The Sights, Sounds and Smell of India

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Rail travellers in India, these days, do not really see, hear, or smell the vast land of ours; unless you travel by non-AC Sleeper Class or the General Compartment, the discomforts and crowding of which often robs one of the joys of being one with the world outside. In AC Coaches, the journey is so miserably monotonous, with most passengers glued to their mobile phones or laptops, with zero interaction between them. Once upon a time, all these were different. Each train journey used to be a unique experience, when people met, talked, shared jokes and anecdotes, while watching and hearing India and breathing in her fragrance through open windows. The multitudinous platforms that lined the tracks offered a kaleidoscopic view of the diverse people of the country and a taste of the variegated cuisines of different regions. And the run across the countryside provided a rich visual treat filled with the country’s scenic splendour, wide, open flatlands that spread till the horizon, far-flung mountains, and majestic rivers. Those were the rewards that were to be had from lengthy journeys that often kept you on board for almost a week, which formed an intrinsic part of a soldier’s life, as he traversed the better part of the subcontinent across its length and breadth. As a soldier of yore, I cannot but recollect those memorable journeys without a touch of nostalgia.

No amount of modernity in on-board facilities and services can compensate for the pleasure of travelling the now-extinct First Class of yesteryears. The compartments, the four-berth ones, or coupes for two, were spacious, airy, and lively with the throbbing noise of the locomotive, punctuated by its hooting, unlike the dreary silence of the present-day AC Coaches. And passengers spoke to each other to kill time, because the journeys were longer with slower trains. And one found the pleasure of travel reading. Book stalls at stations were abuzz with activity and platform vendors with books, magazines and newspapers on trollies did brisk business, selling those through the windows. The sales figures of quick reads like Perry Mason or James Hadley Chase peaked almost certainly at the railway stations. The vendors with fruits, snacks and beverages that characterized the regions the train passed through found a lucrative market at the platforms too. The long journeys probably boosted people’s appetite, or you just ate or drank for the heck of it, never too dependent on on-board catering. On-board services, including catering, were superb too. There was an attendant for each first-class coach, who would meticulously ensure that catering staff take your orders in advance and each meal was served in time. Before the sleeping hour, he would check with you at what time would you like to be woken up with tea and sure enough, a catering man would be knocking the door of the compartment precisely at the given time, with a tray in his hands carrying hot tea in a thermos flask with accompanying cup and saucer. You could drink it at leisure, should you wish to prolong your sleep a bit more. No clumsy service of tea served in paper cups, for instant consumption, as we see today. Then again, no hassles of payment for every meal or cup of tea served; the catering staff would produce your consolidated bill towards the end of your journey and collect payment, as if you were checking out of a hotel. How sophisticated!

One of the longest train journeys I have undertaken several times was from the southwest corner of India to her northeast, from Quilon in my home state of Kerala to Dimapur, the railhead of Nagaland, where I served for quite a while. Today, while a direct train takes you through most of the distance in two days, a journey back in nineteen sixties and seventies took more than five days, involving at least four interruptions, when passengers had to change trains. Those changeovers customarily added a day-long break each at different stations enroute. While those breaks increased your transit period, they also made the journey more eventful. For instance, the Madras Mail you boarded from Quilon Junction, took you to the Madras Central early morning the next day. Howrah Mail that you need to take for your next stretch of journey to Calcutta would only leave that evening. This gave you an entire day to spend in Madras City, sightseeing or shopping or watching a movie or whatever, according to your inclination. I watched some of the finest English movies during those breaks in popular theatres of the day like Sapphire or Devi. Mackenna’s Gold is one movie I clearly remember watching at Devi. Howrah Mail leaving Madras Central in the evening took you to Howrah Junction in thirty-six hours (Coromandel Express that was introduced later cut down that timing to twenty-four hours). Arriving early morning at Howrah, you had the entire day to explore Calcutta, since, Kamrup Express, your connecting train to New Bongaigaon in Assam, left only that evening. Of course, getting back to the station from the city itself would turn an adventure if you did not make it back by at least four o’ clock. I went through a nightmare once leaving New Market at that hour with a three-hour span to catch my train at 7 p.m. Finding my cab virtually a non-mover in the clogged traffic, I switched over to a hand-pulled rickshaw, which seemed a faster means of transport, since the rickshaw-wallah cut corners, often riding the pavement. Nevertheless, he could only get me up to the entrance of the Howrah Bridge past five o’ clock, at the opposite end of the railway station. Hundreds of vehicles were stranded nose-to-tail along the entire one-kilometre span of the bridge in a massive traffic jam (A traffic jam on the Stanley Viaduct while you were on your way to the Madras Central would look like child’s play, compared with that). Young and energetic with no baggage, I just walked across at a brisk pace to get to the station well in time, sweating profusely indeed. Never again I took chances during my Howrah breaks, especially after my marriage, with wife accompanying. Kamrup Express took you to New Bongaigaon in twenty-four hours, where you switched over to metre-gauge for our onward trip to Guwahati, the train retaining the name (earlier such changeover involved the passengers being ferried across the Ganges, where the Farakka Barrage came up later; here I might be confusing myself a little, because there were two different routes to Assam, both of which I have travelled, one from Barauni via Siliguri and one from Howrah via New Jalpaiguri). The stopover at New Bongaigaon used to be brief, not more than a couple of hours, unless there was delay in traffic, which was normal with NE Railway. Arriving at Guwahati in another twelve hours, you had another break of six to twelve hours before boarding the Assam Mail, coming from Delhi headed for Dibrugarh, during the evening hours. There was yet another bottle neck at Lumding Junction in the early hours of the next day, where coaches destined to Silchar were detached. The rest would continue with the journey to arrive at Dimapur early morning. Wow! What a ride, right!

Those long journeys with so many changeovers had their pitfalls too, especially if you were travelling with your family. After nearly half a century, my wife still recollects (and blames me) for the trauma I put her through – following me at a distance through the milling crowd of the Howrah Platform carrying our one-year-old daughter, with our six-year-old son in tow, while I kept a brisk pace to keep up with the coolie ahead carrying our baggage, who made it a point to run rather than walk. Well, it was tough, but had an element of adventure too. We saw and felt India. And I would any day prefer those roller coaster rides to the stale and static monotony of an AC Coach in non-stop trains, even if it got us to our destination faster.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran and military history enthusiast, who writes about battles of the Indian Army and India’s martial heritage. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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