Shouvik Das writes an ode to the Indian Railways — the world’s most romantic mode of travel.
I have always been a romantic when it comes to train travel. While my profession has forced me into becoming a frequent air traveller, I often take time out to book myself a long-distance train ride whenever I am on a holiday. The habit, incidentally, happens to have come from my father, who has always loved the ceremonious nature of a train travel. “If you don’t pack bags days in advance and board an overnight train, it does not even feel like a holiday,” he always says. I happily concur.
As a child, I was always a non-fussy traveller. I would never throw tantrums like children are known to, and neither would I run up and down the aisles. Instead, train journeys for me were like a mesmerising film strip of rice fields, quaint little platforms, hawkers selling colourfully-wrapped fries and chocolates, and long conversations with family. Whenever I would travel on a train, it would feel as if the world stood still as the train raced along such intricately complex tracks. Even today, a lot of my friends find it funny that I feel exactly the same way about trains even today.
Where my love for trains truly began was with the Ranchi-Howrah Shatabdi Express. The first time that I set foot in it was in 1998 (I was only four then, but have heard my own story too many times from my parents now). We — my parents and I, were on our way back from Durgapur, and the roads were too perilous to even think about a drive back. Trains, hence, were the obvious and only choice. My cousin sister, who is two years elder to me, had told me in fervent whispers that I would have a lot of fun on my journey, and that experiencing the Shatabdi Express is something of a novelty.
I, however, was not to be consoled — for it was raining torrentially, my school was to reopen in just a few days, and I was being taken away from my cousins (we still lived in a world without iPads and the Internet, then). But, any notion of sorrow dissolved when the train arrived at the platform, truly shining like the king of the hill. Hailed by a soot-belching WDM3D loco and the yellow-blue livery of the old ICF coaches (rail geeks would know), the Shatabdi was a train unlike any I had ever seen. Everything about that journey truly shaped what I feel about rail travel, today.
The compartments had reclining, comfortably padded chairs and a chilly air conditioner, which were enough to stun me. The best, though, was yet to arrive. Shortly after we boarded, we were served with a welcome drink (Mango Frooti). This was followed by tomato soup, bread sticks and — wait for it — my own tiny box of butter! This was then followed by dinner — chicken curry, rotis, rice, daal, subzi and meetha dahi. I evidently do not remember how all that tasted, but my parents have always narrated this incident and stated that it made me immensely happy. What more could a child want, eh? The butterscotch ice cream they followed up with, was what.
But you see, the iconic food served in this top tier of the Indian Railways is only a third of the reason that made me love the railways. The first, and the only perception that I truly remember from two decades ago, is how relaxing and luxurious this journey was. The second reason was the swagger — through a torrential thunderstorm, the Shatabdi Express arrived delayed by 30 minutes from where we boarded. Yet, we reached sharp on time — no stress taken. In hindsight, it is this that made me develop a fondness for the journey part of every vacation, and while everyone around me would look at it as a functional part, one that could not be avoided, for me it was an integral part of going somewhere. How could you be heading off into the hills, without staring out into the rolling fields that flash by, and not take a long, hard moment to contemplate about the millions of things that you never get time to think about?
My love for train food was not as profound as the other, emotional aspects of it. That, however, changed in the year 2005, on my way back from New Delhi. My family and I were on our way back from Himachal, and we boarded the New Delhi-Howrah Rajdhani Express. It was also the very first time that I travelled First Class — the very top of the pinnacle trains of Indian Railways. It is here that I discovered a completely different side of the Railways — your own, private cabin or coupe where you can do anything you want (!), attendants who come make your bed, tiny folding tables where dinner is served with real cutlery, and most importantly, a menu to choose from.
Quite unbelievably, the options back then included noodles and soya chicken, deep-fried fish, vegetable au gratin (!), two or three choices of vegetables, salad on request, and eggs made to order! While you do get some of these items even today, the ban on full-fledged cooking has led to the omission of many of them from the menu. You will no longer be able to order a continental dinner meal, or for that matter, an au gratin (which is good, since the au gratin was never quite… respectable).
But you see, here’s the deal — if you are on holiday and choose to fly, you are compelled to reach the specified airport nearly an hour-and-half early, carry luggage as per specified limits (that too is iffy, depending on the airline), check a bucket-load of filters, clear security check and be seated in varying scales of discomfort (I do not find executive lounges and domestic business class to be truly comfortable, either), and be served a very average and limited array of food options.
Or, for about the same price and a few more hours of travelling time, you can travel with your peers in your own room aboard a train, be served every meal right in front of you, lie down, walk down the aisle, look outside the window, and even occasionally stick your head out of the train for the gush of fresh air. Add a commendable menu to it, and you slowly tend to realise how the millions of kilometres of rail networks, the thousands working everyday to maintain the clockwork system, and the teeming number of passengers all come together on an exquisitely romantic form of travel.
When I am holidaying, I am happy to spare a few more hours and enjoy my journey, for as every great author ever said, a journey is the ultimate gate to a fulfilling tour (minus Indian Railways’ au gratin, maybe).
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