Thursday, April 13, 2006

Train Rides in India

It was ages since I’d stepped into a train in India. The last time had been over five years ago, when Christoph had come down from Switzerland and the gang had decided to organize a workshop in Goa. That time we had opted for the overnight train from Mumbai to Madgaon which was supposed to reach Goa (Madgaon) by 11 AM. Come 11 AM however, we were nowhere vaguely near Goa. Midday we were still hoping to make it at not too late an hour. We were chugging away at a rather leisurely pace when at around half past one in the afternoon just as we were beginning to get tired and hungry and ready to stuff just about anything into our stomachs, (there was NO food in sight on this particular train) we came to a grinding halt. A gang of protestors waving red flags were prancing around the tracks refusing to let us pass “until the government promised to build them a station at the point where they were holding us up.”

We were running out of food, we were running out of water and also out of patience by then. Not that it made any difference. We were held up for over two hours, the only person enjoying it all being Christoph who darted here and there, taking photographs of the protesting bunch from as many angles as he could. When we pulled into Madgaon it was raining, it was becoming dark, we had an hour to go before reaching our final destination by road and I swore I would never again take any train to anywhere in India.

Now, with memories of the discomfort well behind me and Sudha informing me about this “fast train” to Goa (fast means covering 600 kilometres in something like 9 hours), as well as tickets for a throwaway price I decided to go for it.

So on the appointed day we stumble out of bed at the crack of dawn (Sudha has decided to spend the night at our place) and by 5 am, having haggled with the coolie who helped us carry our luggage, we are comfortably ensconced in our seats, Sudha and I across the aisle from each other. Within a few minutes the two seats next to mine are taken by a very amiable couple with a grinning baby who specializes in firmly clutching people’s hair (she tried to clutch mine and also to grab my spectacles). Mom and Dad cheerfully and amiably occupy three quarters of the space on the row of seats leaving me a narrow bit of seat to squeeze my ass into, as we chug out of the station. If there was any hint of sleep left, the din of hawkers selling chai, coffee, snacks, cold drinks and “garam garam tomato soup - pio pio” has me wide eyed in no time.

At the very first stop about twenty minutes or half an hour later, an ill tempered man followed by his fat wife stomps his way into the compartment, stops in front of me, checks the tickets in his hand and proceeds to bark at the couple with the baby. Apparently the seats they are occupying belong to him and his wife. So off goes the poor couple with the baby, after gathering their belongings, their hajaar potlis and baskets and water bottles and baby. Barking Dog, having settled down in his rightful seat attempts to smile at me (I don’t think he is actually capable of smiling – it is more like his lips are struggling to move upwards in an effort to appear friendly) while his wife Fatty, fishes out a bagful of red and white pearly beads from her pouch and a reel of nylon thread on which to string them, though shortly after beginning to work on her fancy thingummy she falls soundly asleep.

Sudha sitting across the aisle has a woman sitting next to her who is part of a pilgrimage tour. Various members of this group take turns sitting at the window, stumbling over Sudha’s feet in the process and then promptly falling fast asleep. Watching all the sleeping souls around us Sudha and I start to drift off too, heads lolling against the backrest waking up every now and again to shouts of “Garam Samosa! Hot Soup!” etc.

When we pull into Madgaon and I try getting off the train I am almost swept aside by an army of passengers who want to board it. But even as I goggle at them and start flapping my hands in a futile attempt to ward them off, an elderly gentleman yells at the hooligans to step aside, grabs me by the hand and leads me to safety. When I thank him he smiles. “You’re welcome.” Thank god for small mercies!!! It hasn’t been half as bad as I expected and when it is time to return to Bombay a week later not only am I ready to weather another nine hours on the tracks but am on the way to becoming a fan of the Indian railways.

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1 comment:

Jules said...

The trains in Italy are very unreliable too and everyone is complaining. The railway workers are always striking and I feel sorry for the poor tourists. There are often holdups for accidents and suicides on the rails, I expect that happens in India too. I must say by the photo that your trains look nicer than some of ours.