Trains of thought - The New Indian Express

Trains of thought

Published: 14th October 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 13th October 2012 03:21 PM

Hema Malini, tiger, tiger!” said the man brandishing a cluster of bubblegum-bright fluffy animals, none of which could really be said to resemble the actress, as, aboard the Guwahati Express, I searched for the appropriate phrase to begin a description of the charms of sleeper-class travel.

I used to travel by train only perforce.  Being white and female, travelling in the AC carriages was the only sensible thing to do—and as a result I hated it.  I froze, and I couldn’t see anything because the windows that were heavily tinted. It was also fairly dull, the monotony broken only by the ticket collector or a man from a respectable middle class family breaking wind.

Then, one particularly chilly journey through an especially beautiful stretch of Kerala (visible only in my mind’s eye), I wandered, during a get-warm break from my seat, into sleeper class. There, windows were open onto the glorious Malabar countryside and a real breeze tinged with the moist smell of the rains aired the carriage. My eyes were opened and next time I booked a train, I selected ‘sleeper’. My first such journey was Bangalore-Delhi. Thirty-six hours, 2,275 km and Rs 550—you really cannot top that. Or so I thought until I booked my present journey: Bangalore-Guwahati, 54 hours, 2,992 km and all for the princely sum of `601.

There are admittedly some drawbacks. Even by Indian standards, the loos are so bad as to make you dread each visit. On the current journey, I attempted a shower on day three—finding it hard to refrain from washing for quite so long. After removing my clothes with great dexterity while balancing my bag against the basin (the hooks on the door long since broken) and ensuring no part of my body came into contact with the floor, walls or ceiling—I discovered that the tap had run dry. Luckily I had kept an emergency half-litre Bisleri bottle in my bag on the advice of a seasoned Indian Railways train-er whom I had recently met at, of all places, a barbeque in Chelsea, and who used to do Kanyakumari to Guwahati four times a year.

The other downside, in sleeper class particularly, is petty crime. I was a little perturbed to learn from the man in the bottom bunk that his trousers had been slit just above the pocket by a thief in the night. 

Filth and theft aside, sleeper class is non-stop entertainment. The hermeneutically sealed AC carriages are out of bounds for the various vendors, hijras, child acrobats, hospital donation ladies and musical maestros from every imaginable genre, but the unwashed masses of sleeper class are fair game. The nasalised hollering as each advertises their wares starts at 5 am with ‘garma garam chai’, continues with ‘boiled channa, boiled channa, time-pass channa’ and ends at 11 pm with the last ‘veg biryani, anda biryani, chicken biryani’. Apart from the food—oranges at Nagpur, mishti doi throughout West Bengal, and Agra ka petha—they also sell a variety of other essential services and products including shoe-cleaning (possibly not the most sensible use of money in an environment where dirt is a universal and immediate law and anything that hasn’t yet yielded to the dirt is nicked), ear buds and beedis—despite the ban on smoking. Booze though isn’t for sale; judging by the empty bottles in the loos, it is clearly BYOB.

In fact, the only people who aren’t frequent visitors are the TTs. In 58 hours (we were lucky: our train was only four hours late; the following week trains on the same route were delayed by up to 36 hours due to the riots in Assam), my ticket was checked only once.  As a result, popular stretches of the route are a free for all. When I woke up one morning, we had acquired an extra passenger who was sleeping soundly on the floor between our set of six berths. The space between the set of berths nearest the door had three such newcomers. 

So now as I return to gazing out at the villages and farmers of Odisha, smoky blue rainclouds on the horizon setting off the myriad greens of paddy fields, I can hardly wait to cross into West Bengal and experience the thrill of seeing the signs change incomprehensible scripts once more, while the landscape continues its slow, subtle evolution. I just hope my bag, along with the notebook in which I have written this, isn’t flicked tonight.

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