While rummaging through old books and newspapers in the storeroom in my home a few days back, I found a year-old newsletter that I had read once.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the dark storeroom, I read it again from cover to cover.
Once I finished reading, I returned to the cover to the newsletter and stared at the title. The title was ‘Romance of the Railways.’
The story of railways in India began on April 16, 1853, the day when a train ran for the first time on Indian soil.
As the time to flag off the first train neared, 21 guns lined outside Bori Bunder railway station in Bombay were fired as a salute to the moment that was going to be historic for India.
Once the boom of the guns subsided, three steam locomotives – Sahib, Sindh and Sultan whistled and hauling 14 coaches with 400 passengers, rolled out of Bori Bunder railway station.
The maiden train journey ended 45 minutes later, as the train, covering a distance of 31 km, chugged into the railway station at Thane, a Bombay suburb. The train journey had ended but a new chapter in the history of India had begun.
Now, 159 years later, over 11,000 trains run across the Indian sub-continent, covering a distance of over 63,000 km, and carrying over 30 million passengers every day. Starting with three locomotives and 14 coaches, Indian Railways now has over 9000 locomotives and 60,000 coaches.
‘Romance of the Railways’ was the title of the newsletter. Reading the title, I wondered if trains still evoke romance.
My home in Kanpur stands two km away from the Delhi-Howrah rail link.
I grew up listening to the whistles of trains rushing on the track. The whistles were more audible and clear in the dead of the night. Hearing a whistle some questions would instantly come to my mind – Which train is passing? Is it Rajdhani Express or Poorva Express? Is the train going to Delhi or to Howrah? Is everybody in the train sleeping? Or some passengers still awake like me and hearing the whistle?
Hearing the whistles as a kid I fell in love with trains, so much that I dreamed of becoming an engine driver.
I would be filled with excitement thinking that in the dead of the night, when all passengers of a train are asleep, the engine driver is the only person who is wide awake and alert; his hands on the controls of the locomotive and eyes on two gleaming tracks.
Even now, as the night progresses and become calm, I can hear the whistle of passing trains. I still wish I were on the footplate of the locomotive of the train.
The travel and not the destination matters to me more. I become sad when the journey ends and I have reached the destination.
My love for trains has not diminished.
I will always prefer train for travelling. The window seat is enough for me and I can travel for days without getting bored.
It has often been said and written that while travelling in a train in the upper half of India, the landscape from the window looks flat, dry and monotonous. The landscape, while travelling in the lower half, is green, undulating and beautiful. But for me, only the window seat counts, whether in the north or in the south.
And I prefer the sleeper car over the air-conditioned one.
Sleeper cars are crowded and you get to see, know and talk to more people or characters.
When the train stops at a station, you see yet more people. The sounds and noises of the station are a pleasant break to the constant rattling of the wheels of the train. In the night, as you stretch on the rocking berth, rattling of the wheels lulls you to sleep.
Nowadays, I see that the moment people settle in their seats in the train, they plug earphones into their ears, close their eyes and start listening to music or they switch on their laptop computers and forget the world around them. They have a scowl on their face and try to look serious. They neither share a joke with the fellow passengers nor bother to look outside the window.
There is another reason why I do not like travelling in air-conditioned coaches.
Some time back I travelled to Delhi in the air-conditioned coach of Shramshakti Express. The train leaves Kanpur just before mid-night. I had got the middle berth. The moment I stretched myself on the berth to sleep the person on the lower berth started snoring loudly. As I tried hard to sleep, the person on the upper berth started farting. It was as if I was listening to a small orchestra of wind instruments. Bill Aitken, the Scottish traveller and writer who made India his home, mentioned in one of his books that he once travelled with 71 farting men. The figure 71 intrigued me. But then I realised that there are 72 berths in a coach. Bill had exaggerated but only a bit.
I feel India should follow the example of Malawi in the matters of bodily noises- http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/01/30/governments-around-the-world-outlaw-basic-bodily-functions/ and http://www.afrik-news.com/article18831.html.
In the sleeper cars, the wind rushing through windows howls and drowns every noise and cleans all pollutants.
Nowadays, I am a bit wary while travelling in the sleeper class.
Earlier a journey from Kanpur to Calcutta by Kalka Mail would be pleasant experience. The train was considered good and it would be hard to get seats reserved in the train. Recently I travelled by Kalka Mail and the journey was horrible. The train stopped at almost all stations. And it was too crowded. As many as eight people were sitting on the berths on which only four persons can comfortably sit. The train was so crowded that reaching up to the toilet was like a big challenge. I once managed to reach up to the toilet. But I came back without using it as it was very dirty.
People, not caring about their lives, had occupied even the vestibules.
I can blame only governments for poor condition of the trains. It seems that authorities are concerned only about Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express, the so-called VIP trains.
Recently, I saw a headline in a newspaper which said ‘Toilets in Shatabdi to be cleaned after every use.’ It seems that in India, people travelling only in VIP trains have the right to clean toilets.
Why can’t the toilets of all trains be cleaned if not after every use then at least once in a week?
Another headline on another day was, ‘TVs to be installed in Shatabdi Express.’ I don’t have any grouse because I do not watch the television that I have in my home but Indian Railways in not allowing me to travel free of cost. And when I am paying, I must have some basic facilities. I am not asking for the moon.
All trains heading for Delhi from places in the east like Howrah, Guwahati or Bhubabeswar are overcrowded with people from Bihar. The people are not only blamed for overcrowding trains but also cities like Delhi and Bombay.
But why blame the people of Bihar? Nobody likes leaving home and family. Today, if 10 heavy industries are set up in Bihar, mass exodus from the state will stop. What is true for Bihar is true for Uttar Pradesh also. Rahul Gandhi in an election rally had rightly equated the people of Uttar Pradesh to beggars. He had said that people from Uttar Pradesh have to beg for jobs in Delhi and Bombay. Due to inefficiency of successive governments, most industries in Uttar Pradesh either have closed or have shifted to other states.
Some of my friends and peers consider me eccentric for my love for travelling by train. They prefer planes. But I don’t care. Due to too much pressure of work, they are forced to travel by planes. I, being an idler, have time and can afford to travel by train.
My two classmates settled in Bangalore recently visited Kanpur to participate in alma mater reunion. They managed to get leaves only for four days. Coming to Kanpur from Bangalore and returning would have been impossible in four days in case they have taken a train. So they both had to fly.
I can only hope that things will improve the future and travelling by train – in any coach will once become an enjoyable experience.
I dream to travel in all the 11,000 trains of India.