To stop train, pull chain

..and other quirky symbols of train rides came rushing back to mind last week, as I took the Mandovi Express, a day train from Goa to Bombay. While we were initially skeptical about wasting an entire day on the train, when we could have been gallivanting in Bombay, I now think it was a good call, because I discovered a very viable mode of travel for the next time I have to go to Bombay on a tight budget, and have to travel all alone.

I am a sucker for train journeys. Something about sitting on those blue seats brings back childhood memories of buying Tinkle and Archie comics on the station platform, hoping for a window seat, and passing an entire day reading, sleeping and watching the world go by on our annual train rides from Bangalore to Bombay. Trains were filthy then, unsafe and perennially running late too. But not having the option to fly as often, we’d undertake the journey once or twice a year and despite small discomforts it would be a happy time for us all.

This time though, I was more than happy to note a rather new and freshly painted bogey, a clean loo, fancy new amendments in every section, including charging points and mobile pouches (talk about attention to detail!). This time around, I had a crisp, new book to begin and the food was superlative. Not only was there variety it was unbelievably tasty for train food and it just wouldn’t stop! Every five minutes the pantry fellows would dish out something new. From the usual chai-coffee-tomato soup (now available with fancy soup sticks as opposed to 3-day old croutons that smell of stale oil) options, to methi pakoras and onion bhajies, to cut fruit, watermelon and pepper, dosas, bhel puri, upma and sheera, sabudana vadas, vada pav, aloo paranthas and matka dahi (and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting something here), and lunch and dinner options to top it all — I almost didn’t notice the 2 hour delay that we had in the last leg of the journey.

For all that I rave and rant, aloud and silently, about the state of affairs in our country, about how undependable systems are and how nothing will ever move forward, there is something to be said about our railways. At least some parts of it. Okay, let me just contain the excitement and speak just for the bit I experienced. The bit that totally re-instilled my faith in the fact that things change, things work; and that there is still hope for our systems.

The optimist in me wants to think that these are small things that can go a long way in making long train journeys easy and comfortable. Especially when they are invariably delayed. Small steps are the way to go. And slowly we can shift focus on making these journeys shorter and timely, perhaps.

A lot seems to have changed. For the better. And yet, all those things that make a journey in an Indian train memorable, without which no train ride is complete, still remain.

Every bogey has to have that one noisy family that insists on talking at abominable decibel levels, even if it is amongst themselves, sitting within a radius of 3ft, safely tucked behind their curtains in the enclosed space of their coupe. So this time around, I was subjected to hearing loud exchanges in Marathi, about everything from making amti powder at home to renewed systems of garbage segregation and disposal in the aunty’s building.

No matter how long/short the journey may be, there is always that one uncle who travels solo, with a small suitcase/backpack and subsists on glucose biscuits and water, making you feel lucky to have a mother who packed 2 whole meals worth of food to get by. This time, I had the revelation that was the pantry car a la Konkan Railways, and I watched him munch on his biscuits between oddly-timed naps and felt like a complete glut.

Almost equally common is the grumpy uncle/aunty, who must have been a spoilt, only-child growing up. Because only they can be greedy enough to insist on sleeping right through the day, on the bottom-most berth, no less. So this time too, the three of us were confined to lying horizontal for the rest of the journey, on our upper-berths. As if this wasn’t bad enough, every time he woke up, he’d play hindi music out loud off his phone, like he was doing us a favour by providing entertainment.

Of course there must also be a bunch of children, complete strangers to each other, but who in no time at all inevitably join forces to bring the roof down. Why is it that kids come alive at exactly the same time that adults decide to slip into slumber? Afternoon naps on trains are invariably peppered with thumping little feet running up and down the aisle, punctuated by the frequent screech of excitement.

Then there is the faithful chai wala with his battered tea kettle and yellowed coat, from one decade ago. Patiently he walks up and down calling out to chai-lovers, luring them with his lilting, cracked voice. When a willing passenger succumbs, he hitches the kettle awkwardly between his calves, to let steaming pinkish-brown, overboiled liquid pour into plastic cups. The kind that shrivel ever so slightly, unable to take the scalding heat.

No matter how fancy or forward the rest of the railways get, I wonder if the paper thin pillows, the over-laundered woolen blankets and the curtains with bits of weak velcro will ever change. What about the odd conveniences like the water bottle holder and the reading lamp, invariably at an appropriately inconvenient height, placed just so it coincides with the spot most conducive to placing your head? Will they ever move them?

Ever noticed how everything is labelled? In that lifeless stenciled signs that reduces words to collections of characters. B-o-t-t-l-e h-o-l-d-e-r. N-i-g-h-t l-i-g-h-t. F-a-n. And now m-o-b-i-l-e c-h-a-r-g-i-n-g p-o-i-n-t. Just in case you can’t figure any of this yourself.

This list would be incomplete without the mention of the famous “Indian Water Closet (WC)” which is just a respectable sounding name for the railways adaptation of the key-hole. Complete with a precariously placed, yet technically-sophisticated looking flush, aimed just so. And a steel mug chained to the wall, the old-school taps you need to wrestle with and press inwards for them to work. Just so convenient and conducive to work when travelling at incredible speeds in a steel box that feels like it is dragging you through a drier.

Despite all that, The Mandovi Express gets my vote for a safe, convenient (especially for single women) journey from Goa to Bombay. If you’re ever gobsmacked by the exorbitant flight rates, and find yourself wait-listed on every other train, I’m pretty sure you’ll find a spot on this one, because not many people want to waste a day on the train. If you like amble-y, day-time train journeys though, rife with all the small things that can potentially jog back the tiny specks of memories from the recesses of your mind, you’ll probably enjoy it much like I did. And you might also agree that while we bandy about big words like progress and infrastructure, and with a lot of other things undergoing a sea-change in India, you can always count on some things to always be the same.

