Everybody has a favourite train story. We share some of ours
There are trains, and then there are train journeys. Hot and sweaty, cool and luxurious; insanely crowded carriages, empty ones which are just as scary... journeys in India, across India from the north to the south; in Europe where trains connect with the precision of a key turning in the lock...
There is something about trains that creates a certain magic. Much though I like the idea of reaching a destination in hours rather than days, the roar of a airplain engine revving for takeoff can never quite match the thrill of listening to the guard's shrill whistle, and the rush that happens when with a clank of metal and the hiss of steam the train starts out on its journey.
Perhaps it is the thrill that came with knowing one was free of studies for the next two months of summer vacations that made train journeys so special. We'd board the train that would wind its way across five states before it reached Madras, in Calcutta. Our journey included strange cries of hawkers , ill lit platforms that could well be haunted, and hanging bat like from the top berth as one read one's book in the weak compartment light. It included making room for a huge block of ice on a metal tray as the train sweated us into Bezwada station, which the sun had turned into a furnace. The fan was supposed to cool the ice and thus the air in our cubicle, but the heat always won, and all we would get for our efforts was a wet floor ,as the train changed directions and shunted engines front to back.
Since those annual journeys, there have been many, including one from Calcutta to Delhi, when we smuggled our Bhutanese boxer in swaddling clothes, right till the end without discovery!
Not all journeys were pleasant. There were a series of horrid ones from Nagpur when after our summer exams my sister and I would beg to be allowed to travel to Madras. We would ride in the vestibule hoping for a seat along the way, and the heat and post exam tiredness would be killing. But a year later, there we would be at the station, pushing our way into the sleeper, hoping for a seat. No one thought of the flight as an alternative. It was just not any fun!
Even the trauma of travelling 28 kms to work from a mid station on the suburban line, when I moved to Bombay did not quite cure me . Travelling to Gwalior to make a documentary, I took the second class sleeper on the Punjab Mail from Bombay. Grabbing the upper berth I fell fast asleep.
I woke up the next morning to find myself incapable of stretching my legs. I pushed again, no movement seemed possible. Sitting up in panic, I realised that the rather ample bodies of two people were crushed against my legs, blocking my movement. And below, similar crouched bodies dotted every available space. There had been an invasion at night, at some way station, where a hoard of ticketless travellers had got on!
Train journeys in Europe are quite different. But the first one which I ever took overseas was in England, from Birmingham to London. I loved looking out at the picture post card countryside , I loved the comfort of a controlled temperature. I travelled back at night, and the moon as it hung low over the horizon spurred me write a story, titled Night Train to Glasgow. Adding my bit to the long list of train inspired stories , including another Night Train tale by the well loved Ruskin Bond.
Since then I have travelled frequently by train across Europe, preferring it to the cramped flights, the endless security checks. Besides, train journeys reveal a country as flights can never do. Travelling across Provence recently by train, we saw the countryside unfolding with the explicit colours of Impressionist paintings. From Paris to Dijon, the landscape changed in the course of a couple of hours, from green to a palatte of hues that would have Van Gogh reaching for his brush. As we trundled on to Marsellies, the sea lapped alongside, a brilliant blue-green in contrast and the harbour a painter's interpretation of boats of many hues and shapes moored along the coast.
At every point, we stopped at tiny towns with populations the size of a Bombay suburb, and whether we took a local shuttle or the TGV, there was always the same feeling of being in competent hands.
Saying which, I must add quickly that I do rate the Indian Railways among the best in the world. Travelling by second or even third AC is a far cry from the hot journeys of the seventies. The super fast trains, the dining and night bedding services, make for luxury on rails. Catering to a country as far flung as ours, and yet making it possible to travel from any point in the country to another with almost no tears, is a feat that deserves international recognition. Prince Charles would have been as impressed as he was with the dabbawallas of Mumbai, had he taken a train across India!
The old locomotive might be seen only in films, the changing of the wooden sleepers to cement ones has reduced the rat a tat of wheels; but despite the speed and comfort, I sometimes miss the journeys when, I would sit by the open window, a book on my lap, the wind in my hair, and enjoy the ride for itself. When the light got too dim, I would sing songs that matched the rhythm of the train exactly.
Perhaps it is the songs the trains sing that linger in our mind, and spin the romance of the journeys in our hearts.