I’ve just stepped off a cheerful yellow rake of the Tejas Rajdhani Express at New Delhi station, with an invisible band playing ‘Mere sapnon ki rani’ over my head. When I boarded the train at Mumbai Central, it was a bit like hurrying towards Platform 9¾ to catch the Hogwarts Express. Why, you ask, was I boarding a train when flights between metros abound? Nostalgia is the sentimental answer. The pandemic has done nothing if not unscrew the last remaining bolts of pragmatism in my head.
It’s another Mathura sunrise
First, the bad news. They’re not providing any linen, which deprives you of one of the staple experiences of long-distance travel. I thoroughly missed the starched white sheets that one tucks under the seats-turned-beds, feeling like one of those freakishly accomplished ladies’ maids in Downton Abbey, constantly making beds that don’t need any making. I’m usually armed with anti-allergy pills, which is the only response to those hairy blankets with the satin borders. Alas, they were absent from this journey. And so, I used my own blanket and travel pillow in a first for this travel format.
But the rest of the night-time experience stays pretty much the same. If you’re women travelling alone or together, you’re avoiding the creepy smiles (or worse) of the men across from your side berth. You fall asleep before the ice-cream cups are served and wake up every hour, with bizarre interstate dreams that unfold to the snorechestra from your coach. When everyone else is asleep, you tiptoe to the (upgraded) loo and back, gently rocked back to that magical pre-dawn sleep. You wake up to a Mathura sunrise, being served omelettes with fries and peas, wondering how the train spawned noisy children while you weren’t looking.
My next berth
If you, like me, associate trains with non-stop eating, then I have mixed reviews. Gone are the tomato soups and cutlets of yore, and the chicken curry is underwhelming. But—and what an absolutely glorious but this is!—you now have the option of pre-ordering food from restaurants around select stations on your route. The goodies are delivered right to your seat in the couple of minutes that your train halts. “What next, hamburgers in space?” a friend exclaimed when he heard about the decadence. (Free association alert: The gentlemen in a neighbouring berth was reading American astronomer Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which somehow made me feel warm, fuzzy and strangely, safe.)
About 15 years ago, frequent work trips to Surat left me homesick and listless, with roaming rates too high for me to seek telephonic solace. The only thing that sufficiently lifted my spirits was this sickly-sweet chocolate drink called Cold Coco, with the consistency of melted mousse. Voila! As the train halted for its prescribed two minutes at Surat, there was a little bottle of the elixir waiting for me, wolfed down in an ecstatic moment. My gin-spiked home-made nimboo paani didn’t stand a chance after.
Of peanuts and kings
All in all, if you’re looking for pre-pandemic freedom, Indian Railways delivers. In fact, it takes you further back, in that sly manner that trains are known to have. The fields outside the window preserve a timeless tableau of civilisation and wilderness. Every approaching stop brings with it a sense of excitement. Bharuch makes you crave salty peanuts; Vrindavan calls to mind gopis around Krishna; and Tughlakabad reminds you of the folly and fall of an idealistic king. The less fanciful among you must be understandably smirking; but how not to romanticise this kind of unfettered travel in the age of dreary lockdowns and social bubbles, sanitised surfaces and virtual hugs?
So, now that the idyll of the overnight train ride has been relived, would I book myself on a similar journey? Absolutely. And this time, with more companions. Who here hasn’t felt that strong urge to make all their smug fellow passengers disappear, they with their unsilenced phones and children, well-established routines and perfectly constituted dabbas? Now imagine all your surrounding seats filled with your own crew, meals coming in from the cities you cross, and none of the hassle of security checks and conveyor belts. Just make sure you carry your own linen.
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From HT Brunch, April 3, 2022
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