Have you ridden a train lately? Not the local metros, the long-distance ones. I have just returned from an overnight train trip. It was quite wonderful. Our companions were two attractive men: a bird-watching psychiatrist and a software entrepreneur who happened to be an avid trekker. They told us tales: of the great Indian hornbill; about a planned trek to the Pindari glacier. We shared stories and food. At every station, we jumped to buy tapas-like tastings of regional specialities: paal-kova (South Indian pedas), chikkis, young cucumber sprinkled with salt and pepper, guavas, hot badam milk. At the end of the trip, we exchanged emails and will most likely keep in touch.
Every Indian I know has a train story involving food and characters. I am no Lalu, but I’d venture to bet that the great Indian Railways is one of our nation’s unifiers; the “ties that bind” in the words of John Fawcett’s slightly soppy hymn. A good friend of mine works for Louis Vuitton, based out of Singapore. In spite of his luxury trimmings, he waxes eloquent about the train journeys of his youth; about riding the third-class compartment or squatting on the floor of the unreserved compartment from Amritsar to Ambala. Regardless of whether we currently live in Boston or Botswana, it seems we Indians have a collective nostalgia for train travel, which is sort of strange in this age of jet travel.
Every Indian is a storehouse of unforgettable broad-gauge tales
I love trains. There is that heart-stopping moment when you first sight the looming engine at a distance. There are pleasant moments spent by the compartment-door watching the train curve through the countryside; the vertiginous thud of wheels over a bridge; damsels washing clothes; buffaloes in rivers; and verdant paddy fields that are greener than any emerald.
My recent trip took me to Kovilpatti in rural Tamil Nadu, which (as it happens) is one of the prettiest stations I have seen. It is open and windswept, surrounded by fields, hills and water bodies. To glimpse the train appear out of the morning mist is magical. As kids, my brother and I would lean out of the platform to watch the train come closer and closer, our hearts pounding with excitement till our parents pulled us back in the last minute, giggling with glee. Then, there was the moment when the driver—that lofty creature, role model and career wannabe for most young boys—passed by us, sitting aloft in his engine.
The rhythms of train travel are different from flights. First, there is the comfortable click-clacking of the wheels, which provide a sonorous baritone for conversation and a lulling staccato for sleep. Train travel also affords the luxury of time. You have several hours, if not days, to get to know your coach-mates. Plus, the setting is more natural than 30,000ft above the earth. You settle back into your seat, take stock of your companions and figure out who is good for a card game; who has the biggest tiffin-carrier; who comes stocked with magazines that he might lend. There are cranky old men and crying babies. A wide swathe of humanity united by one particular journey.
Perhaps the best part of travelling by train is the food. Every station in India seems to have a particular speciality that takes you to culinary nirvana. Friends from Bangalore have driven a few hours to Maddur station just to have the maddur vada. Whenever we passed Nagpur, we were seduced by the scent of golden oranges. Man, they were so succulent, especially in the heat. The sugar cane juice I tasted decades ago at Kolhapur station still lingers in my mind. I always thought it was an unfair, cruel irony that I couldn’t cart back the Vadilal’s ice cream I so enjoyed at Ahmedabad station. For South Indians such as me, the taste of the lassi at Amritsar station was an eye-opener, particularly when it accompanied the aloo paratha. This wasn’t the dense astringent lassi served at Indian restaurants globally. Amritsari lassi sold beside the railway tracks was thick but ethereally light, foamy yet filling, a cooling respite to the piping hot parathas. Foodies may argue over which station serves the best salted cucumbers but, in my mind, there is no dilemma. The tender cucumbers I tasted at dusk at Dehradun station brought tears to my eyes. Must have been the sprinkling of chilli powder.
Train travel is one of the few sectors in India that hasn’t fallen prey to westernization. Our train names are resolutely and romantically Indian: Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Navjeevan Express. Unlike airline food, which nowadays leans towards sandwiches, paneer and dreadful kathirolls, train food retains its local, unique, desi flavour. The ticket collector’s uniform hasn’t changed in decades, thank God. And however much you complain about the Indian Railways, it is a fantastic logistical exercise carting masses of humans from one location to another.
Now, if only I can ignore the spitting, the legless beggars, the dreadful toilets, and the lack of garbage bins everywhere. Memo to Lalu: Forget the management seminars; plant more garbage bins, the bigger the better.
Shoba’s last train journey was from Bangalore to Kovilpatti. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan