The venerable Indian Railways, Asia's first, is the fourth largest in the world. Started in 1832, it is the country's arterial network, crisscrossing the subcontinent in a spiderweb of broad-, medium- and narrow-gauge tracks, including those for the gear-wheeled toy train clambering up the lower Himalayas to Darjeeling, nearly 7,000 feet above mean sea level. Indian trains carry more than 8 billion (yes, billion) people every year even in these days of highways and low cost airlines.
For people of my generation, air travel was a pipe dream. Long-distance travel was synonymous with trains. A train journey in India was a grand adventure. One prepared for it days in advance, the excitement of kids building up, the nerves of adults fraying, chaos and apprehension giving way to karmic fatalism as the momentous day approached. A friend of mine told me his grandfather practiced sleeping on a narrow bench to 'condition' himself days ahead for the train berth. The old man could have taught a thing or two to NASA astronauts acclimatizing themselves to Zero G!
Packing for a whole family was no mean task. Steel trunks, tough buffalo-hide suitcases, hold-alls complete with bedding, pillows, slippers wrapped up in old newspaper and whatnot, tiffin carriers stuffed to the brim with travel food for days, water jugs, thermos flasks, reading material, transistor radio, portable chess board and more had to be inventoried, mustered and roll-called like soldiers setting out on a campaign. Weight and volume didn't matter. There were no restrictions except the wrath of fellow passengers for those who tried to cram half their house into a train carriage. One hoped for the best but planned for the worst. The worst could be anything from delays of up to a whole day to being stranded somewhere in the wilderness with no electricity or water, with the threat of bandolier-adorned, shotgun-toting dacoits on horseback thrown in for good measure.
My own train journeys as a boy from Calcutta to Sivaganga -- the small town in the south where my grandfather lived and where I was born -- were epics. After tearful farewells to whoever was seeing us off, the train would pull away ponderously to the station master's piercing whistle and the engine's imperious hoot. We would then settle down in our new mobile 'home'. It took a full two days and two nights to get to Madras (it is called Chennai now). We would arrive in the morning and put up with one of my father's friends, the soft-spoken Uncle Mani, to rest and recuperate. Then take an evening train the same day to Sivaganga, another overnight trip that culminated the next day in a grand arrival at Sivaganga's small wayside station. Grand because we were among the few passengers who got off there, the 'foreigners from faraway Calcutta', 2,100 km away. One's bleary eyes and bedraggled appearance after 72 hours on the trail were ignored. The tears of reunion were as copious as those of the farewell three days ago. None of my later globe-trotting matched the thrill of arriving at Sivaganga. The best part was the final horse cart ride to my grandfather's house on the opposite outskirts of the town, with him following on his bicycle. It was a spatial and temporal experience, like time-traveling to the other end of the world.
With most trains pulled by coal-burning steam engines, the allure of the coveted window seat tended to fade after a few hours. But one didn't let go of it till the end. The window seat facing backwards was the real prize. Less wind in the face and coal-mining of one's own eyes. It wasn't just a window seat. It was a window on the world. Exotic terrains, fearsome gut-wrenching river crossings across bridges that went on forever and which one never wholly trusted, the constant swaying and bucking of the carriage that one soon got train legs for, the endless parade of vendors at every station, most of their exciting food offerings declared forbidden fruit by stern parents, new friends to make and hostiles to confront, nights across dark countrysides with lonesome lights in the far distance conjuring up a myriad tales of mystery and magic. The Other India of a hundred different cultures, languages going back ten thousand years.
One couldn't wait for the pitiful iron rations served by acrobatic caterers at lunch and dinner times. They could have found employment in a circus. With interconnecting vestibules uncommon, these men would cling to and scramble from one carriage to another like monkeys, balancing a stack of trays even as the train sped along. You saw them doing it on a bend and your main concern was they should make it at least to your carriage! A pretty callous thought, I know. But I was just hitting my stride as a boy, my blooming brat potential sparking a homicidal glint in my parents' eyes at times!
The fare was most times a few dried up chapatis (flat Indian bread), watery dal (lentil soup), a couple of indistinguishable (and undistinguished) dishes consisting of the cheapest possible vegetables like pumpkin and anonymous leafy stuff, and a handful of rice. Food one would sneer at when home transformed magically into manna on a train. One ignored the questionable hygiene of both the food and the people serving it. One pretended not to know the loaded trays were stacked near the toilet before they were brought to us. Who cared? There were no rules on a train journey. It was the sheer unbridled lawlessness of it all that made it the grand adventure it was.
Them were the days. Gone forever but they live on in my memories.
One of my American friends with whom I shared these recollections wrote back saying he had taken a train only once in his life. From Grand Island, Nebraska, to Fort Smith, Arkansas, when he was a boy, just like me in my tale. He is a few years older than me, so our experiences fit into the same narrow time slice. This is how he describes it: "I remember at night the porter prepared the Pullman car for sleeping while we ate dinner in the club car. I can still recall the bed and the closed velvet curtains of my berth."
Porters? Club cars? Velvet curtains? Blow me down! We must have been on different planets. Hell, I was lucky to get a reserved berth on a three-tier sleeper carriage. Half the time I ended up on seating only two-tier coaches. The ones where the guy who got the window seat also got to stretch out on the solitary upper berth at night. Insult heaped upon injury. The less fortunate spent the night sitting up, warding off scruffy strangers from taking liberties with their shoulders. Or worse! When even two-tier luck ran out, we had no choice but to tough it out with the unwashed mobs on unreserved coaches ruled by jungle law. I once spent a whole night sitting on the steps of a speeding train, holding the handrails in a death grip and fighting off sleep, just to breathe fresh air.
Looking back, I feel train journeys left such lasting impressions upon Indians of our generation because they prepared us in many ways for the rough and tumble of life itself. From a very young age, we were tossed willy-nilly into survival situations. An Indian train journey those days took no prisoners. You either made it with body and wallet intact or you ended up poorer in both and richer in the lesson. The cocooned comforts of a Pullman were not our lot. Nor the unimaginable luxury of an airplane that takes just three hours today to cover the distance it took three days in my grand saga. I don't envy the more fortunate. Indeed, I ask myself: who were the really fortunate?