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32 Replies to “To stop train, pull chain”

  1. Love-hate relationship with trains. Not because of what has happened to me but rather to my sisters. Those uncles with glucose biscuits scare me the most. I’ve never had a bad experience no matter what class I’ve travelled in.

    1. I took a train journey after a fairly long time gap and this one was such a pleasant revelation. Yes, despite the talkative/grumpy copassengers!

  2. At least some of the charm of train journeys, for me, like the pani poori seller by the roadside, lies a little in the grime and filth; that, thankfully has not changed much in the railways (it is definitely cleaner in comparison, but also comfortingly unclean :D)
    I was not really looking forward to that Delhi- Ahmedabad journey, but I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it (they played some beautiful nadaswaram recordings on the journey, throughout) and the food, like you said, was pretty awesome too.
    Next up, Mandovi Express it is! :)

    1. Wasnt that a Rajdhani you took? Or am I mistaken? Rajdhanis are the tops, as far as what our railways are capable of goes. I really wish they’d start one from Bombay to Goa.. Even a slightly fast Shatabdi would be good.. They have the food/entertainment down pat, now they just need to work on the damned train!

      Would you believe we even had them distribute shopping pamphlets?! And then this airplane style trolley came out with all these sparkly wares, for sale! I was dumbfounded.

      1. Yes, it was the Rajdhani. Fancy train, but nothing compared to the pamphlets and the trolley-pe-sales stuff – seriously?

  3. I like the mandovi express. Esp for the views. And after reading this post I am missing the train food! What kind of ppl can live on biscuits when so much yummy food passes by all the time.

    1. I KNOW, right?! I was pissed that he inconvenienced us by sleeping through (also why I couldnt appreciate the views as much :( ), in the first place. And then he pulled out the biscuits..plain old Glucose ones that too! And I completely wrote him off as a #fail. Pah..

  4. I travel a lot by train and trust me when I say Konkan Route, especially Mumbai to Goa is the best I mean it. We took this route couple of years back and lucklily it was Monsoon time. The whole route was very beautiful and the food was just icing on the cake!!

    And the characters that u have defined are just so apt!!!

    You shud travel Mumbai-Jabalpur to see the other extreme of train travelling. :)

      1. Not really….even the Mumbai-Gujarat route is very good…trains are clean…people to we are Indians, we will remain the way we are ;-)

        Mumbai-Jabalpur trains are usually the ones which move towards Bihar and at the cost of being judgemental (on the basis of experience) you can very well guess the gentry there and trust me the trains are so filthy that I cannot even put it in words!!!

        1. Yeah, I guess we get the trains the way we choose to use/maintain them. Though I dont travel very often by trains, the last few experiences have been good. We took a train to Kerala in 2011 and it was lovely. Before that I took the Shatabdi from Delhi-Amritsar and that was really good too..

  5. Given how much I travel, I spend a hell a lot of time in trains. In fact, on an average, end up doing even 24 hour train journeys once every six months, and 12-14 hours journeys atleast twice a month. And despite this, I rarely weary of trains. Most people baulk at the idea of a 24 hour train journey – I look forward to them, stock up on the books and the music, catch up on my reading, buy and gobble up everything that anyone offers to sell, stare out of the window while lost in music, and sleep at very random times. I do enjoy my train journeys.

    That said and done, I did two train journeys in a span of five days – one was 26 hours long, and one 17 hours, and I’ve had about enough for this month already. Now that I am faced with the prospect of ANOTHER train journey, I am looking for cheap flights!

    1. The music/books/napping/food — all the same reasons why I love train journeys. I just wish I had more opportunity. In fact I was the only one excited about spending an entire day on this train :P It was fun, though the last 2-3 hours dragged a bit, with an unexpected and last minute delay..

  6. Train travel is like spending time in an airport lounge (though the feeling is not the same now, with too many channels of communication available). You are, to a certain extent cut-off from the world and suspended in a space where the focus is more on the moment than what is ahead or was behind.
    Thanking you ahead of time for the inspiration. May just blog on these lines in my next post :-)

  7. Love the post! Totally hits the spot.

    I love train travel. Specially over road travel (because of the traffic issues). And specially when I have time to choose a train over flights. I get the best sleep on trains and it’s the longest that I can read at one stretch! But, predictably, AK hates it because he doesn’t fit into the sleeper bunks! So we always end up driving. And cursing when it takes us 17 hours to cover a 7 hour journey. Bah!

    1. Ditto on the best sleep and long hours of sleep + reading.. But I really feel for AK wrt not fitting on a bunk..Daddy-sized peeps need daddy-sized berths, which sadly they dont do here :(

      1. Exactly! Of late, though, AK has agreed to take short AC chair car trains from Chandigarh and Jaipur. Only because it was for a shoot and its too exhausting to shoot and then drive or vice versa.

        1. Chair cars and shatabdis are the BEST dude! Remember our legendary journey? that was amongst some of my best and most memorable train rides..I distinctly remember AK trying to get the food guy to give him and extra cutlet hehehe

          1. Oh yeah he always gets the extra cutlet! And shatabdis + rajdhanis definitely top the list :)

            We tried a double decker chair car from Jaipur called the Jaipur Double Dee. Was a totally cool experience. And a bonus that the lower deck was empty and 5 of us could stretch out and crash since everyone was pooped after the 2-day shoot!

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