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Updated: October 1, 2012 19:50 IST

As far as the rails go

Zeenab Aneez
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Railroad stories Monisha Rajesh
Railroad stories Monisha Rajesh

Monisha Rajesh talks about what it takes to travel across India aboard the country’s lifeline

How do you plan a trip around the Indian sub-continent on 80 trains? You don’t. You pack your bags, find willing company and take off. Or at least that’s what London-based journalist and author of Around India in 80 trains Monisha Rajesh did.

“The plan was to have no plan,” she says. While she did consult an expert on the Indian rails before setting out on the trip, she decided it would be best to go where the snaking rails take them rather than be constrained by specific routes. The network of railway tracks covering almost the entire country was all the mapping they needed.

Armed with a rucksack containing a laptop, anti-bacterial gel, toilet paper and most importantly, mosquito repellent, among other essentials, a stack of books, just enough Hindi to get by, a 90 day Indian Rail pass and a willing travel partner and photographer who she calls ‘Passepartout’, she started her journey from Chennai. In the span of four months she had stood in on a surgery aboard the Lifeline Express — a hospital train, brewed fresh tea in the North East, drank wine on the Maharaja Express and hung out the doors of several others. This is not the Londoner’s first time on an Indian train. “We took the Pandian Express to visit my brother in boarding school and I loved it. Mainly because getting on the train meant that I could escape Madras and see my brother who I missed terribly,” she explained. So for Monisha, train journeys have always heralded good times to come.

Showering less, reading more and eating whatever was available on board the train, save for a few incidents, it was smooth sailing for Monisha. “Travelling with a partner was a major advantage, but I didn’t have too much trouble even on the trains I took alone. To be safe, I travelled mostly during the day and didn’t wander out after dark and I had plenty of help from fellow travellers.” The journey is littered with interesting people, from indifferent railway officials and hippie travellers to eager co-passengers and Johnnie Walker-sipping Delhi elite.

How was it going back to London and taking the tube? “It’s a stark contrast and I find myself looking around at everyone with their noses buried in their newspapers wondering ‘What a miserable bunch we are’” she says with the wry humour that runs through the book. “ I’ve become typically Indian after the trip. The other day, I started talking to a co-passenger en route to Birmingham; something I wouldn’t have done before the trip. I learnt that it only takes one person to start a conversation.”

Monisha Rajesh’s account of her 80 train journeys across the sub continent takes the reader across India on those familiar carriages that make up the country’s largest monopoly. Unlike the often grimy and languid railways, Around India in 80 trains is a very real but also witty and entertaining trip. Written with a Western audience in mind, many details of the journey do not come as a surprise to a regular on the Indian Railways. But the descriptions of wispy curtains, of cacophonous stations and snaking railway tracks will evoke memories from their own journeys, leaving you with all but the residual scent of iron that sticks with you hours after you get off.

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