For four months, using an IndRail pass, Monisha Rajesh traveled on Indian trains—fast and slow, big and small, luxurious and dilapidated—covering major parts of a country that her parents had left behind when they moved to England. What was it like for this journalist? Khabar brings excerpts from her debut book.
Of the two years I had spent in India, my fondest memories were of the trains: tucked up in a cozy, curtained cabin aboard the Pandian Express to visit my brother at his boarding school. I could close my eyes to the heat and horrors of Madras and open them as the Palani Hills rose through the dawn haze. Trains were my escape, my ticket out of the city. They allowed me to curl up in comfort as my surroundings slipped away. Unlike air travel, a cramped, clinical affair conducted in recycled air, causing bad tempers and bad breath, train travel invited me to participate. I could sit in the doorway, thundering across rivers instead of pressing a forehead to a grimy oval window, watching them snake silently below. Since 1853 when the British waved off the first passenger train from Bombay to Thane, the network had rippled out across the country, earning the nickname “The Lifeline of the Nation.” Trains carry over 20 million passengers every day along a route of 64,000 km, plowing through cities, crawling past villages, climbing up mountains and skimming along coasts. Eighty train journeys up, down and across India would, I hoped, lift the veil on a country that had become a stranger to me.
That the Indian Maharaja was a feat of excellence was indisputable. Towels were fluffed and beds laden with nightly gifts, bartenders beamed, crisp wine breathed in crystal and plummy gulab jamuns sweated syrup on silver spoons. But sitting in a lace-curtained window, book in hand, watching the world slip by was a shelved dream. For practical reasons the train traveled at night. During the day he stood quietly in local stations, being fed and watered by his engineers until ready to leave again. Throughout the week the train would jolt during dinner and by the morning be waiting at Udaipur, Sawai-Madhopur, Jaipur, Bharatpur and eventually Delhi Safdarjung. It was like traveling in a luxury Tardis.
One morning I sat in the doorway watching the engineers fill the water tanks, spilling most of it onto the tracks. Benoy [our butler] appeared and edged his way past in a wide arc, apologizing as he did so. I invited him over to chat, but he hovered reluctantly.
“Ma’am, is it permissible that I sit at your level?”
I made space for him in the doorway, but he declined. He rested on his haunches, relaxing a little.
Benoy was a 30-year-old from Kolkata with a wife and a newborn son. He showed me a photograph of them both on his phone, wiping the screen on his sleeve. He would only see them again in three months’ time. Benoy was well-read, had a degree from the University of Calcutta and seemed over-qualified for his job. He explained that one day he would like to live in England and run his own hospitality business. I asked him why he wanted to leave India just as it was reaching a turning point.
“It is true that India is now doing very well,” he said. “But this is only true for some people.”
“But I thought Indians who went to university abroad are now coming back to India because this is where it’s booming. Even Indians who have never lived here?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is booming, but for people who are low on the scale this makes no difference. The rich are even richer, but the poor are even more poor than before. And now they want many things that they can see but can never afford.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“They are slowly learning their rights and they are no longer keeping quiet. The time will come. One day they will refuse to accept this. But it will take some time.”
Another butler appeared from around the corner and Benoy leapt to his feet.
“Enjoy your afternoon in Udaipur, ma’am, it will be very special.”
The day in Udaipur sailed by like the boats on Lake Pichola. A tour around the palace ended with the distribution of traditional pagris for the men and scarves for the women, their vegetable dyes leaving splodges on my neck like angry eczema. A sound-and-light show boomed and beamed before dinner and a tired troop flopped early to bed, as the following morning was Tiger Morning! …
Once the excitement of tiger spotting had died down, the remainder of the week was devoted to ticking off the tourist boxes: rickshaw rides through Jaipur; elephant rides up to Amber Fort; and a cockeyed group photo that made the Taj Mahal look as though it were sliding to one side behind us. On the last night, we joined [our fellow travelers] Cyril, Marie, Bob, and Jane to toast a wonderful week with steaks and wine, before slipping between the duvets for the last time. From tomorrow it would be five-rupee tea and bedding from brown-paper bags.
