The Indian railways are the fourth largest railway network in the world and carry across a whopping 22 million people per day. Counted as one of the most important modes of transports within the country trains are both local as well cutting across different states. In fact, some of the longest train journeys are still undertaken by a sizeable population since the railways are still considered cheaper, reasonable and more fun when compared to air travel. Surprisingly, there are no bullet trains or high speed trains that ply within the country, yet the networking and management of the Indian Railways is mind boggling.
Local trains have their own charm and convenience factor; however, it is long night journeys that give the railways its distinct character. This is because only when the journey is long, is it a social milieu of sorts. Unlike rail travel in many foreign destinations, where privacy of the travellers is highly sought after, railways in India are quite the contrary. First class reservations do exist; however, the seats are limited and highly overpriced. This makes it accessible to the elite alone.
Where across the world, sleeper trains are being reduced, in India the story is far from over. A look at some of the sleeper trains of Japan or UK will make a lot of Indians see the stark difference in presentation and service; however, cleanliness, maintenance and utility have always been points of contention when it comes to Indian property. Not going too much into it, the sleeper trains in India are unique because of the sheer amount of passengers that use it and train journeys are a part of every family bonding experience and friend or gang trips. Unlike road journeys that are equally entertaining, train journeys in India present a grander scale, bringing together various sorts of people from different places and ages, boxed up into rectangular coupes to share more than 24 hours at the least. This results in very interesting interactions, mixing of cultures, knowledge and at times squabbles.
The Indian railways, thus in more than one ways, acts as the ultimate equalizer and unifier of a nation, that flourishes in difference of opinions, habits, cuisine, bed times, hygiene and so on. Sleeper trains are the ultimate test of endurance if you are seated next to a talkative aunty, a test of patience if you have a bunch of kids running along the aisle of the compartment, a test of irony if you are travelling for your honeymoon sandwiched between six other strangers, a test of adjustment when you are required to share your seat with the other RAC guy and a test of ‘who can laugh the loudest’ if you are a part of the groom’s wedding entourage. We all have grown up playing dumb charades and antakshari on board, having an argument with that one grumpy man who has a problem with everything, drinking multiple cups of ‘chai and coffee’ even though they taste like warm water, hunting for our slippers that somehow disappear under other people’s luggage and waiting earnestly for the next station where we can plant ourselves on the platform for five minutes and hoping that our bogie stops bang beside the water tap, the book stall and the food stall!
Discussions in a train journey vary from astute political discourse, historical backgrounds, geographical know how to the mundane personal information sharing of who has how many children, friends, and relatives staying where, why and how. The journey usually begins with the frenzy of seat interchanging, where someone wants another seat because he is separated from his group, because he cannot climb up to the upper berth, because he is tall and cannot fit into the side berths and so on. Every now and then bored souls who just cannot seem to take in the chatter any more, walk aimlessly out of the compartment and stand at the door, letting the wind wipe away their stress and the noise of the wheels drown out all other noises. The stench from the toilets keeps the first and last eight passengers in the bogie grumpy, whereas the plug points in only a few compartments make their residents always minding over other people’s phones and laptops. For those travelling in AC compartments, the attended is told a thousand times to keep changing the temperature of the AC by different passengers, that sometimes I fear he may want to lock himself up inside the bedding cupboard. The pantry car keeps sending men from within its fold with one delicacy after another. To their disappointment sometimes, they are called out only to enquire about the fellow vendor. It is like asking the ‘samosa bhaiyya’ when the ‘pani bhaiyya’ will come and asking the ‘paani bhaiyya’ when will the ‘chips bhaiyya’ come.
The ‘chhuk chhuk’ of the train is so very typical and heard above everything and anything else, as well as the slight oscillation that your body feels while travelling. So much of an impact does a sleeper train journey have on you, that even when you are home and lying comfortably in bed, you can imagine shaking and hearing the whistling of train in your sleep the next day.
And of course the food! Besides, the numerous vendors, station stoppages that entice the passengers with all sorts of foods, the Indian passenger is a faithful carrier of things to eat that stay unspoilt for more than a day. There is always that jute or cloth bag (sometimes even two), that hold nothing else but food, snacks, drinks and what not. For every fifteen minutes something is brought out from the magic bag and passed around from one passenger to another. Initially, the other stranger passengers denounce the acceptance, but gradually everyone opens up to each other and by the end of half a day, the food is passed around quite seamlessly.
And then comes the dreaded time to sleep. Someone wants to sleep early and invariably happens to be the person from the middle berth. Someone wants to sit and keep watching out of the window, someone wants the light on to read, someone wants to work on the phone and in the midst of all of this seats are hooved and shoved and the passengers’ cramp themselves up to do what they can best do under the given circumstances. Some sensible guy decides to not even show his face or lower himself from the upper berth since the happenings below are quite frightening. On the other hand, the lower berth lady will refuse to acknowledge that her handbag is not counted as a passenger and hence does not require taking the window seat.
Life goes on, just as the train, for its passengers, who wait to alight at their desired destination, yet at the same time find it fascinating to be sitting, sleeping or eating for a full day without having anything else in particular to do. It is more like going to a resort for a day of resting. Why not try vacationing in a sleeper train instead.
Long train journeys in India are very relatable and they very often relate to fun, frolic, making noise and having a good time. And though your eyes may widen with awe while checking out trains of other countries and you may lament on how long it takes to travel here, about how trains are also late and how the platforms and stations seem like dormitories sprawled with mosquitoes, announcements and actual people sleeping, it will be hard to find train journeys that are so eventful, spirited, alive and full of experiences anywhere else in the world.