From first hand experience, I think it’s safe to say that the best way to see India is not on a plane at 35,000 feet, but at ground level on the Indian railway system. In fact, no visit to India is complete without experiencing the bustle of Indian railway stations. After Independence in 1947, India inherited a total of 55,000 kilometers of British Indian railways, much of that in bad state having endured WWII and passing through Pakistan. New construction was thus necessary in order to reroute through Indian territory. The 42 separate railway systems left behind by the British, including 32 owned by former Indian princely states, were joined together into and referred to as the Indian Railways. By 1985, electric and diesel locomotives took over the steam locomotives, and the entire railway reservation network was computerized in 1995. It’ll be interesting to see the changes in this, the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world, but remember, this narrative is written about first impressions of a first visit in 1980, more than 30 years ago.
Trying to sleep on a sleeper train from New Delhi to Madras became another study of the extremes of India. The entire journey–way back then in 1980–took two nights and a full day of train travel. We left Delhi around 7:30 in the evening on what was booked as a first class, air-conditioned, sleeper car.
When arrangements for the first class sleeper were made, I immediately worried that our berths wouldn’t be private, that we would be forced to be a little more up close and personal than I liked with strangers. I’d seen and been exposed to many modes of travel, from the man-powered bicycle rickshaws, motorcycle rickshaws, tourist buses, local buses and trains, taxis, private autos with professional drivers, so I was already familiar with the differences in travel standards between India and the U.S. After all, America was created by space-loving space-hoarding “give me land, lotsa land, don’t fence-me-in kinds of people”–the kind I’d grown up around–who don’t cotton well to strangers invading their personal space. That’s why so many of them own cars and drive themselves places. That’s why public transport has such a hard time getting the financial and social support it needs to catch on in this country–except of course in New York and other large cities with high populations.
With kids in tow, we’d boarded local buses that were already loaded to capacity by American standards and had somehow managed to miraculously shove ourselves into tiny openings, only to look up and see another group pushing through with suitcases and parcels hoisted over their heads. How they got through, or where they disappeared to wasn’t clear, but somehow they seemed to manage. We did as well, but I hated, and eventually requested, we not use local bus commutes if possible. I found I preferred the noisy phut-phut of auto rickshaws instead. While a family of four were crowded in one, the space was open and it was easy to see everything going on around you, and no one else was able to tag along.
I was told, if I remember correctly, that there could possibly be other passengers in our car during the daytime, but at night the four berths in our car would be ours exclusively. Vaguely I remember a nicely dressed young man, most likely a student, riding with us in the beginning, but by the time the girls and I were ready to sleep we were alone, and whether the student reached his destination or chose to invade another car, I do not know. Hubby may have a different memory and will clarify it if so.
The girls, probably exhausted with all the excitement, seemed to sleep throughout the night, or if they stirred it was only for a moment. They had their books and games and, most importantly, their favorite stuffed animals along to comfort them. Hubby, if he can sleep through my snoring–as he had for 11 years by that time–seemed to sleep too. As for myself, two words: cacophony and symphony. All night long it seemed I was witness to one or the other as we pulled through and sometimes stopped at other stations along the way it was an ongoing cacophonous clank of metal scraping other metal, train horns honking, shrill whistles and bells, and wheels on the track and engine noises.
The motion must have lulled me into unconsciousness eventually, however, for I remember being lulled awake very early in the morning before the light of day to a symphony of vendors voices. We were stopped on a train platform and it felt strange to be motionless yet still moving inside my head. Outside the train from one end of the platform came a cadence of Chai, chai, chai (tea). Immediately from the other end came the response, koppee, koppee, koppee (coffee).
Chai, garam chai . . . koppee, koppee, koppee. Over and over and over, and floating over all opposing sounds was the mesmerizing odors of food cooking. As had been the pattern of India almost from the beginning, India tossed out mighty heaps of confusion mixed in with tiny little triumphs like the single flower that I noticed blooming all alone on the bare clay soil on the way in to the Taj Mahal complex that made up for the deprivation.
The night before, a porter had stopped by and taken orders for breakfast to be delivered to our sleeper car at the appropriate time. Of course this was preceded by cups of steaming koppee and milk and juice for the girls. Hubby knew his three girls were starved for the taste of more Western type food, so he’d ordered omelets for all of us. The first eggs we’d seen since leaving London. They were delicious even if they weren’t the light fluffy omelets we were used to at home. And they came with the most delicious tomato sauce I’d ever tasted, which was a simple Indian-style Ketchup. I don’t yet know the secret of its success, probably a lot of sugar, but I’ve never been able to duplicate it nor have a better one. I remember it was not the rich red color of a Heinz, but more orange. I think it’s safe to say that breakfast on a train was a big hit for all of us. Even Hubby seemed to enjoy it.
Later in the day, Hubby’s sister and her family would meet us at the train depot for a short visit during a short stopover period in Nagpur. We’d traveled by that time a little over 1000 kilometers or somewhere around 600 miles. We wouldn’t arrive in Madras to visit my mother-in-law until sometime the next morning.
Coming up next: onward to Mother-in-law’s bungalow in Madras, scenes and glimpses of Indian life along the way.