Passenger Train to Thanjavur
From the mass camaraderie it was evident that the group worked at the same office and this was their regular commute. It was unclear what they did, but they were firm friends despite their ages ranging from early 20s to late 60s. There was also a clear hierarchy. My interrogator, an elderly man with buck teeth, was head boy and sat in the center of the row. His loyal prefects flanked him and the juniors sat in the overhead racks, open to good-natured bullying, which involved the odd pinch and name calling. Having established that I did not understand Tamil, they combined forces to elicit as much detail as possible, poking at the cameras and pointing at my diary, which I readily handed over.
“Writingwriting,” said one of the prefects.
“Yes, journalist,” I replied, adopting a suddenly ridiculous accent.
“Jhurr-nalist?” said the other prefect. “Oh-ho.”
A combination of photographs, hand gestures, sketches and passing around the stack of train tickets revealed the nature of our travels to the group.
“Aiyyo!” exclaimed the head boy, slapping his palm to his forehead and then thrusting it up at me. It was an elegant expression that meant “you moron.” The whole compartment broke out into laughter.
I knew that asking my father’s name was a disguised attempt at finding out my caste, which I could not help them with. I had never known it, nor did I care. But in India it is important to establish certain facets early on in a conversation, as it sets the dynamics for the ensuing relationship. To most visitors to India, this is just the Indian way of making conversation, in the way that the English cannot resist discussing the weather, or Americans discussing themselves. In truth, this is often a more measured process. Each question establishes where the other person sits on the social spectrum: surnames give away caste and social standing; jobs indicate earnings and therefore power, as does revealing where you live. Once they have all the answers, they can assign people to categories and gauge how useful the acquaintance will be in the future. In this situation, our new friends were simply having fun with us and I loved their unabashed game. But I, too, could play the game.
“Rajesh,” I said, knowing full well there would be confusion. There was. The head boy frowned and shook his head.
“Rajesh,” I repeated, bringing out my passport to stir things up a little. Four people leant forward, grabbing its corners. Rajesh was indeed my surname, but it was actually my father’s first name. Our surname should have been Naidu, but trying to explain why would have been futile. After a few minutes of playing dumb, I conceded.
“TELUGU?!” shouted the head boy, his eyes like saucers.
Elated, the entire group cheered. It turned out that we had come upon a compartment of Telugus in the middle of Tamil Nadu. We had also just pulled into Thanjavur. Miserable that the journey was over I gathered my things, wrestled back my passport and clambered over everyone to the doorway. On the platform we turned back to wave. Three of them had come to the doorway and were taking photos on their phones, while the rest poked heads through the barred windows and waved.
James Shakespeare [a visitor] had been right: the toy train took just seven hours to descend to New Jalpaiguri. He had also informed me that I would want to kill myself by the time we reached the bottom, so to be on the safe side we opted for the joyride, a two-hour journey that looped around Ghum, the highest point of the railways. Launched in 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, nicknamed the “toy train,” was the first of all the hill passenger railways in India and many of its original features remained intact. It looked like one of Thomas the Tank Engine’s little blue friends trundling into the forecourt. Steaming from its chimney, as though exhausted by the children tumbling out of its doors, all it lacked was a pouty face.
Eight children, eight adults and two babies shared our carriage, clapping and singing their way through as many Bollywood songs as they could remember while [my travel companion] Passepartout and I leant over the back of rainbow-striped seats, watching the engineers shoveling molten coals. Train 73 traveled along the main road, passing cars and sliding so close to the edges that passengers could reach the eggs and bananas on roadside stalls.
“Dead body! Dead body!” one of the children shouted, pointing as a procession of mourners made its way alongside the train.
The Darjeeling Train.
