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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.

Comments for The Toofan Mail

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Oct 20, 2015
The Toofan Mail Allahabad To Patna
by: A.B. Damania

Yes, the Toofan Mail in the 1960s really ran like a Toofan, hurricane! I will never forget the train journey from Allahabad to Patna in April 1968 on the Toofan Mail with two of my friends in the First Class. [We were traveling from Bombay to Darjeeling by train and changing trains at Allahabad.] The Toofan Mail train arrived at Allahabad on time in the late evening or was it night? But after we had settle down in our First Class Coupe with 4 berths, my two friends went to sleep immediately as they had spent some hours prior to boarding the train to go to the "Sangam" as we had several hours between trains. The Toofan Mail began to pick up speed as it streaked through the moonlit night. At stations it did not stop the noise from the steel tracks was tremendous. I could not sleep. I opened the window and was amazed at the speed of the train, something I had never wirnessed before. The Toofan Mail was being pulled by a new electric locomotive!

Jul 14, 2015
Cuisines on the way
by: Anonymous

Great article, this!

As a 'yatri' on the Bombay-Kanyakumari rail line, I've noticed this particular trends on the line, so to speak, espcially in the beverages section. In particular, the Tea-Coffee divide. As the train departs Bombay, its 'Chai' all the way at every station: Karjat, Khopoli, Poona, and finally at Daund where one turns in for the night. Ah, by the way, I failed to mention the train: Jayanti Janata Express of ye old days- from the 70s.

The next day you awaken in Northern Karnataka and still it's 'Chai' with cries of 'Tea!' interspersed between. Then, just after Raichur, the 'Kaappi! Kaaffi! Coffee!" calls butt in. By the time you've passed into AP, its Coffee- good filter coffee, with a few 'Nescafe' pretenders. All through AP, then into TN: Renigunta, Arakkonam, and up to Jolarpet at night it's Coffee, predominant.

Morning, in Kerala, at Olavakod junction, near Palghat, 'Tea' and 'Chaayaa' (not Chai) has crept back in- Coffe's usurped in a Coup d'etat! And the coffee served in Kerala's really awful: no filter coffee and if at all they want any, it's the instant coffee mud: weak, milky stuff.

This continues all throughout Kerala, right up to Trivandrum. After the order to TN (Kanyakumari being in TamilNadu), there's a few Kaappi vendors at stations.

I think its all got to do with coastlines: West coast being Tea country and the Deccan plateau being Coffee

Never the twain will they assimilate.

May 15, 2014
Good ole days.....
by: Anonymous

Remember those train rides very well on 7UP/8DN!Always thought it was Toofan Express though. Lived in Chittaranjan for a few years and used this iconic train (pulled by the famous WPs) heavily. Sorry to see the loss in status these days.

Sep 21, 2011
by: Geesang

Superb, really made me nostalgic especially the name vestibule as my parents use to call it. As kids we use to travel frequestly to Kolkata by this train. I still remember the excitement of strolling over to the pantry car from the "chair car" in anticipation of a great meal. Somehow food served in trains or in the platforms always felt tastier.

Mar 08, 2011
Superb write up
by: Dilip Oak , Pune . 9370247652

You have refreshened my memories of the past. Indian Railways must keep names of todays trains like Toofan mail, Frontier mail Mountain express, Island express etc. Trains can have many beautiful names!

Sep 10, 2010
Insightful report
by: Laura

I enjoyed reading your observations.
I especially liked the observation about the Muslim have to respect that.

Aug 09, 2009
toofan mail
by: sanjib roy

nice write ups. excellent observations.

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