Scenes from an Indian Train Journey

A journey in itself is beautiful and romantic. Train journeys are an ideal opportunity to contemplate life. They teach you to slow down, look around and take notice. An entire day of literally no routine; watching out as landscapes change, people and dialects change within hours.

“If you want to know more about India, experience a train journey”. That holds true to the core. My affair with the Indian Railways started as a child during the annual visits to our hometown in the summer vacation. The preparations started days in advance, nothing less than a festivity. It resumed when I started my job in Delhi and subsequently, bitten by the travel bug, the affair continues.

Somewhere, on the outskirts of a station

But this is not even remotely about philosophy or solitude. It is everything else that comes with the package.

I always thought booking an upper berth is your ticket to privacy. I am highly mistaken as I underestimate the inquisitive power of my fellow passengers.  Here, I recall some common scenarios:

  • Scene 1 – The amount of general knowledge bestowed upon by the intellectuals around on every topic under the roof – be it politics, sports, movies, weather, culture, history etc can prepare a novice overnight to face the hot seat on a quiz show. The intensity only increases on a long distance with enough time at your disposal.
  • Scene 2 – No familiar faces around to bother or questions to be entertained if I don’t want to, pending books to be read. The innocent me thinks so until that one glance exchanged with a smile. Interviewing a girl travelling alone is probably the favorite pastime of people – so much that their own kids take a backseat.
  • Scene 3 – Talking about children, I am amazed by their sheer enthusiasm and confidence in befriending strangers with ease. Most parents give up after trying their best to keep the child’s high spirits in check. Well, they can’t be blamed always. On my last one, this little kid refused to sit anywhere except with “Didi” and I spent an entire first half of the day getting his homework done while the sleep-deprived parents dozed off.
  • Scene 4 – A most common advice even after travelling intensively isDo not eat any food offered by strangers”. Better safe than be sorry. True; yet, I fail to understand how am I supposed to suspect and detect whether the boxes of homemade food being consumed by a group of family members might be something else for me? Well, denying politely is an art – one you should master prior to boarding a train in India. Use your fair sense of judgement. That’s about it.

Countless anecdotes; while travelling with friends:

  • Our overnight train from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur was scheduled to reach at 5 AM. Heading straight from a hectic day at work on a cold winter evening, we immediately settled to sleep in anticipation that none of us will wake up timely and miss our de-boarding station. The gentleman next to us offered to help as his was the station prior to ours. Maybe he didn’t realize, at around 2 AM, it was one of us who woke him up and eventually we never slept throughout. But such honest initiatives are always welcome on board.
  • Once, we were trying to explain a confused group of Japanese tourists which coaches to board. It was a challenge with language barrier. Meanwhile, the train arrived and within seconds, around 10-12 of them were completely scattered in the stampede. Most of them got on the general coaches and it was a sight to see their communication with locals. My friend and I took turns to get them to their reserved seats with help from others.
  • Returning from Jodhpur, we waited for our reserved seats while the occupants simply refused to vacate. They tried to convince us to take any of the empty berths as no one came to check reservations on the route. Still, as law abiding citizens, we waited and spent a sleepless night finally giving up few hours prior to our destination. No one turned up.

From people suspecting our coffee to be something else, to some elderly person taking a surprise knowledge check of their city, to some confident one guiding us to the wrong train – the list remains endless. Nevertheless, it is compensated by the hidden warmth and compassion in disguise. As diversified it is, the heart of the country remains the same across.

Indian train journeys are nothing less than a cultural amalgamation of people and their lives, like a grand fair on wheels. Unlike on road, train journeys do not have the luxury of a stopover when needed. It’s a pre-determined path and destination. We can only make the most out of the time in between. On a philosophical note, isn’t it very similar to our own lives?

Amidst the chaos, I ensure to find my own little corner with a view ….

With years of experience, patience developed and I learnt to take it all in a positive stride and simply enjoy. Love it or hate it – I still love train journeys, lone and long train journeys 🙂

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