The Toofan Mail
THE FIRST time I boarded a train was in 1965 to travel from Delhi to Howrah. The train in question was the Toofan Mail as it was then called and unlike today, where the train still remains a shadow of its former self, in those days it was still, in spurts, able to run like the Toofan it was named after.
It was actually quite a prestigious train in those days and the only one exceeding it in status was the Air-Conditioned Express, popularly called the Vestibule Express. It was the first or at least one of the earliest trains in which the vestibule facility was available. The train was still pulled like most others by steam engines and I remember the coal getting into my eyes as I poked my head out of the window to look at the passing countryside.
Once I reached Howrah, for a day or so it still felt that I was in the train with the train's rocking motion still drifting in as soon as you closed your eyes. Even with the eyes open, the doors and windows appeared to be moving away like the trees and the electric poles from a moving train. On that occasion, the journey itself was more enjoyable than the final destination and since then it has always been that way for me.
Innumerable train travels later, once I have settled into my seat and if no one is pushing and jostling, the trip is still far more enjoyable than its end.
Unlike many, I just love train, pantry car and platform food. I have had them all: the Puri Subzi in leaking leaf plates, the bread omelettes on numerous station platforms, the veg and non-veg offered by the pantry car attendant armed with a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil and every thing in between including the 'continental' on the Rajdhani Express.
Of course there is more variety on the platforms - from the well known ones like the pedhas of Mathura and the pethas of Agra to the lesser known ones such as the biryanis of Bhusaval and Manmad, the mihidana and sitabhog of Burdwan or Jalebis and kachoris at Mawli near Udaipur.
The condition of the train and the mannerisms of your fellow travellers will tell you about the diversity of the country we live in. Southbound trains are typically orderly. One can travel in reasonable comfort even in sleeper class, as the flow of invading passengers who ask you to 'adjust' is much less. Itarsi is the station near about which Rishi Vashishta, the legendary figure who crossed over beyond the Vindhyas into Dravidian India, might have taken a sojourn.
Once trains have crossed the station, the evidence of North India begins to blur in many ways beginning with the food. The Daal for example begins to get replaced by Sambar (they taste the same though in the train!) and Idli and Vada begin to make an appearance in the breakfast menu and the snacks by the train vendors.
Your travel experience is going to be largely determined by the temperament that you possess and those lucky or unlucky enough to be your travel companions. If you have North Indians, they are likely to be boisterous and noisy. Bengalis are equally noisy and proud of their language and make sure that every one in vicinity gets to hear their divine language, shouting for Bablu or Khuku right across one end of the coach to the other. You could be invited for a game of cards if they are short of a partner but you are otherwise ignored. The South Indians also mutter in their own language but are much quieter.
Once in a while you get to see scenes that you might remember forever. One of mine is the memory of an elderly Muslim gentleman settling down to say his evening Namaz in the train. It was not easy to figure out which was West in a moving train, nor to perform the necessary ablutions but he managed somehow, spread out his mat on the upper berth and unmindful to all his surroundings and even a few staring passengers as well as many granting him grudging respect, he went through his prayers. Today when it is often the fashion to wear your religion on your sleeves, the old man's humble but clear assertion of his beliefs, oblivious of any thing else for those few minutes, reminded me of what true spirituality is all about.
Today when there is all this talk of competition between low cost airlines and trains and what each has to offer, the talk mostly is all about time savers, costs, short haul, long haul and such commercial vocabulary, I am reminded that journeys are not just about times and distances - it is also about the experiences - the ones you contribute and also the ones you collect over the years and that then shape and enrich you. Perhaps the length of the journey does not matter as much as its depth when you have reached your destination and are settled in your arm chair reminiscing. Sometimes a non-stop journey is not as invigorating as one with interminable stops - just some times.