Journeys on the rail network of this country all possess a kind of incandescence, a maintained crescendo of a huge variety of human activity which has been known to overwhelm those unaccustomed to its nature. A throwing together of colours, smells, classes, frantic boarding sessions, patrolling transvestites collecting cash and perennially open carriage doors packed full of smokers leaning out precariously over tracks speeding away below.
Huge trains chugging on over distances unimaginable to us here in these small islands. Twenty to forty hour journeys as normal in which one’s small berth, sleeping six or more, becomes a slightly insane moving home frequented, most regularly, by wallahs of various sorts offering everything from chai to puri, subji, samosas, fruit of all kinds, clothes, electronics and every Pepsico-owned Indian drink you could dare to dream of. The distant drawn out calls of “chaiii, coffeee” travel almost constantly down carriages. Ten pence a pop and off they hop at another station to ply their wares on another train.
Travel-weary and groggy, it was into this exemplary form of highly organised Indian chaos that I was somewhat unwillingly thrown on a recent passage from Guwahati in India’s North East provinces back to the capital of Delhi. A rushed tuc tuc journey to the station through quiet dawn-lit streets saw me arrive at the station just in time to see the blue diesel juggernaut pulling in. Massed alongside crowds of pilgrims and holy men there for a religious festival, and with the customary waft from the latrine sections hanging in the air, my carriage was hastily found and boarded.
A few hours later a raised voice, almost scolding in nature, accompanied by a slapping together of the hands drifted down to me in my berth: the tell-tale signs of approaching transvestite money collectors. Still adjusting to the reality of the journey that lay ahead, this was not my time of choice for a visit. Yet this was India and no more out of place here than public urination or beautifully manifested acts of daily spirituality. Their technique is to instill annoyance to the degree that people pay for departure and after performing in our booth and playing on the insecurities of husbands sitting alongside their wives they receive payment from us and move on down the train, leaving me to drift back into a light sleep.
Countless chai’s and forty-five hours later the train pulled into Anand Vihar station in Delhi. With only a modest delay of five hours and probably about the same amount of sleep, I was relieved to step onto the platform and continue the journey North.
(Reflections on my travels on Indian trains written during one such passage in 2014)