The Chennai Rajdhani was an hour late, hurtling through the Telengana region. It was a sort of depressing journey. The previous night’s dinner at Delhi had been two paranthas, a serving of jeera rice, bland yellow arhar dal and a vile thick orange masala with a couple of pieces of paneer thrown in like an afterthought. Later there was ice cream, which seemed a little thoughtless given that the temperatures in Delhi had dipped sharply in the days after Christmas. Lunch was paneer masala and a grey-green dal, parantha and rice. Dinner in a few hours would be a variant of the same. In September, this was the menu in Bangalore Rajdhani and the following month on the Mumbai Rajdhani. Travelling on many different Rajdhani can take a toll on the palate.
As I stared at my meal tray, contemplating my cheesy plight, it occurred to me that it takes a particularly limited imagination to eschew the range of cuisines that India offers and stick to the uninspired menu that is currently served. It is culinary hegemony to assume that standard Punjabi restaurant fare is good enough for everyone on every Rajdhani for every meal. Merely plugging into India’s diverse food tradition can make the journey way more interesting for the passengers. This is a reform which seems like a low hanging fruit, then why hasn’t anyone executed it?
Wondering if there was some deeper logistical issue because of which paneer was de riguer in every meal, I chatted with two train attendants to understand the back operations of Rajdhani meals. Parashuram and Manoj, both from Bihar worked for an outsourced company that supplied personnel to one division of the railways. Their job took them on different Rajdhanis. They told me that for the Chennai Rajdhani, dinner trays were loaded in Delhi just before leaving. The next day’ s lunch came from Nagpur at 7.30am and the final dinner would be loaded at Vijaywada at 4pm. The trays were then stored in a warmer, like they do in flights. So, it was a local caterer from that loading station who prepared the food a few hours before the train chugged in to that station.
How difficult would it be, therefore, to standardize the Vijaywada meal to sambaar, rasam and fried papaddams? Or ask the Nagpur vendor to make potato bhaaji, usal and amti (all part of a standard Maharashtrian thali)? Why can’t we get lemon rice and curd rice on Bangalore Rajdhani? How about vada paav for tea and shrikhand instead of ice cream on the Mumbai Rajdhani?
If that’s not possible for some reason which is beyond my simple understanding, then at least the services must be unbundled, like in low-cost airlines. Passengers must be given an option while buying their tickets and differential rates charged for those who want meals and those who opt out. Given that due to logistical reasons several hours elapse between preparation and consumption and the quality of the food induces travel fatigue, a significant portion of passengers are likely to prefer bringing their own home cooked food. They can still do that, but once the ticket money includes meals, most passengers feel that they might as well eat the food they have paid for.
In the older trains where they still have pantry cars, food is prepared fresh and there’s a variety depending on what the chef fancies. By default, the model also ensures passengers are served regional cuisine. A few days after reaching Chennai, I was on the Trichy bound Pallavan Express. It is an old train on this important arterial route of Tamil Nadu. In the five hour journey, waiters kept walking through the aisle like a procession bearing in their hands, trays of hot snacks freshly prepared in the train’s pantry. There was onion vada, samosas filled with spicy diced carrots, raw banana bhajias, masala dosa, another kind of south Indian vada made of chana dal, kesari (sweet semolina), hot badam milk along with the customary packaged snacks and drinks. There is an argument against pantries because they are unclean ones in some older trains but I’ve also seen salads cut near toilets in Rajdhanis. Given that hygiene issues are the same, having pantries in trains at least ensures passengers get fresh and interesting food.
I checked with Parashuram about a few other things I’ve been suspicious about. Like the bed linen in Rajdhani. They are invariably yellowish and look like they don’t encounter water very often. But if Parashuram is to be believed, apparently they do after every trip. It’s the blankets which are dry cleaned once a month. So, about fifteen to twenty people have used each blanket before you have, depending on the Rajdhani you’re on. The passengers on the non-premium trains are worse off as they get blankets which are washed once in three months. That’s what I learnt from an attendant on another train from Jammu to Delhi. Maybe I should just take fewer trains. That way I would know less about these unsavoury details.
Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org