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Ode to The Indian Railways

The memory of my first-ever train journey, is a blur: shades of blue, freezing temperatures, waitlisted tickets that were magically confirmed, gorgeous sunsets and moonrises, friendly strangers (and some strange ones). But it all sparked a deep love of that mode of travel, and, as an adult, it’s my favourite means of transportation. Planes may get me someplace quicker, but I’d pick 12 hours of window-gazing from a leather-covered metal perch, any day.

One of the first solo journeys I made was from Coimbatore to Mumbai: a 24-hour affair that ended up dragging on for 36. Having some train-travel experience under my belt by then, I was completely prepared for the ride with vital survival gear: paper soap, iPod, camera, water, munchies and three books – one to read, one to write in, and one to draw in (coloured pencils included). But the thing with survival kits is that they’re more for mental satisfaction than for actual usage. After reading some and scribbling some, I decided to entertain myself by waiting on an elusive flash of lightning from the door of the train. One hand filmed while the other propped open the door so I wouldn’t be flung out of the train. Three hours of black-sky footage later, I managed to capture a millisecond of the brightly lit landscape — and make it back to my seat, alive. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the footage, but if I close my eyes I can still feel the chill on my nose from that moment.

A bit later in the journey, a family I had befriended decided to unleash all of their children on me, and six mischievous faces suddenly appeared in my upper berth while I was lying there, watching the ceiling and enjoying music. I am quite fond of kids, so for the better part of four hours we sang nursery rhymes, they drew stars on me, and – even though it wasn’t a special day for me – they serenaded me with “Happy Birthday”. But when they started requesting I take them to the bathroom, I promptly packed them off to their rightful owners — there is a fine line between kindly aunty and train nanny. They left me alone, from that point, but I have those kids to thank for 4 hours whizzing by, unlike the following 13. Countless cups of chai, a plate of questionable samosas, and a sixth listen of my playlist later, I arrived in Mumbai at an unearthly hour to be received by a slightly concerned father. He couldn’t see beyond the layers of grime on my face, but I was already looking back on the journey with nostalgia.

  On a train, everyone becomes part of your story.

 After that experience my survival kit has grown to include a much longer playlist, an easily accessible change of clothes, and an emergency stash of granola bars. I automatically multiply the journey by two, so I’m prepared for the unpredictable. And if I happen to see children … I befriend them from a distance.

Not all strangers are the baby-thrusting kind, though. As a solo woman traveler one tends to bring out the protective side of fellow travelers. I was once headed to Delhi on the Rajdhani in my favourite berth (I must mention here that most seasoned train travelers have a favourite berth depending on what kind of experience they are looking for; I go for the side lower, the only place where I can recline and look out at the landscape whizzing by) and had just polished off the tea time snacks when I realised that the young man, with whom I shared a bench, had taken to gazing upon me instead of out the window. I didn’t pay him much attention as I scribbled away in my journal. But then, he remarked that my writing was brilliant –

He couldn’t see the page I was writing on.

I ignored him, but a few women in the adjacent seats took notice. The next time the said gentleman got up to use the bathroom, they invited me to sit with them and generously shared Alphonso mangoes from their farm. They told me I was brave to travel alone and cautioned me not to return to my seat until my fellow passenger was safely sleeping in his upper berth. Some might find that an invasion of privacy (as do I, on some occasions), but mostly, I just feel cared for – especially when the advice comes with a side mango. Because if there is one thing train travel is about, more than anything else, it’s food.

Riding the train in India brings out the glutton in us all. One is always worried that the food won’t be good enough, or it just won’t be enough, full stop. Or the train won’t make enough stops. So, we come prepared with food for an entire army. I made this mistake once while traveling with a friend to Mumbai from rural Uttarakhand. We’d been there for weeks, and, at the stop in Delhi, the sight of processed food proved too much for us. We did the math: If we each bought three burgers, we could eat one every six hours and keep full for the whole trip. We marveled at our good idea — if you can call anything about McDonalds good.

An hour into the journey we realized our mistake – burgers get cold and lettuce gets limp in an A/C compartment. So we ate all three burgers at once. Then, we proceeded to ‘experiment’ with the wares of every train vendor – the ones your mother warns you about – for the rest of the trip. Idlis with a dry crust; dhoklas with a generous amount of food colour; jalebis with a side of buzzing flies – the combination of hungry stomachs and train travel made all these seem like a culinary adventure. We devoured every snack that came our way and more, accepted every banana or thepla that a fellow passenger offered us, and still had room for ice cream before we turned in. Trains have a way of causing one’s self-control to be drowned out by the calls of “Chai! Chai!”

But often I have found myself glad for this lack of self-control. Munching on dhoklas and downing chai keeps you sane while co-passengers snore or chomp loudly on homemade pulao. The temperature is never correct — you’re either freezing under a pullover and a thick blanket, or sweating in shorts; your sleep time always seems to overlap with someone’s loud-game-playing time; and soft-spoken old people can often coax you into giving up your side lower berth.

And yet, whenever I am planning a holiday, I find myself on the Indian Railways website. And before I know it, I’ve set myself up for yet another blue corridor saga. Because freezing temperatures and snoring uncles aside, there is no other mode of transport that creates an unspoken bond like trains do. Even if you haven’t exchanged life stories, snuggling up under a blanket in the presence of another human being already connects the two of you in some way. Some share food or newspapers, some exchange their best recipes, some ask for advice in a new city, some just smile, and some help you with your luggage. But on a train, everyone becomes part of your story. There isn’t a single train memory I have that is devoid of other humans.

And so, my love affair with Indian Railways continues; the journey is almost always as exciting as the place I’m headed to. Every time I buy a ticket, I begin to imagine all the possible scenarios – delayed trains, detours through quaint little stations, intense conversations with strangers. To some, these sound like nightmares; to me they’re rich chapters in the story of my travels, and the book will never be complete.

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