Traversing 65,000 kilometres in 80 trains around India was a life-altering experience for journalist Monisha Rajesh. After four months of hectic train journeys covering the length and breadth of the country, she penned her bittersweet memories in a book named Around India in 80 Trains. With Jules Verne (the author of Around the World in 80 Days) as her inspiration, the vast Indian terrain and the diverse group of people as her constant companion over four months, Rajesh’s journey from Delhi to Mumbai to Kanyakumari taught her that the best way to understand and explore the rich and diverse Indian culture is through the railway network. “On a very grey, miserable morning in November 2009, I read an article about India’s domestic airlines connecting 80 cities. I pulled out a map of the country and looked at some of these cities, many of which I had never heard of. However, beneath these routes was a fabulously intricate line that threaded its way across the entire stretch. It took some time for me to realise it was India’s rail network. In a matter of moments, ‘around India in 80 planes’ morphed into ‘around India in 80 trains’ in my head. That’s how my journey began.”
Excerpts from an interview:
Why are train journeys more romantic than plane journeys?
Aeroplanes are so generic and bland. At the very most you talk to one, maybe two people, and the subject is never more than asking if you can squeeze past to get to the toilet, or polite chatter about the destination. It’s restrictive and very selfcontained, which is fine if you are just trying to get from A to B; but to enjoy travel for the sake of travel, train journeys are unrivalled. On trains, particularly Indian trains, there is such a vast turnout of passengers on a single journey.You can fall asleep, wake up, and find that you have three new companions in your compartment with whom you can begin a new conversation.
How did you plan your itinerary?
I didn’t want to plan a rigid route. From the outset, I wanted to capture the serendipitous nature of travel. I booked a handful of trains for the first two weeks, and left the rest to chance. That was the only way to get a first-hand experience of the ticketing bureaucracy, deal with agents, argue with the touts, which all make for great storytelling. However, I did also choose the route depending on certain events that I wanted to witness: a solar eclipse in Kanyakumari; a classical dance festival in Khajuraho; orthopedic surgery on a hospital train in Madhya Pradesh… I worked out the trains between each of these events.
Tell us about your luxury Indian railway experience
I travelled on the Indian Maharaja Deccan-Odyssey. It takes in the traditional route through the short Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), but also includes Ellora and Ajanta. We covered Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, Udaipur, Ellora Caves, Ajanta Caves and reached Mumbai on the eighth day. I expected the luxury train experience to be something out of an Agatha Christie TV adaptation; but the reality was quite different. The travel was a lot more laidback and no one had to dress for dinner! I did come across a lot of retirees and stereotypical British tourists, who were appalled by poverty; but for the most part it was a very entertaining journey and a lovely way to see Rajasthan. It was quite bizarre riding an exercise bike in the train by the window and watching the Thar desert sweep by outside. The food was exceptional and the service was impeccable.
What was your favourite route?
The Konkan Railways was my favourite segment. It’s the 760 km stretch on the southwestern coast, that runs with the Arabian Sea on one side and the Sahyadri Hills on the other. I’m sure Indian Railways would hate me saying this, but the best bit about Indian trains is that you can sit in the doorways and watch the scenery inch past you. Sometimes you can actually reach through the windows and grab bits of the foliage. I also enjoyed utterly delicious food that the vendors brought in â€” chicken lollipops, spring rolls and biryani.
You travelled on luxury trains, toy trains, a hospital on wheels, the world’s steepest, slowest, and second-longest train journeys. What was the most memorable experience?
The Lifeline Express â€” the world’s first hospital train was an eye-opener. It was founded more than 20 years ago by an NGO to bring free medical care to the neglected rural poor. They realised that if they couldn’t bring people to cities for medical care, they could take the medical facilities out to them using the railway network.The train parks for up to five weeks at a location deemed worthy of medical attention, and patients are screened and then invited on board for orthopaedic surgery, cleft-lip repair, hearing and visual impairments; they even offer counselling for epilepsy. For so many middle-class Indians, the railway is just a way to get to a destination. But the Lifeline Express showed me that the railway network was the bloodstream that kept the country’s heart beating. People’s lives are dependent on the train and without it they probably wouldn’t survive.
What was your worst experience?
I took a day train from Jaisalmer to Bikaner on a very hot day in March. I almost fainted. I couldn’t understand why no one else was on board apart from the train ticket inspector and a couple of officers who boarded at Phalodi Air Base. It dawned on me when the dust came sweeping through the barred windows. I felt like I was standing in the barrel of a giant hairdryer. Never again!
What do you rate better â€” the London tubes or the Indian trains?
If anything, Londoners could learn from Indian train travellers; they should learn how to cheer up and not look so surly and miserable all the time. The lovely bit about train travel in India is the interaction and the complete lack of social boundaries. On London tubes, everyone is so selfcontained. Train is just a means of transport, not a place to interact or mingle.
That said, cleanliness is the one thing that could be worked upon by the Indian Railways. The indiscriminate chucking of rubbish bothered me on a daily basis and most passengers were indifferent to keeping communal areas tidy for each other.
What are the most interesting stations in India that you discovered?
Dwarka in the West, Udhampur in the North, Ledo in the East and Kanyakumari in the South â€” the four tips of the Indian Railways.
What were your most memorable moments on the train?
The people who I met made the most lasting impressions. They are the ones who made the train journeys memorable. I would often forget where I was, what time it was and where I was travelling to because of the nature of my companions. They shaped my journeys and made me either love them or loathe them. From a visual perspective, sitting in train doorways and watching sunsets became a nightly ritual and an unforgettable experience.
Any advice to a woman traveller?
Travel during the day. If you are travelling overnight, make sure that you are in a compartment with families or other women. Though I rarely travelled in ladies-only compartments, I did ask for upper berths as I felt safer there at night. Other than that everyone needs to apply common sense and be responsible for themselves. One needs to rely on one’s own judgment rather than others’ to stay safe. I made sure I didn’t wander somewhere unfamiliar at night and I always kept my credit card and passport on a thin string purse around my neck and under my clothing.