There is no snow in Jammu town. There are no lakes, houseboats, mountains, or well-known tourist places either. The river Tawi is filthy black.
Jammu also doesn’t face the threat of terrorist or military violence that contributes to activity in much of Kashmir. It’s one of India’s many small towns that have little to distinguish themselves from each other.
Consequently, most people arrive at the Jammu Tawi railway station only to go elsewhere. Some travel to Srinagar, and some to other towns in Kashmir, some to the nearby shrine of Vaishno Devi—hardly any visit Jammu town itself.
I arrive at the Jammu Tawi station because I’m taking a ride on the Himsagar Express, the train that covers the longest distance in India. Traversing 3,715km from Jammu Tawi to Kanyakumari, Himsagar crosses 11 states, taking over 70 hours, with 69 stops on the way.
Nilanjana Roy neatly sums up the appeal of the Himsagar Express in a newspaper article on the idea of India: “If you’ve travelled on the Himsagar Express, you know the pull of the idea of traversing India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The actual journey is dusty, unromantic and unremarkable, but the idea is attractive—discovering India, snaking down her spinal cord, and the music of that phrase: “Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak”.
I reach the Jammu Tawi station 2 hours before the Himsagar’s 11.45pm departure, and chew on the poori-rajma dinner as I wait on the platform.
Lost in darkness
One problem with long-distance trains is that a part of the journey happens at night. Consequently one cannot see every single place on the way. Though I spend the first half-hour after departure at the train door, the pine trees, shinglebottomed rivers and clear streams that I’d seen on my way north are lost to darkness and sleep.
To cut my losses, I’m up before 6 the next morning. In the chill of December predawn at Ludhiana, I gratefully clutch the heat of ginger-flavoured tea.
At Ludhiana, a new set of ticket examiners and engine drivers come on board to replace those who’d been on the train from Jammu. Railway staff change every time Himsagar enters a new railway division, so the train has 11 sets of drivers and ticket examiners over its journey. The coach attendant, however, remains unchanged through the entire journey. But then, he opts to take no more than one Himsagar trip every month. He explains, “It’s hard on the body.”
The train speeds southwards. It’s December, and winter has just begun. A thin cover of fog lies over the landscape, even when it’s well past 8am. Sunrays slice through the milky fog, suffusing warmth into the chilly air. By the trackside, a railwayman in a skullcap and sweater crouches in an enclosure marked “fog hut”.
The Himsagar races towards Delhi past yellow mustard fields, farmhouses and roadside dhabas. All day long, there’s the balmy winter sunlight outside.
Importance of being Himsagar
The Himsagar Express is somewhat of a legend on Indian Railways. In its first days in the 1980s, its bogies had a beautiful light blue and white livery that represented the sea and the snow. In the mid-1980s, the Railways commissioned film director Shyam Benegal to make the TV series Yatra. In Yatra, Benegal’s army jawan protagonist (played by Om Puri) travels across India on trains. Unsurprisingly, it was the Himsagar which Benegal chose as being representative of Indian rail travel, and it’s on this train that much of the action took place.
Many “railfans” on online communities such as the Indian Railways Fan Club (http://irfca.org—the train enthusiasts there call themselves railfans) lament about how Himsagar’s prestige has declined over the years. Some of its bogies’ exteriors are now draped in advertisements—for the Coir Board and for Musli Power Xtra. They grieve and point out that if Himsagar sells its soul in this way, people won’t pause to look at it with the awe it deserves.
Others point out that a train like Himsagar deserves to be accorded the status of a superfast train. Because it isn’t a superfast train, Himsagar has to endure indignities like having to stop at signals to allow lesser trains to pass by.
Also See Trip Planner | Himsagar Express (PDF)
Himsagar spends a lot of time in and around Delhi (just under 3 hours while going south, and 4-plus hours while going north). Railfans point out that if this time window could be reduced and Himsagar could be sped up by 4 hours, it would easily attain the average speed requirement of 55km per hour that’s necessary for according superfast status to a train. Frustratingly for them, the Railways hasn’t listened or obliged.
Himsagar leaves the southern outskirts of Delhi late in the afternoon. I sip warm watery tea by the soft winter sunlight outside.
South of Delhi, Vrindaban Road is a lone station with nobody around. Mathura is unsurprisingly tolerant of cows lowing on the platform. Agra doesn’t allow a view of the Taj. Sunlight slowly dissolves into an orange smear as evening approaches.
Under the first stars, I see dull outlines of the harsh rocky ravines around Gwalior.
This area around the Chambal river was once India’s worst dacoit-infested zone. There is a jagged, untamed beauty to these rock-strewn, unpeopled stretches that look right out of a Western.
This second night on the train swallows up landscapes as well. Lost to darkness tonight is the stupa atop a mound at Sanchi, whose view is for many people one of the most memorable scenes from Benegal’s Yatra. Lost too is most of the 300km-odd stretch of ghats from Bhopal-Itarsi-Nagpur. Because the train is running late, I manage to see some of the beautiful stone viaducts, vast valleys and ancient tunnels along these ghats early in the morning.
Late in the morning, Nagpur station is teeming with hawkers selling oranges. I sip orange juice that has spice added, not sugar. There’s neither vada pav nor pav bhaji at the station. All along the route, there isn’t much local food to be had at most stations. There aren’t parathas or rotis north of Delhi. There isn’t sambhar rice or curd rice in Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. There isn’t fish curry in Kerala. The train pantry offers only biryani, chapatti, vegetables, dal and rice.
