Riding Indian Railways

For someone from North America, where passenger rail travel has dwindled from the days of its historical importance and cultural assumption, the Indian railway system is a revelation, an undiminished monument to India’s early modern development under the British, and the essential service for moving people around the country.  Without it, the demands on India’s catch-up road network and chaotic traffic would be unsupportable, and domestic flying would never be more than for the few who could afford it.  Visitors owe it to themselves to enter the world of Indian rail travel, experience the services and circumstances it provides, and join, at times, the throng of humanity more vivid and meaningful than any oceanic experience dreamt-of by Herman Hesse or other mystics.  But let me descend to the particular.
My first experiences were when third class was called Third Class, the seats and berths were bare boards, and queueing for reservations at the station took forever.  That it yielded up one’s name, albeit cloaked in haphazard spelling, on the reservation chart pasted to the side of the carriage, seemed miraculous.  More recently the reservation system has been completely computerized, and is even bookable on-line from Indian Railways and several more user-friendly travel agencies.  One disadvantage of this increased accessibility is that quotas are booked up much longer in advance, not just several days as formerly, but probably at least a week or two.  This must lead to a lot of changed plans, in spite of the fares paid, and there is an elaborate system of R.A.C. (reservation against cancellation) tickets which entitle you to board the train and sit in expectation of being found a berth, followed by the faint-hope Waiting List.
My first rail journey was booked on-line before I arrived on this visit.  Compared with earlier experiences, it seemed a little fraudulent for me to be sitting leisurely at home, imagining into existence a trip from Delhi to Kolkata on a certain date, half a world away, and willing a place to be saved for me.  Should I be more surprised for it to be there waiting for me, or not?
My journey to Kolkata was in 3-tier AC class on a Rajdhani train, 1450 kilometers in about 18 hours.  3A was a recognizable 3-tier sleeper carriage: open-sided compartments curtained at night, with larger fixed windows instead of the barred and sliding glass and shutter sashes of second class, as well as fresher maintenance and paintwork.  Blankets, pillows and packaged laundered sheets were provided.  More than that, I wasn’t prepared for the steady stream of catering delivered to our seats, branded without irony “Meals on Wheels”.  First, bottled water was handed out, then a tea tray (a thermos of hot water with fixings and biscuits), then a three-course supper (veg, non-veg, or continental) that began with a cup of soup and bread sticks, then a tray of rice, chapatis and two curries, and ended with a cup of icecream.  The next morning, another tea tray, breakfast (veg or non-veg) with more tea, and then because our train was running late into the lunch hour, another vegetarian meal.  It all added up to a busy time for catering staff (not unlike airline cabin crews) who in the end solicited tips, a mountain of throw-away packaging, and no business left for the usual itinerant tea and snack sellers to ply the aisles.
My compartment on this trip,was as usual packed solid by my travelling companions’ baggage, including a heavy tin chest that converted our foot space to table-top, where they played endless lightning rounds of a card game like bridge, no bidding, just piling up tricks.  All five were a group of middleclass men on a work assignment, and the chest contained equipment too valuable to be entrusted to the luggage van.  One possible reason to travel 2-tier or higher: fewer passengers might mean less of a logjam of baggage wedged in.
My next two journeys were from Kolkata to Varanasi, and Varanasi to Lucknow, parts of the distance I covered in the first trip that barely justify an overnight schedule, but it saves the cost of a night’s lodging, and lands me conveniently early to find a hotel room at the next stop.  The fare for an overnight journey is typically less than half the cost of an equivalent hotel room – being moved along your itinerary is a bonus.
Both of these journeys were in Sleeper class, second class reserved.  Here the carriages are more grimy, the toilets rudimentary, the berths are padded, but there was no bedding or catering provided.  My fellow passengers were different, too.  From Kolkata I was bunked in with a family consisting, as described by a youth who was there to see them off at Kolkata, of his grandmother, three aunts and an uncle, who were returning from a pilgrimage to Puri.  No English spoken, and the uncle wasn’t very sociable and soon retired to the upper berth opposite mine.  The aunts were more tolerant of the foreign male in their midst, and there were some slight, amused interactions over how to put up a suction-cup wall hook, and the appearance of a mouse among the baggage on the floor.  But the uncle’s role was to shield the ladies from outsiders, and overnight he insisted (I think) on leaving the overhead fluorescent on as a night light, even though toward morning it began to flicker annoyingly right above our noses.
The second trip, onward to Lucknow, was shorter and more matter-of-fact, leaving Varanasi close to midnight and arriving at 7:00 a.m.  My companions were an assortment of lower middleclass men, eager to bunk down and catch some sleep before morning.  I was in a lower berth, with my head on my satchel and my shoulderbag in my grip against the partition, wearing my winter coat and toque.  Gradually I became aware of extra passengers sitting perched on the edge of my berth, first one, but by morning three.  I hadn’t been expecting to sleep for security reasons, but before I knew it the sky had lightened, passengers were collecting themselves, and tea-sellers were circulating vociferously.  Chai, ah chai!

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~ by Peter Harris on 04/02/2012.

2 Responses to “Riding Indian Railways”

  1. HII peter….how are u…we were in same train & same local compartment when u were traveling to goa..got me?

  2. I’m not sure whether you observed that your name (and other details including your age, gender, meal preferences, etc.) pasted on the outside of your railway coach is also transliterated into Hindi. Wonder whether humans are employed for that or software.

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