By Shoba Mohan

DSC_1056 Taking the Train down Memory Lane

I can’t remember the first time I got on a train, but my mother tells me that I was a little over 40 days old when she took me from Delhi to  where my father, an inspector with the Indian Railways, was posted – a small town in West Bengal called Jharsuguda. It is with much amusement that she narrates how the rhythmic “jhikitang” of the train lulled me to sleep, and even today I find sleeping on the train so easy. And so it was on a recent trip to Kota, onboard a two-tier sleeper of a passenger train, the monsoon night’s cool breeze easing my muscles and calming me to a dreamless sleep. Night sounds over and above the speedy bang-clang-thadang of the train, like a tea vendors repetitious call “garam chai”, a sleepy passengers query about the station the passenger train was stopping at, shuffling noises of creatures of the night , passengers getting on and off the train with the constant opening and closing of the coach door… all this only vaguely registering through my happy slumber. Being an early riser, five in the morning even the on train seemed quiet, despite the sounds of the racing train. A religiously followed tip about being the first to use the toilets and wash basins had me clambering down the tube-like middle berth.  The pay-off was a clean toilet, and a dry and unused wash basin.

I love train travel and have a special love for the Indian Railways, which is sadly heaving under the pressure of our population, bad governance and passengers with complete lack of civic sense. Is it my imagination, or the rosy filter of memory that I remember {from not very long ago} clean berths, white bed rolls smelling of Dettol and railway stations full of yummy treats and vendors selling delightful trinkets, and ofcourse miles of pristine farms and villages. Now, while I love the bustle the station brings, I squirm each time the train enters the city, to be greeted by garbage piled high on and around the tracks. The tea vendor’s cups are not clay but paper and plastic, and even as he sells his cuppa for a tenner, off they go out of the window. More garbage!

Not very long ago, should a passenger bring in so much baggage that he not only uses the space under his seat, but also those of his fellow passengers, he had to bear the brunt of a righteous passenger’s  wrath, and a lecture about the allowance he has and how the rest of this stuff should be taken to the luggage van or should be kept out near the corridor by the toilet. Today, ticketless passengers sleep under your seat, between the berths and the ticket collector shrugs and walks away.

DSC02343 Taking the Train down Memory Lane

DSC02335 Taking the Train down Memory Lane

DSC01115 Taking the Train down Memory Lane

Still I love train travel, looking at different people and their expressions as they wait for their train, the sheer buzz of people each going someplace or the other, the conversations fellow passengers strike with you, and the smell of people’s food as tiffin boxes open up at meal times or in between. Looking surreptitiously at the title of a book read by a fellow passenger, second guessing their profession – teacher, philosopher, wanderer ; chatting up someone you have not known existed till some chance of fate and computerized ticketing brought him next to you, sometimes making friendships that endure and flourish. Interesting people, simple people, common people, all but travelers going from one place to another visiting friends or family , some business travelers, pilgrims and tourists.

Train travel in India for me will always be defined by a moment, a memory or a statement and some  learning that I then carry with me on my own journey. Meeting a Spiritual head on a train to Itarsi, a photographer on the way to Bandhavgarh, talking late into the night with a poet from Kolkatta on the Mumbai Rajdhani, listening to an army officer’s adventures on a train between Khajuraho and Delhi, a sufi mystic on a shatabdi from Ajmer to Jaipur, a yoga teacher on my way to Hyderabad , making friends with an American couple on the train from Vijayawada to Delhi –  the list is endless, but each journey is a story ripe for a book. Midway halts, some mid night snacks, the sight of some stations I will never forget.

I have travelled some on trains abroad, and it is not the same because people don’t look at you and you don’t make eye contact… and so you just travel from station A to B, read your book, sip your coffee, smile politely {if at all}, get off at the perfect time at a clean station and the ride is forgotten… so is the station.  That does nothing to my love for trains and train travel. If there is a choice, I would take the train any day, everywhere.

My only wish is that the Indian Railways would clean up its act and I can proudly recommend train travel to everyone, including my children. For when they complain about the smells, crowds and the condition, I have nothing to say for the institution that I have so loved since my childhood.

About Shoba Mohan | A journalist by profession and a traveler by passion, Shoba Mohan has spent over a decade in the industry. She’s the founder of RARE- Destinations & Experiences, and will be sharing her Travel Diaries with LBBD.

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