The longest day
This second day is the longest. The train passes through long empty stretches—there aren’t many roads, towns or farms by the trackside. Golden grass, dry landscapes and mounds roll into the horizon far away. Sewagram station has a dusty platform with no sign to indicate that Gandhi’s ashram is in town. Once in a while there are huge industrial complexes by the trackside, marked by towns such as Balharshah (better known as Ballarpur) and the imaginatively named Sirpur Kagaznagar. A father and son stand behind me at the door, debating about whether Maharashtra is in north India or south India.
Culture shock: (clockwise from top left) The cross-country ride on the Himsagar Express throws up plenty of opportunities for commerce; the driver’s console; and the train is a place where one can meet people from different parts of India.
At 2pm, in Balharshah in eastern Maharashtra, curiously enough, an old woman on the platform advertises her wares by announcing—“sambhar rice, curd rice”. Many passengers who’ve given up hope of getting decent south Indian food on the journey are pleasantly surprised to find such food in this unexpected location. Pantry staff know this woman, Meenakshi, who’s migrated here from Chennai. Passengers who had resigned themselves to pantry food eagerly lap up her sambhar rice and curd rice packets.
Himsagar has picked up speed today. It’s whizzing over the interminable empty spaces—for there’s no fury like a train running late. Late in the day, far into Andhra Pradesh, the sun comes out and begins to shine brightly. It’s warm, even.
Vijayawada comes after sundown. Much of the city is atop a hill range. In the pitch darkness, the hills aren’t visible. Discrete lights from hilltop houses flicker like torches on props. As the train rolls out atop the Krishna river bridge in the starry night, I stretch myself out of the door and lean into the light drizzle outside.
Sunshine and backwaters
The sun is up and shining around 6 the next morning. Today’s bright sunniness is a world away from the half-sunny, half-misty mornings of the last two days. The landscape today is tamed, unlike the empty lands of yesterday—there are green agricultural fields, streams, paved roads and neat villages by the trackside.
Himsagar is now in the last quartile of the distance of its journey. The train gradually begins to empty out as passengers disembark at various places in Tamil Nadu—Salem, Erode and Coimbatore. Three middle-aged women disembarking at Erode are almost sentimental as they say goodbye to another family that will travel on. But they exchange phone numbers with the family, and promise to get in touch once they’re back in Jalandhar.
Quick wash : Two women take an impromptu bath at one of the stations.
Past Palakkad, around 2pm, the track runs next to the Bharatapuzha river for some 2km, in what’s among the prettiest stretches on the trip. By now, we’re in Kerala, where coconut trees hem the train in on both sides. In occasional clearings, glassy sheets of water cover paddy fields, with the mellow sunrays glancing off their surface.
Himsagar is 2 hours late by now, so it’s nearly dark by the time we are in south Kerala. At Chenganur, a signboard instructs, “alight here for Sabarimala”. Some men in black dhotis promptly obey. By this time the train is nearly empty—only about one-tenth of the seats are occupied.
The streams and rivers of Kerala’s backwater system flow quietly by the trackside, with only a solitary boatman or two to be seen floating in the grey semi-darkness. The gentle light of temple oil lamps twinkles softly. The lights of the few houses around the Ashtamudi lake cast a white halo over the lake’s dark emptiness.
An unexpected last leg
It’s 9.45pm. The halt at Trivandrum Central seems uncharacteristically long—Himsagar hasn’t moved for more than 30 minutes. Kanyakumari is just 86km away, and the train is already 2 hours late, so I wonder why the train is being held up. The coach attendant comes in with news, “Saar, there’s been a landslide between Nagercoil and Kanyakumari. All trains are delayed.”
As I “uh-oh” to myself, he tries to reassure me: “They’re clearing the landslide.
Services should resume soon.” By now, only two passengers other than me remain in my compartment—everyone else has alighted. After some time, the coach attendant has an update: “Saar, the repairs are delayed, so the train is being terminated here in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). You can’t go to Kanyakumari.”
What I’d feared has come to pass. I shrug my shoulders—there’s nothing else to do. I’ve fallen 86km short of traveling on India’s longest train route. What’s happened is what cricket commentator Ravi Shastri would call a “glorious uncertainty”. Such, I tell myself, is life.
Still, I have seen everything (well, nearly) that the Himsagar Express has to show me. I’ve spent three days seeing much of India. After having seen so much, I tell myself, not having reached the final destination shouldn’t be a big deal. Surely, I insist to myself, India’s southernmost point is a mere technicality. Surely, after 70 hours of a very fulfilling journey, two more hours of travel in the darkness wouldn’t have let me see too much more. Yet a tinge of regret persists at not having made it all the way.
I step out of the train and enter Trivandrum Central’s railway dormitory. It’s been 70 hours, but my weary limbs and red eyes insist it’s been forever. Within moments of laying my head on the sterile white pillow, I slip into a contented, dreamless sleep.
A matter of taste
One possible reason for the lack of variety and quality in railway food is the Indian Railways’ licensing system. The Railways wants to make sure that the food served on its platforms is safe and clean, and bars selling food unless the vendor has cleared its licensing requirement. With limited licences, and bureaucratic hurdles, there aren’t that many vendors at the stations.
Demand for food is high because it is a basic need, but with few licences to go around, supply is limited. Vendors know that no matter how boring their menu is, and how bad their food tastes, passengers will buy it. Consequently most vendors make standard, low-cost items such as biryani, bread omelette and watery tea.
The limited menu in the train pantry cars has a similar genesis. Because passengers don’t have much of a choice, the pantry knows they’ll sell most of their food no matter what they make. The Railways, therefore, cuts the menu down to standard, easy-to-prepare items.
The Railways’ licensing system is designed to put in quality control, but it ends up ensuring that there isn’t enough choice or quality of food for passengers.
Photographs by Pradeep Sanyal
Shamanth Rao blogs at http://reverse-swing.blogspot.com
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