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A Note on Indian Trains

I can’t believe it’s been a year since my Great Indian Backpacking Trip. I had planned to go back this year, but with changes in schedule due to the Coronavirus pandemic, those plans will have to wait.

I find myself going through old photos as they resurface from the depths of Facebook memories, and I am also looking back at the notes and observations. For this particular story, I have here notes from my travel journal while the train kicked up a plume of dust that made it impossible for me to catch a moment’s sleep aboard the Jaisalmer Express:

There are a million ways to travel through this massive heartland: via plane, car, or bus; or hell, even a bullock, a camel or an elephant if you please, but there is a romantic notion attached to trains. It is an Indian way of life. The Indian sense of place, distance, and time is the Indian Railways Рhow far and how long it takes to travel from a cognitive homebase to another place. Delhi to Jaipur. Agra to Chandigarh. Mumbai to Kolkata. Kerala to Chennai. Bangalore to Hyderabad.

All connected by rail, and all interconnected by a series of tracks that spiderweb across the plains and mountains, from shore to summit. An Indian might travel several hundred thousand kilometers and spend considerable periods on the train in his lifetime, and that’s why it’s such a huge part of the cultural narrative. I was mulling this in the middle of the night when I was awoken by the dry, stubborn cough of the elderly gentleman one berth down.

The Rail – Indians endure it, and grow a fondness for it. That’s probably why most iconic Bollywood love stories would not happen without the man vs machine conflict of a hero trying to run after a train that is gathering speed.

At some point, approaching dawn, the only light in the train car was the white glare of the fluorescent lights near the toilet, the ones that are never turned off. And in the darkness, there was muffled activity among the night owls (or those who can’t sleep because of Uncleji’s infernal and incessant coughing) that approached a solemn sort of quiet, and it was beautiful.

You can’t really say you’ve hacked it in India until you find yourself in the top berth of a non-AC overnight “chicken coop” sleeper car on the Indian Railways.

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