This happened when budget airlines were yet to show up on Indian skies and when an air ticket from Chennai to Delhi cost nearly half my salary, when train tickets could be booked only at the reservation counters in railway stations, and when the mobile phone would receive signals only at important stations — leave alone trains having plug points to charge your phone.
It was during those difficult days that one Diwali eve, on an annual visit to my home in Kanpur, I found myself in the sleeper class of a train called Lucknow Express. I had never travelled on this train before. The more respectable trains bound north were already full, and even on this train the seats in the AC coaches had all been sold out.
The train was to depart at 5.30 am — most self-respecting long-distance trains depart from the station of origin only late in the evening — and when I showed up at the station after a sleepless night, two things struck me as odd. The coaches of the train were still painted in old-fashioned red, and there were only nine coaches in all. I wondered about its position in the pecking order of the railways.
I went to sleep as soon as the train started, and woke up some two hours later at Gudur. I was ravenously hungry: I hadn't eaten properly the night before, hoping that I would have a hearty breakfast from the pantry car. But this train — not surprising any more — did not have a pantry car. I stepped on to the platform and bought a dosa and two idlis.
One bite of the dosa and I spat it out, while the idlis were hard like pumice stone. The food was stale. I flung the paper plate on the tracks and returned to my seat, and from there, made an astonishing discovery.
The people who had crowded around the vendor’s cart were not hungry passengers at all: they were mostly his own men who had picked up paper plates as soon as the train arrived and pretended to eat hungrily in order to give the impression that he was in demand. Thirty-five hours and nearly 2,000 km still lay ahead of me.
I made peace with the circumstances and the next 24 hours passed without event: I would either stare out of the window or observe my fellow passengers — most of them men working or studying in the south and now going home for Diwali holidays.
Bad news awaited us at Itarsi — I didn’t have a good feeling about the journey from the very beginning. We learned that there had been a derailment near Bhopal, which was further up the route, and that our train was now going to be diverted via Jabalpur. Travel or travail?
Once we left Itarsi station, the train stopped, literally, at every kilometre, mainly to let more important trains pass through. Who cared about a bunch of U.P.-wallahs travelling from Chennai to their homeland! Before long, we were stranded in the lap of the mighty Vindhyas.
The train was now an orphan — a baby elephant left behind by the herd. It was difficult to tell whether the driver, whenever he moved the train a few metres (before coming to a halt again), was doing so on the instructions of the nearest control room or on the orders of my fellow passengers who marched up to the engine in an intimidating manner every time the halt became too long for their comfort.
While exasperation overcame my fellow passengers, it suddenly struck me that I was now the happiest person on earth. The battery of my phone had died a few hours ago, which I meant I was free from worldly attachments for the time being. The train, I realised, was standing at what could easily be one of the most beautiful railway stations in India. The station may be too small to figure in the railway timetable, but there it was — a solitary building, with a solitary bench, overlooked by green cascading hills and surrounded by wild flowers. No sign of civilisation for miles around.
What better place to honeymoon than sitting on that solitary bench, right in the middle of a jungle, and watching the trains go by? What better place to contemplate life — and maybe write? It can’t get more romantic.
For company you will have a Pyare Mohan or a Ram Lal, the genial weather-beaten signalman who will regale you with anecdotes — maybe even ghost stories. The company of such men — who in their long years of service have seen it all — can be very assuring.
During the next few hours, Lucknow Express was to stop at many more such tiny stations in Madhya Pradesh. Stations that made you wonder, “What is this place doing here in the middle of nowhere?”
I soaked in the sights and the smell of fresh, fragrant forest air. Fellow passengers, meanwhile, kept having heated arguments with the hapless driver. But I was no longer in a hurry to get home. I don’t think Paradise has a fixed address. Even if it exists, it has to be in the middle of nowhere — just where I was right now.