Train of thoughts about hurtling Indian Railway train rides then, and now

Sometimes, it takes a while to appreciate what you’ve got at home. And occasionally, you only start to value things when you suddenly see them going out of your life. This banal, but invaluable, understanding hit me again the other day when I took a train journey with two friends.

I’ve always loved trains. This love began and flowered with good old Indian Railways. Being a pravasi Gujju, born and growing up in Bongland, my first rail journeys were epic, cross-country ones. The Parental Party would pack for our holiday to Bombay and then Ahmedabad with all the ruthlessness of a regiment embarking on a long expedition to quell unruly natives in some province.

Everything we could need for the two-night east-to-west traverse had to be taken. Plus, there was a load of relative-related stuff, Bengali saris, Bengali sweets like roshogolla, and then books and magazines. Being Guj-veggie, you had to take specific food-ammo, such as theplas, bataka nu shaak, chhundo, and chevdo. Well, sometimes you have to carry coals to Newcastle.

As soon as you left Howrah Station, the night air outside the open windows would change character, and you started breathing in soot from the engine. The rocking upper berth was one of my favourite places on Earth – a perch, a machaan, the sleep pod of a (steampunk) spaceship where I could open the little lamp slot and read my comics and then dream derring-do dreams while being rocked in the cradle of the Nagpur Mail.

By the middle of the next day, the heat and train smoke would coat my window-docked face. The jungles of Chota Nagpur would blur by, full of invisible pirates, cowboys and possibly also Indians. The Calcutta water in the jug would now be depleted and fully warm. The countdown would begin as the mid-point of Bilaspur approached. The station had potable cool water, good samosas, and drinkable tea.

Through this almost 36-hour-long journey, the one bourgeois territory of terror was the bogey bathroom zones. How dirty was which one? How wet? Was the flush working? Had the water run out?On a recent trip from Kolkata to north Bengal, all these train memories came flooding back when I made a pre-sleep visit to the loo. The internal architecture of Indian rail carriages has changed a lot. But traces remain, poking up through the palimpsest of governmental interior decoration. The Sunmica surfacing has been with us for at least 40 years, replacing the earlier wall and table material. But the old reading lights provide the same rusty scrape as you push up the slot.

Open windows with bars are history, replaced by glass almost translucent by scratches and dirt. Bolts on the carriage doors and the industrially archaic, lugubriously beautiful flush levers in the toilets remain unchanged, their edges now rounded and encrusted by decades of overpainting, reminding you of modernist sculpture. The shiver and shudder of the little bathroom fans take you back to at least 1980, if not 1970.

There are now little digital conceits – you can see red computerese numbers flickering on the AC unit as you peer into the attendant’s cabin, trying not to disturb the gentle, chicken-curry-fuelled snoring curling up from the vibrating floor. Still, the ghost-rattle of the thick, loose doors could be from 1975.

Before I could say anything, my friends from abroad expressed how fantastic this train was, how everything was so magical. I realised then that poor, deprived souls had only known almost clean, semi-punctual, boring old German, French and Swiss trains. Something about the grime, the dirt, the water smell, and absence of any ergonomic common sense transformed my mind from negative to positive, something to be valued.

Somewhere across the country, Shinkansen trains with big picture windows were tearing across the landscape. Somewhere in those super-fast trains, there may be pantry cars serving piping hot Jain paninis. Punctuating these not-made-in-India TGVs may be super-clean bathrooms with fully automated cleaning systems. But on this night, ripping northwards towards the Himalayas, my desi train culture was intact, throbbing vigorously, unassailable.


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