2013 Non-fiction

AN INDIAN RAIL ODYSSEY

According to the Indian Ministry of Railways’ website, “India has some of the most spectacular and unforgettable rail journeys in the world and there is no better way to enjoy India’s outback, cities, coastal towns and regions in comfort.”

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to spend an unforgettable six weeks touring through northern India where I experienced elephants and camels, vultures and monkeys, modern cities and mediaeval villages, lush green countryside and dry deserts, palaces and forts, temples, tombs and caves, the Taj Mahal and . . . the ‘Magadh Express’.

When planning a trip through India, the names and descriptions of some of the trains and rail journeys evoke the romance, the splendour and the opulence of times gone by.  As stated by one tourism website, “The Palace on Wheels tours make you experience all the luxuries worthy of the affluent Indian maharajas of yore.  Exuberance and extravagance are the key words.  This royal journey by Palace on Wheels is a first-hand experience of the lavish lifestyles of the Indian kings. The décor, food and hospitality speak of sheer luxury and sumptuousness”.   ‘The Palace on Wheels’ was the first of four luxury trains on the Indian Railways launched to promote tourism in Rajasthan and derived from the concept of the personal railway coaches of the erstwhile rulers of the princely states of Rajputana and Gujerat, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Viceroy of British India.  Who wouldn’t want to travel in ‘The Golden Chariot’, the quixotic purple and gold coaches of which display the logo of a mythological animal with the head of an elephant and the body of a lion?  ‘The Indian Maharaja’, ‘The Royal Rajasthan’, ‘The Deccan Odyssey’ and ‘The Fairy Queen’, which was built in1855 and is said to be the oldest working steam locomotive in the world, all beckon invitingly.

However, my Indian Rail Odyssey began in Varanasi where, on first arriving at our hotel, laughingly named ‘Palace on the Ganges’, a misnomer if ever there was one, we were appalled to discover that the only restaurant was on the rooftop and open to the elements.  As the whole of India was experiencing an unexpected cold snap, eating outside was a less than pleasant experience as we huddled in our shawls and jackets, peered through murky clouds and tried to keep dry in the wind and rain: we could not see even the next building and certainly not the Ganges nor the ghats.

The term ‘ghat’ refers to a series of steps leading down to water, usually a holy river, but in Bengali speaking regions, it could be a body of water as small as a pond or as large as a river.  In English and Hindi speaking areas, ghats in the holy, riverside cities, like Varanasi, refer to areas where stairs exist giving access to the Ganges or other rivers.

Our overnight train to Agra was not scheduled to depart until 9.30pm.  At dusk, the mosquitoes came out in force, sending us hurrying back to our hotel, stopping on the way at a local booth to buy packets of biscuits for the train journey – 34 rupees for two packets as opposed to 240 rupees for one packet from a tourist, highway hotel.   As night fell, we anxiously watched for the car that would take us to Mughal Serai Junction, about 16 kms outside Varanasi, to catch the Magadh Express to Tundla Junction, Agra, a distance of some 535km in the State of Uttar Pradesh.

Getting to the station entailed a hair-raising car journey, in the pitch black, over furrowed cart tracks made worse by the rain. The steep, rutted, muddy ramp up to the main highway had a sheer drop of about ten metres on either side and merging into the freeway traffic necessitated a right-hand turn across all four lanes of traffic, accompanied by much horn honking and headlight flashing!   In India, enthusiastic horn honking is more or less compulsory but as it was night, flashing full beam at all oncoming vehicles became the priority instead.  On arrival at the train station, our driver sheepishly admitted that he had eye problems from all the flashing lights. At this comment, we had to work very hard at keeping straight faces!

Confusion then reigned when we thought our tour guide was asking us whether we wanted to take photographs of the luggage porters in the dark and pouring rain!  However, after ten minutes of much head shaking on our part and dismayed comments from the tour representative, it became clear that he was actually asking if we needed porters, which obviously we did as the platform was away in the far distance and across at least two flights of stairs.   We watched in awe, fascinated, as the porters effortlessly hoisted our heavy suitcases on to their heads: I can only think that despite looking rather scrawny, they must have been immensely strong, especially their necks.

Our train, the Magadh Express, pulled into the station on time, whereupon the usual boarding chaos ensued; fortunately, the porters took charge, shouldered their way onto the train with us following close on their heels, found the curtained alcove where we would be sleeping and stowed our cases under the bunks.  Much to the dismay of everyone, including our travel agent, we were travelling 2nd class, there being no 1st class carriages on this particular train.  Each carriage had about a dozen four-berth, curtained, sleeping compartments, plus several two-berth, curtained, sleeping niches along the corridor.  Ours was a corridor cubbyhole, probably as a security measure, as we were two women alone.  After investigating the toilet and washbasin facilities at each end of the carriage, we decided quite emphatically that we would not be availing ourselves of these amenities as hygiene and cleanliness were obviously not priorities.  A blanket, sheet and pillow were provided for each bunk.

The top sleeping berth proved to be a challenge as, in a decidedly unladylike fashion, very unglamorously, and apparently hilariously, I clambered inelegantly onto the top bunk; it was an incredibly difficult feat of agility, only discovering, when I finally conquered the ascent, that there was a stepladder at the end of the couchette.  This was obviously side-splittingly funny as my friend had tears pouring down her cheeks and could hardly stand for laughing!  Then, to my absolute horror, I discovered that the bedding was stiff and sticky to the touch – ugh!  We made no attempt to undress or even remove our shoes and used our hand luggage as pillows:  we had no intention whatsoever of letting any part of our body come into contact with anything on the bunk if we could help it.

Our overnight experience consisted of dozing to the cacophony of stentorian snoring, cell-phones ringing, hacking coughs, guttural hawking, passengers noisily boarding and departing at the various stations and vendors walking through the train shouting, “chai”, “coffee”, “egg-toast” or “water”.  Unfortunately, essential use of the toilet facilities was unavoidable but not to be recommended!  I can advise you, quite unequivocally, never to use a squat toilet on a moving train; maintaining my balance was an achievement in itself but I was unable to prevent my feet getting wet from whatever nasty liquid was sloshing about on the floor.  I do not know how Indian women always look so pristine.

Our scheduled time of arrival at Tundla Junction was 10am but we decided against having a ‘lie-in’ (some hopes!), which was fortunate as we actually arrived at 7.30am.  Luckily, we were still fully dressed and had opted not to use the washing facilities.   There was a moment of panic at the station when we could not see our guide but he arrived a few minutes later with profuse apologies.  Most unusually, it had been raining in Agra for four days, even hail had arrived the previous evening, so the platform was treacherously slippery and the stench unbelievable:  there is no restriction about using the toilet while the train is in the station, neither was it a pretty sight!

After checking in to the Trident Hilton Hotel, we stripped off our filthy clothes, had hot baths and sent our yucky clothes off to the laundry.  Exhausted, and as it was too cold and misty to enjoy any sightseeing, we decided to catch up on some sleep.  ‘Fortunately’, the weather was still wet, misty and cold, so we had no great desire to go exploring outside.  As you might guess, though, we were happily anticipating our proposed visit the following day to the Taj Mahal, the beauty and serenity of which can only be experienced and not described.

So . . . my Indian Railway Odyssey was over but the memory of the Magadh Express remains vivid, and I can assure you that never again will I travel second class on an overnight train in India.

Category: Non-fiction: 3rd place New Zealand Region Writing Contest – Nissa

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