Journey in Slow Motion

My earliest recollections of rail travel in India go back to my childhood, those easy lazy days when there were no super-fast trains. I am sure I have seen steam locomotives, now museum pieces in action. Even today, with the employment of electric and diesel engines, and commissioning of many superfast trains, in reality, no Indian train travels fast. No wonder, in those days, traveling by train was mostly a super-slow journey. In fact, most people preferred to go to their destinations by bus rather than travel by train at least in the northern part of the country. Only on exceptionally long journeys, they chose to go by train.

I remember having travelled from New Delhi to Madras in three nights and four days by Janata Express. From Bombay to Delhi, it used to take two nights and one day and from Delhi to Calcutta almost the same time. I wonder now, when one can reach from Delhi to Bombay only in sixteen hours, how people had the patience of sitting so long on those wooden three-tier sleepers for days on end without having a bath or for that matter without worrying about the number of days they were spending in the journey. But, though reaching the destination might not have been fun, it was ninety percent an experience of an entirely different world -- the train world. On looking back one can agree with R. L. Stevenson that there is more fun in travelling than in arriving.

People travelled in trains in those days with big trunks and odd pieces of luggage. There was no concept of light luggage and the moulded plastic luggage bags did not exist for most people. Families travelling together carried their own flour, dal and spices in big tins in raw form and plenty of cooked food to last them on the way. I vaguely recollect, at times, the women folk would even light their kerosene stoves on running trains to heat the food before serving it to their families. The train compartment, thus, used to be crowded not only with people but also a lot of luggage and kitchen junk. Even in a reserved compartment, thus, there was not a square centimeter of sitting, standing, squatting or hanging space left. Travelling by unreserved second class was nothing short of a walk to one's destination through a jostling crowd.

Fans and lights had a habit of failing when trains were stationary for some time. Even if they did not fail completely, the lights were so dim that it was hardly possible to see anything clearly. Toilets were often so dirty and full of foul smell as to be unusable (I do not think they are any better now!) and in any case there would be some people asleep near them or even in them. Since people would spread their bedsheets on the floor of the compartment and sleep there, it was virtually impossible to reach the toilets without trampling over some one's foot or arm. I always used to wonder how the poor ticket checker was able to perform his duty.

Trains seemed to stop more often than they moved. It was difficult to remember the name of all the stations the train stopped at when undertaking a long journey. At each station, the halt used to be long enough for the passengers to comfortably get down, eat some snacks, wash their faces, drink water, and return back. Most stood drinking tea at the station while waiting for the train to move. Since the movement of the train was very slow at the start, many passengers would start getting in when the train had actually started moving. However, the long waiting time was, at times, a blessing in disguise for a discerning traveller. There was plenty of time to appreciate the magnificent architecture of the stations like Lucknow, Bombay and Madras.

Delays in arrivals and departures were very common though even now few trains reach their destination in time. At times, the trains were up to thirty hours late. Once when I was to leave for Madras, to every body's surprise the Madras Mail arrived at the platform at New Delhi just on time. Only when we were about to board the train, we learnt that train was actually due the previous evening at the same time! It took a couple of hours for the train to be cleaned and made ready for the onward journey to Madras and most passengers slept on the platform itself. The train could leave only in the early hours of the morning.

However, sleeping in the compartments in the running trains was an impossible task in those days. The racket and noise from the chaiwalas and other merchants operating at every station, the sudden jolts just when the trains came to a stop, the friendly nudge from the newly arrived passengers who just wanted a little place to sit on your berth and the constant danger of some one doing away with your luggage kept you in stupor hanging between sleep and wakefulness.

The real adventure, though, was to be found on the narrow gauge lines. Even today nothing can compare with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway arguably the most famous and the most spectacular steam railways in the world. In a way it is reminiscent of the first railways in India which appeared during the mid-nineteenth century.

Today, Indian Railways is the fourth largest in the world with a route length of over sixty thousand kilometers and transporting more than nine million passengers a day. Much of the most nostalgic scenes of long ago can still be witnessed on Indian Railways in greater or lesser measure. You only have to plan a trip to find out for yourself.