A Journey on the Indian Railways

Journey on the Indian railwaysAfter a month of inactivity in an Ayurvedic hospital, I’ve been feeling the urge to hit the road again, to photograph the irrelevant, and to record in words the seemingly inconsequential happenings of a lifestyle that has become my routine. It’s an almost impulsive feeling and one that is hard to ignore.

Once I find myself in a place living out a mundane existence, the desire to move onward comes on as strongly as it did when I first hit the road. What some say is that uniquely human trait, that of wanting to wander off and explore new horizons, has a hold of me again. Although I don’t believe it’s unique to humans, it’s a trait that has no doubt become suppressed in modern times. For many of us, with every day now being a day of abundance, in terms of what we think we need for subsistence, we have given in to what we perceive as a convenience that may well be detrimental to some of us who embrace it. We are all different, but for many the consequence is an unadventurous, careless lifestyle, where the rather destructive outcome, that of becoming lost in your comfort zone occurs. I’ve been there before and perhaps it’s just the premature worries about what lifestyle I’ll end up leading in the coming months as I head homeward, but these thoughts were in my mind as I began a journey northward to Mumbai from the southern Indian state of Kerala recently.

Back on the Rails – Ernakulam, Kerala, South India

Southern Indian WinterThe southern Indian “winter” was wearing me out with its unrelenting pitta inducing heat. If you ever find yourself in a part of India, as I did, where altitude, latitude and time of year coincide to send the temperature through the roof by late morning, then the 24 hour checkout rule in the hotels is a godsend. On those days where you have a train, if you check in at 6pm the evening before, you can stay until 6pm the following day. It’s a much better solution than being turfed out into the mid-morning heat and sent wandering, while weighed down with a backpack in 30 something degree heat with a whole day to kill.

By the time my last day in Kerala came around, I was well ready for the journey north along the west coast to Mumbai, 21 hours away by train. Most Indians still refer to Mumbai as Bombay, which I kind of like, it reminds me of Palin back in the day, and that 1-week ride on a dhow from Muscat to Bombay in “Around The World In 80 days”. Indeed it reminds me that I must rewatch the series again soon.

A late exit from the hotel, not a minute before 6 had me at the train station three hours early for my 21:30 train. Trains roll in, fill up and roll out. As ever it’s a never-ending stream of people in India as I began the long wait, changing position several times in search of that much prized seat under a fan, free from biting mosquitos in the early evening heat.

Several seat changes and sugary chai later and train 12224 rolled in bang on time. I had splashed out on a ticket for 3 tier AC class, a class above, and a whole lot more luxurious, than my usual home in sleeper class. I just wasn’t in the mood for such hardships this time around. As I wandered down looking for carriage B5, glancing in at the tourists tucking into their beds on the 1-tier coaches, the usual anticipation of who I might be sharing my compartment with for the next 21 hours was on my mind.

companions

7 well dressed Keralan men, headed north to Mumbai for work was the answer. It’s a whole lot more comfortable in the AC classes on Indian trains, and we quickly got chatting once the bags were stowed. They were shocked to hear of my previous adventures across India in sleeper class. What started out with a slight smirk, quickly transformed into looks of disgust and pity as I recounted my experiences on a 48-hour journey from Bangalore to Varanasi last year. I recall the mad house that was my sleeper carriage for those two days. It was jammed, and amongst the usual suspects, there were the devout Hindus who filled the carriage as they made the pilgrimage to India’s holiest city. By night the 8 sleeper carriages became packed out, so much so that it became impossible to walk up and down the corridor as people slept two abreast on the filthy floor. It’s a sight that will stay with me for as long as I live. Some people just have it so much worse.

My companions started with the fatherly advice “sleeper class not good!”. It’s true, and did for a second make me wonder what hardships I have put myself through. I heeded their advice but console myself with the fact that had I been indulging in such luxuries over this extended period, I would have been forced homeward a long time ago with an empty bank balance!

Despite what they say to me it still rings true that luxury is oftentimes an extravagant lavish indulgence, which merely isolates you from how a given culture really is. In places as far removed from most western countries as India can be, there is little doubt in my mind that exposing yourself to what is reality, for different sections of the population, can be a hugely rewarding and humbling experience.

Top-Bunk

With that and a little more idle gossip, it was off to bed. Luckily I had managed to reserve what locals assume to be the worst bed in the house, the top bunk. For some elderly folk it can require some acrobatics and a small prayer to even get into! but for me it’s the ideal nest. It’s generally my only insistence upon reserving a ticket on a train in any country that I get a top bunk. It allows me the freedom to escape for a nap at any time during the day, but also permits me the convenience of waking up at a time of my choosing. If you have a middle bunk or bottom bunk, come 7:30am, out of respect for the early risers (which is pretty much everyone in India!), you’ll want to fold down that middle bunk and sit down and await breakfast on the bottom. Indeed not having a top bunk can make for a long day if you find yourself without a chess board in the company of locals who can’t speak english.

By next morning the text message arrived “Airtel welcomes you to Maharasthtra” signalling that we had crossed the border into what is a new Indian state for me. The landscapes whizzed by outside. The organised photogenic views of Kerala had gradually transformed into something less so. With little sign of civilisation, dense vegetation stretched off into the distance across undulating terrain, the change in landscape almost reflected the transition from the more relaxed orderly south to the more chaotic north I thought to myself. In the occasional clearing there was the sight of plentiful haycocks drying under the intense Marathi sun, from grass that somehow grew in the dark red rocky soil. For a country with over a billion people, there sure is a lot of free space.

Further up the coast as the hours passed, it had all given way to a flatter terrain, one with rice paddies, where women dressed in brightly coloured clothes bend over working up to their knees in mud. As evening approached cricket matches were in full swing as kids stand barefoot on the barren land for the couple of hours that the relentless sun allows them to.

Closer yet to Mumbai, derelict, rundown houses surrounded us as we entered the suburbs. Jammed commuter trains and containers constantly hammered by in the opposite direction. The sun by this stage low and soft, after entering the haze on the horizon cast a warm light on the rush of activity. It’s a world away from the tranquil surroundings of the Keralan backwaters and coconut trees where I began this journey less than 24 hours ago.

The litter, the unbelievable amounts of it, the stagnant pools of water, the old man pissing by the side of the track in plain view didn’t offend me in the slightest. I’m kind of battled hardened by this stage, and well know that the traveller who defines India by the sight of such things, is one who will invariably lose out. There’s so much more to it than this.

Mumbai-Platform

As usual I arrived to another big city with no accommodation booked, no idea of where the train station was located in the city, nor how best to get to an area where I should base myself. The only place that I could remember having read about was a place called Colaba in south Mumbai, a place where most tourists base themselves. It sounded like a decent bet, but not according to one of my neighbours, who suggested another area with an unpronouncable name a little farther north. It was already dark when the train arrived so, I gathered the bags and headed the same way as the good samaritan through the mayhem on the platform with no idea of where I was headed to spend the night.

Just another day on the road….back to “normality” soon enough.

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  • Aloke Surin

    Railway journeys in India have changed drastically over the last few decades. To give you an idea, here is an excerpt from a blog post that I put up some time ago – “It was 1990 and decades had gone by since the days when humans and animals had had such intimate relationships, living and travelling together. It took my mind back to the late sixties when I was growing up in the railway town of Liluah, a suburb of Calcutta (now Kolkata), just 5 km from Howrah. As a little boy I would watch long freight trains parked in the marshalling yards, the covered wagons housing cows and buffaloes with their owners. They had travelled long distances from what later was referred to fashionably in journalism as the “cow belt” of India; meaning the rural districts spanning the vast plains of the Ganges in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The owners would cook their meals on portable ovens made out of aluminium buckets with a ring of baked earth supporting the utensils on the rims, the heat coming from glowing coals contained inside. Their cattle would chew the cud contentedly on beds of straw, spittle dangling nonchalantly from their enormous jaws. Some of them would live a long life, supplying milk to the markets in Calcutta, some would be slaughtered in short order to feed humans.In 1972, barely out of high school, I undertook a memorable journey to look up a teacher who had taught me and now had relocated. I boarded the Saryu Express at Allahabad Junction, bound for Faizabad. The train was an “express” in name only – the motley collection of aging carriages was pulled by an ancient steam engine and the train would stop at every station on the way. It would also stop in between stations as we passed small hamlets and the travellers pulled the Emergency Stop chains. Their reasons were justified – about ten percent of the “payload” comprised of an assortment of cows, goats, sheep, chickens and other farm animals who could not really be expected to detrain at the closest station and walk for miles to their homes when in reality the train would pass a stone’s throw from their stables! It was winter and the cool breeze wafting in from the open windows helped to dislodge the potent brew of smells in the carriages, composed of animal urine and faeces, the rustic earthy aroma emanating from the homespun clothes and weatherbeaten skin of the humble folk who were my companions. As the wind veered or the train went round a long curve, thick black smoke from the engine would blow in like a passing shower and deposit soot and tiny flecks of coal in my hair (yes, 45 years ago I did have some hair on my head!). Finally, when the train steamed into Faizabad, I staggered out of the door and bid farewell to my friends, both animal and human.”

    • Absolutely, I never realised things used to be like that. Times have certainly changed it seems.

  • Jack Stafford

    Get a selfie stick! 😉

    • Ha! Joking aside I will consider it, mainly because it gets tonnes more interaction on facebook if I stick my own head up rather than some photo I climbed a mountain at 3am to get!