The Inevitable Allure of An Indian Train Journey

When was the last time you travelled on a train?

I feel that trains are the quintessential Indian way to travel. There is something very endearing about travelling on a train. A kind of charm that you won’t find in buses or flights. Maybe it’s the soothing chuk-chuk sound of the train as it clicks against the rails, making you sway from side to side. Or blurry glimpses of the landscapes whizzing past your window.

The past week I travelled on a train after a long while. Watching the seats around me fill up with kids, youngsters and older men and women, I realized that a train journey is a vastly different experience for each of these individuals.

As a child, a train journey was an exciting adventure, one that you looked forward to for weeks. Everything from fighting over the window seat or giggling over the weirdly modulated loud cry of “teaaa co-ffeeee” or sticking your arms out the window (even as your parents admonish you), these were generally the highlights of the trip. And of course, falling blissfully asleep in your mother’s lap wrapped up in the pallu of her saree.

As you grow older, train travel and the meaning they hold tend to change. To be honest, Gautham Menon effectively ruined the train experience for me during my college years. I mean, not once did any Surya-like character come and sit across me, and then immediately start serenading me, guitar in hand with a soulful song he came up on the spot. And no crush of mine ever took the trouble to board the same train and same compartment only to spend the whole night talking like Karthik did for Jessie.

And don’t even get me started on Mani Ratnam and his romanticizing of trains.

The only people who ever sat next to me were uncles who would chew their food loudly and find the need to occasionally spit outside the window. Or aunties who would snore at eardrum-shattering decibels.

But when you’re in college, a trip on the train with your friends is equivalent to a grand old party. Especially during a college trip where long hours are spent playing cards or singing/playing music loudly much to the annoyance of the other passengers. Sometimes we’d even play pranks on each other. During an IV from college, most of the kids on board who bother to fall asleep at night woke up with large moustaches and bushy eyebrows drawn all over their faces.

And if you’re travelling alone, trains are the perfect place to catch up on some reading or text your friends uninterrupted. Or just partake in some old fashioned daydreaming while gawking at couples that subject you with an overdose of PDA.

Trains are a paradise for couples and newlyweds, I believe. If you ever come across a closed curtain in the side berth of a train, it is really never a good idea to open it, even by accident. Trust me, you will end up scarred for life!

Once you turn into a parent, train travel is a whole different ballgame. When you have a child in tow, you spend half the journey trying to stop the little one climbing onto other people’s berths. Or slathering them with antibacterial hand sanitizer after they decide they want to lie down on the floor or lick the train window. Do not introduce your child to the top berth unless you want to spend the rest of your trip watching him/her do precarious stunts that will have you frantically jumping out of your seat every 5 minutes. You will enviously gaze at college kids who are peacefully watching movies on their phones. While you prepare yourself for the traumatizing sights you’re likely to witness in the train bathroom as you take your child to pee for the millionth time. Yes, travelling with children is a truly joyous experience.

Have you ever come across those badass multitasking women who spend their evening commute from office, chopping vegetables, cutting boards perched on their laps while cheerfully catching up on office gossip? I am always in awe of the unassuming way they just carry about this task even on the busiest of trains, without even a trace of self-pity or lethargy.

And what about the senior citizens onboard? The only ones who prepare to sleep like they’re going out to combat in the coldest of winters, complete with scarves and shawls and monkey caps. It is heartwarming to see how older married couple who are constantly checking on each other – “Chaya veno? Vada veno? Kedakanno? Thannukunnundo? Window adakkano?” Watching little old men neatly lay out the white train sheet, pillow and blanket on the narrow berths for their little old wives, makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

And how easily they strike up conversations with strangers. Whether it’s worldly wisdom, or small anecdotes about their beloved grandchildren or sometimes just social commentary, they’re great at breaking the ice and discovering common grounds.

Trains, apart from being a wonderful way to escape into your own thoughts and musings, provides fascinating insights into varying human behaviour.

I won’t pretend that there isn’t anything wrong with this mode of transportation. There are obviously a plethora of issues as well – like the state of the bathrooms (good luck to you if your seat is next to the loo), the tiresome process of booking tickets (the tatkal ticket trauma), the crazy long delays, the overcrowded compartments, the lack of security, basic hygiene (I had a rat scurry across my feet once and spent the rest of the journey with my feet up and eyes transfixed on the floor.) and many other things.

But in spite of all this, Indian railways certainly has an appeal to it. So many little things that keep me going back.

The tentative smiles that quickly turn into lively conversations, the terribly watery tea or coffee which you inevitably end up buying anyway, those crazy talented individuals who beg for alms by singing in trains, or the shady pirated movie CD sellers. The helpful uncles who help you with your heavy luggage or the sweet aunties who warmly extend invitations to share their home-cooked meals packed neatly in casseroles. Or how berths are switched cordially and a question like “Eydha station?” is always met with at least 3 or 4 responses. And let’s not forget the feeling of standing next to an open door of a train- it’s an experience that doesn’t compare to any other.

What about you? Are you a train person? Let me know in the comments what some of your fondest memories are of travelling on a train.

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