The Great Indian Rail Journey

I happened to visit a travel blog few days back where a German lady has written her experience of travelling in Indian Railways. She spent about a month in India and in this timeframe, has travelled across 3-4 major cities. She could have taken flight but chose to opt for sleeper class train because she wanted to get a glimpse of life on Indian rail. I read it few times – every detail is so usual to me. I didn’t find anything interesting. Then I read the comments. People were so curious to know more. Then I thought. Did a complete rewind of my experience with Indian Rail and railways of other countries. Then I understood. Yes – Indian Railways is different. It is unique in its own way and every Indian has a portion of his / her life dedicated to this. There will be always few people raising eye brow and saying “ what is so special in it”? This is not meant for them.

If I look back in my life and think about how many journeys I made on rail, I will not be able to count. But some of them were special, very special to me. I remember them for all good and bad reasons.

It was sometimes between 2007-2008. I was on Howrah – Mumbai via Allahabad express. The train was standing in Satna station while an old man leaned over my window and asked in clear English for help. I looked at him – he looked like a beggar. But my curiosity grew, so I started talking and here is how it went –

“Sir, I need some money as I have to go a long way”

“Where do you want to go”?

“My wife died today and I have to go to see her body at least once. Our home is very far from here and I will need to take a bus. It will cost almost 50 Rs”

“Really? So how do you know that she is no more”

“I got a phone call”

“How did you get a phone call. I don’t see you carrying a phone”

“I somehow got it….I need 50 Rs”

I didn’t give anything to him as I had a doubt. He was a fraud. I saw him even later in the same station while travelling in the same route. But the key point here is, his ability to communicate in English. He did not memorize his speech as all his answers were context sensitive. And by no means, he looked anything more than a beggar. Who was that man? I will never come to know in my life.

And then it was in 1999 on our way to Ooty. The way to Chennai from Howrah goes through Orissa. That year Orissa experienced a super cyclone. Big overbridges were torn apart, people lost their lives, villages were destroyed. Rail lines were functional, but the speed was not more than that of a bicycle. Such a long train journey can really be boring if you do not have anything to do. Moreover, the pantry was not sufficient to cater to the need of all passengers. So, here the pantry guy comes with few food packets in his hand and the passengers in the first few seats of the compartment pounce on him to snatch the food packets. People were ready to pay higher but if there is no food available, paying more money will not produce more food, right? It was a crisis time and I experienced how otherwise civilized people can turn into animals. It is just the situation – that it takes to turn them back to their long forgotten ancestors. But we reached Ooty – after long 3 days. Then while coming back, it took even more time. But that is a different story.

Then my first travel in AC compartment. It was 2002 August or September I believe. That was the first time I boarded Rajdhani express. The whole train is AC and there is a light soothing music running at the background. I was kind of overwhelmed as it was completely different from the picture that I had in mind about trains. I was travelling with 5-6 other colleagues of mine to Delhi. For some reason, these days I have more colleagues than friends. That time, I had more friends that colleagues. Anyways, it was a similar experience for some of my colleagues too. There was one guy who was kind of confused of how to get the best of Rajdhani express. The food was complimentary, so when the pantry guy came and asked about choice – Indian or Continental, he thought continental would be some great option to choose. We did not want to take any risk – so we chose Indian. After some time, food was served. We got Tandoori chicken and rice. He got two pieces of bread and a little bit of boiled chicken. Frustration went up to that extent that when the server brought rolled towel for us, he thought it would be some spring roll. He took it, realized it was a towel and then opened the roll to see if there was food inside. When he was discovred it was nothing more than a mere towel, his face was worth seeing. I will not take his name here as he might be as well reading this blog.

And how can I forget my way back from the devastating earthquake in 2001 in Gujrat? That 38-40 hour long journey was one of the most horroible experience of my life. We were approaching the station when the earthquake started. People who have not seen will not believe. But I have seen big auto rickshawas jumping from the ground with the fierce tremor. We thought we were safer while we boraded the train, but it was not over. Our train stopped after 30 minutes or so  followed by an annoucement of a major earthquake in Surat and possible railline cracks. People started running here and there but there was no big ground nearby either. Fear for life surpassed everything. One of my colleagues fell down trying running and got a wound on his chin. We were feeling the tremor but did not have enough courage to leave the train because missing the train would have left us in a god forbidden place. There was no mobile phone, no communication, no way to inform my worried family people that I was still alive. The only news they had in TV channel was of that earthquake striking the same place where I was in and that it killed some 30000 people. It was the same journey where I made some friends for lifetime. It was the same train journey which got my family worried for life. It was the same train journey which probably saved my life ….

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