After the previous night’s downpour, Darjeeling was now washed and wide awake, the snow-covered Himalayas sparkling in the distance. As the train approached the Batasia Loop and began to curve along the edge of a drop, I peered down into the valleys, taking in the panorama. Homes, hotels and shops looked like precariously balanced building blocks, stacked one above the other, with trees popping up in between like green lollipops. At the beginning of the trip, the seas swirling beneath the solar eclipse in Kanyakumari had been the first of many extraordinary sights. Now, staring at the white crags of Kanchenjunga glowing in the sunshine, after what had felt like a journey to the ends of the Earth, I could barely believe that one country could lay claim to such extremes of beauty. Despite missing trains, sleepless nights, long waits, being jostled in queues, surviving stampedes, fighting against illness and exhaustion, these moments made the journey worthwhile.
I took a deep breath and made my way on board, finding my seat as a family of five entered the compartment, bringing with them the strong smell of Mysore Sandal Soap. The parents fussed over a small boy in a pair of shorts as his younger siblings climbed over the seats and hid in the overhead berth. His mother turned to me, the lightness of jasmine lifting off her plait.
“You are going to Chennai?”
“Please, ma’am, he is traveling alone. My sister is going to meet him there, but will you do one good thing? Will you keep one eye on him?”
She took my hands in hers, which were warm and dry against my own, and shook her head, pulling round her sari pallu that kept sliding off her shoulder. Its cold silk slipped across my bare knees as she turned back to her son.
“Now this aunty will take care of you, OK? Be good for her.”
She held his chin between her fingers, then kissed the tips, before she and her husband retrieved their other two children from in hiding and collected on the platform. Referring to me as “aunty” would normally have made me chuckle, but for some reason it seemed right. After four months and 79 train journeys, these trains had become my home and its passengers my family. I moved up to the window and looked out as Hyderabad began to slip from view. Beneath the sound of the wheels on the tracks was a softer grinding. Had it always been there? I realized that this was the last time I would watch the edges of a city slide from my vision and the thought bored a hollow into my stomach that filled with sadness. For once I did not reach for my iPod to drown it out, or flick open my book to distract my mind. I got up and went to find the only place where I knew I wanted to be.
Sitting on the steps in the doorway, I looped both arms around the handrails. I adored being here, and even though it was not in tune with my new philosophy, I had grown rather attached and was going to miss it. The train was rolling at little more than a walking pace through the outskirts of the city. On the verge of setting, the sun was stretched out across rooftops, spilling a papaya glow across the slums. I had always watched sunsets from the doorways, but this time I finally saw the spectrum of tones blending from yellow into orange into red, ever-changing, before there were a little more than a few sprays of pink across the horizon. My ears pricked up at the sound of gushing water and as I leant out of the door I saw a burst water hydrant at the end of the tracks, shooting a jet into the air. As we drew closer, I saw that a man was sitting at the base of the jet—the embodiment of Indian opportunism, he had brought a piece of soap to the broken hydrant and was squatting on the wall in his shorts, scrubbing himself all over and making the most of the free power shower.
If you give an Indian a chance he will take it. A history of struggle has instilled within Indians an inimitable instinct to survive, but with opportunity they can flourish. After four months of observations, conversations and first-hand experience, I realized that India is not shining—at least, not yet. The notion is an image, a facade built up by the powerful elite, who hope that if they shout it loudly and long enough it will drown out everything else, grab enough headlines and start to be true. A country’s greatness cannot be measured by its size, but by the standard of living of every individual. Pockets of the country are aglow, bathed in the light of gated mansions, malls and Mercedes headlamps, but, like the passengers on the Lifeline Express, hundreds of millions still stand in the shadows, waiting for the clouds to part. But I had hope. I could see that the next generation would make the changes and encourage India to really shine.
And how did I feel? Deep down I knew when I left home that my parents did not think I would see out all 80 journeys. But I had. And I loved the fact that I did not want to leave. Indian Railways would always stay with me and I knew a part of me would stay with them.
Excerpted from Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 Trains with the kind permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Rajesh is a London-based journalist with The Week.
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