
Jhumpa L said, wherever you go, you meet yourself at the
 end of the journey.


Labels: , , ,