Great train journeys are a fixture on the landscape of Indian nostalgia. Whenever you are stuck for conversation, all you have to do is whisper something like, “Don’t you love travelling by train?”, and all manner of stories will come tumbling forth. But I realise now that these are romanticised memories of our childhood, and are not always reliable in predicting our experiences today. I was astonished and a bit disappointed to discover that a few of us no longer enjoy it. Here then, are my top tips to enjoy the ride on an Indian train.
Firstly, remember to arrive early. Half the fun of a train ride is in observing life at the station. For example, I always look for the Rogues’ Gallery, an entertaining little noticeboard that is usually tucked away in a corner near the office rooms. Behind a grimy glass are displayed black-and-white pictures of criminals who operate exclusively on trains. There is equal representation of the sexes, and of people belonging to different religions, castes and classes. Miss. Kumari D.K, 27, may look like a mild-mannered software worker, but she is, in fact, the dreaded biscuit bandit of your nightmares. She probably spends her spare time hanging out in a den full of Parle-G biscuits, plotting your imminent downfall.
Speaking of biscuits, now is a good time to stock up on the food. Never mind that there is an endless supply of coffee, tea, bajji and cutlets available through the journey. There is no such thing as too much food on a train, as my aunt and grandmother discovered many years ago when they were stuck in between stations for two days due to a politician’s death. My mother, who, like all Indian mothers, believes that food is love, had packed them off, not just with heavy meals for the entire journey, but also boxes of sweets, sundry deep-fried things, a dozen bananas, and an entire loaf of Modern bread. The bananas didn’t make it, but the rest of the passengers in the bogie were able to survive purely on the food my mother had packed.
If you’re travelling alone, you have the option, when you board, of doing some rather noble deeds such as giving someone a lower berth or window seat. You can also unite separated families. When I was travelling from Madras some months ago, I was able to unite not one, but two large families. I ended up sitting five rows away from my original seat, and a bit too close to the toilets, but, on the plus side, one Mr. Goldiji and his family showered me with their blessings, offered me some kachori, and promised me a discount at their underwear shop in Nagpur.
Last but not the least, prepare to tell someone the story of your life. This is the most underrated of all our train experiences. Where else will you get a captive, interested audience that will hang on your every word? Better still, if you’re travelling alone, you can easily embellish your story to make it seem more interesting. On a train journey in Rajasthan last year, I found myself in august company. The old man was a retired vigilance officer from Jaipur. He had a “bit role” in a 1973 Hindi movie–you might remember the waiter who planted the bug under the hero’s table. He still had that striking red jacket. The old man and his wife were planning to go on a Europe trip, through Cook Travel Agency: Rs. 3 Lakhs, including Indian meals and unlimited chai-coffee. Meanwhile, the small family were Gujaratis from Bombay. The father was in “import-export”. The mother was a professor in an engineering college, and the older son was studying there too. The second son, all of 10 years old, was hoping to become a pilot if he grew tall enough. They had been to Jaisalmer to see the sand dunes and the sons said they were just like the ones in the movies.
As the conversation slowly died down, all eyes turned to me. “And beti, what about you? What do you do?”, the old man asked. I took a deep breath and prepared to tell them a story they wouldn’t forget. “My name,” I said, “is Kumari, and I used to be a biscuit bandit.”