It is fair to say that we have covered a lot of ground on Indian railways. As well as getting us from A to B (usually in its own sweet time), these journeys have given us the chance to meet some of the 25 million people who apparently travel on Indian railways every day. On a few occasions we’ve had interesting chats with highly educated Indians, each very proud of the rise and progress of their nation and keen to showcase it to foreigners.
Some of our other “conversations” have been on the less illuminating side and on one day train in Kerala, it felt like we were almost being interviewed as people would flop themselves down in our compartment and start one of the standard “Groundhog day” conversations (see Blog post dated 4 April, 2018) and once that “discussion” had been exhausted, they would vacate the seat only to be replaced by another curious onlooker and so the rigmarole would start again.
And it is often a case of curiosity: many a time, parents would bring their children along, specifically to show them the foreigners. At other times, passengers boarding the train, hawkers and railway staff would each stop dead in their tracks on catching sight of us, often creating a pile-up behind them.
On one journey from Jhansi to Khajuraho (through the state of Madhya Pradesh), we were held for a long time at Harpalpur station and almost seemed to become a sort of freak show as people all gathered on the platform outside our compartment just to stare at us. No requests for selfies, hardly any words were exchanged, just long long unblinking stares: these guys are masters at the game of chicken. To be honest, this can be a little unnerving and I wasn’t disappointed when the train finally got its act together and continued its journey (not least as by this time, the delay was becoming rather painful: what should have been a relatively short (4 hour) journey was beginning to turn into a marathon).
Back inside the train especially in sleeper class during the day, the flow of people passing through the carriages can at times seem endless. There’s lots of hawkers touting anything from refreshments to socks and padlocks and chains. On the sustenance front, there’s a huge variety of things available from cold water (most welcome on our day trains in April in Madhya Pradesh when the temperatures were bouncing around the 40 degree mark) to popcorn, crisps, ice cream and Indian sweets etc. There’s also hot food available including samosas and biryani dishes as well as many unidentified dishes in silver takeaway containers, some looking more likely than others to be a one way ticket to the bathroom. To be fair most looked ok and we had no problem with those that we did sample.
And of course (how could I ever forget?), the constant cry of the chai seller busily charging up and down the carriages pausing only to dispense his hot milky excessively sweet tea to customers in tiny paper cups and of course for a quick gawp at us too.
There are also some beggars on the trains although the numbers seemed to vary massively and quite a lot of trains had none at all. As is true the world over, some were more persistent than others and the odd one was even quite enterprising e.g. one man was busy sweeping the carriages in return for tips.
At night time, the hawkers and beggars tail off and in any event the doors partitioning the AC carriages from the rest of the train are closed off leaving you in relative peace. At this time, you are just left to the company of your sleeping companions.
On one train from Gokarna to Mysure in AC 2 class, our other 2 companions in our compartment were from the Indian army, one in full combat gear armed with a huge gun which, I will be honest, was a little disconcerting. Mind you he proved very useful when at one point my daypack (which was actually quite heavy) decided to take an unscheduled tumble down from the upper berth. With a sixth sense and lightening reflexes, his right arm shot out from his fully reclined position on the opposite lower berth and without his rigid arm even bouncing he caught the bag. Wow!
One of our earliest companions was an elderly Indian gentleman who had a great (almost cartoon-like) white moustache. While we boarded the train at what we thought was its source at Jaipur, on arrival at our designated AC1 compartment, he had somehow had time to make himself very much at home, having spread out his belongings all over the compartment and taken up way more than his fair share of luggage space. Jauntily sporting very smart purple pajamas, he seemed rather concerned that we were in the wrong seats (a quick trip with him to the reservation list pasted on the outside of the carriage seemed to allay his concerns a little in this regard) but he remained steadfastly disinclined to share his berth despite this being a day train. Mind you, it became clear that he needed all the space for his magnificent thali lunch that he set out with precision, each dish housed in an individual small stainless steel container. To be fair, he was in it for the long haul as he was going all the way to Mumbai, an 18 hour journey (assuming the train kept to time (which was probably unlikely)), whereas we jumped off the train only a couple of hours’ later.
Eating on the trains seems to be a bit of an occasion and is not a hurried affair (after all, there is no need to hurry anything on these lengthy journeys). In the South, we saw women laying out banana leaves for their husbands and then serving them full thali dishes including refills before they then ate themselves. These elaborate affairs always put our hastily acquired provisions (typically a packet or two of Good Day biscuits and a bunch of bananas) to shame.
Many of our journeys were overnight trains so we didn’t always get to interact significantly with our bedfellows. The general etiquette seemed sensibly be to get yourself sorted for bed as soon as possible and try and get as much shut eye as possible while the train rattled onwards.
There were however a few thoughtless travellers who boarded or disembarked at intermediate stations in the middle of the night without a care to their fellow passengers. They would put the lights on and hold animated and lengthy conversations at full volume. On an overnight train to Delhi, one passenger who got on at Jhansi obviously fancied himself as a party animal given his fondness for turning the light on and off repeatedly, perhaps to create some sort of disco strobe effect. But fortunately these incidents were not the norm.
As with the attitude towards the lateness of the trains, the apparent tolerance of Indians to each other continues to surprise me (this is potentially in stark contrast to road users where the horn is used ceaselessly albeit not necessarily out of aggression). I guess with such a large population, you simply can’t all have your own space and you just get used to the noise and to adopting as indifferent an attitude as possible. Very occasionally a few cross words are spoken very loudly but not often.
You see this on pretty empty trains where one person has chosen to stretch out on a berth only for someone else to take a fancy to that same berth and sit on the end of it thus requiring the first person to scrunch up their legs. This is notwithstanding the fact that they are strangers to each other, the train is pretty empty and neither of them have a ticket for that particular seat. And yet there is no protest. Maybe the draw of an unimpeded view of us was just too much of a lure and was worth sacrificing comfort. After all, in terms of entertainment, surely watching us read our guide books is up there with watching paint dry (move over the latest Bollywood release).
Sometimes on boarding, people could be a little territorial about their seats. At Jaisalmer, one rather domineering lady charged up to me saying “I am in seat 17”, the implication being that I was in her seat, which was not the case at all. Not at all apologetic, once she had taken her correct berth and begun to sort out her bedding for the night, her attention turned to the window which was open (this was in November when the temperatures were cool especially at night). Without batting an eyelid or making any sort of expression either out of politeness or gratitude, she pointed at Peter and, with a very imperialistic “You. You, come here”, she demanded he come over and fix the stubborn window (which was not an easy operation). Perhaps she belonged to one of the higher castes and was used to getting her own way.
One of our less pleasant companions was a rat who decided to take a liking to our compartment on a (day/evening) sleeper train but who eventually realised there was no food so thankfully moved on down the carriage.