My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight.
o get on a train in India is to enter a different world. You may carry your mobile phone and check Twitter on it, you may carry a dongle and browse the internet on your laptop, but you can do nothing about the speed of the train itself. In the 1800s, when trains first began to transport people across distances that might have taken weeks or days in a matter of hours, they were the most vivid symbols of speed, of technological modernity. Now, in a world where the aeroplane has become more commonplace and accessible, they appear as gentle lumbering beasts. It is a pace that encourages involved arguments and intense heart-to-hearts; at the very least, gupshup.
We are on a train from Delhi to Banaras. It is delayed by several hours because of the fog. But no-one is complaining. Since the previous night's train did not even depart, people are just glad they are on a train at least. The family sitting with us – a tall 60-something man with an impressive but tidy white beard, his bespectacled and much smaller wife and their 20-something son Nadeem – are regulars on this route. The parents live in a village near Dildar Nagar, a small town past Banaras. Their elder son lives in Delhi, in Okhla, and they visit him often. This time they are returning from a long stay that involved a gall bladder operation for the old man. They offer us keema-roti, we offer them oranges. Later, at Allahabad, their married daughter arrives at the station with freshly-cooked puris and a flask of strong tea that is unrecognizable as being the same substance as the 'dip chai' that is sadly becoming ubiquitous on Indian railways.
The father and son are full of train stories: trains which seemed strangely empty and turned out to be crawling with bed-bugs, summer trains with crowds clambering atop them waiting for the water tank to be filled, puja special trains without taps in the toilets. From Delhi to Patna there are a huge number of trains, partly because of Laloo Yadav's stint as Railways Minister. But the number of travellers between Delhi and Bihar/Eastern UP seems still to outstrip the supply of berths – a ticket is hard to get at short notice most times of the year. There is also a clear hierarchy of trains. The 'good' trains, say our companions, are almost always full. A train that is running half-empty is likely to be a train on which the well-informed know not to travel, because it has a reputation for running late, or being dirty, or having bad service. "There's no pantry car on many of these trains. And the bedding they give you – well, it's like we're giving you this, you can use it – or not. Not is more likely," laughs Nadeem.
rain stories are anchored to place-names: "Arre, that time we took the train from Begusarai" or "Remember when we were returning from the wedding in Lucknow?" Some places you think you know are places you have never been to: they are the names of stations passed on the rail journeys of your childhood. I've never been to Nagpur, but I know oranges must be imagined – and hopefully bought – at the station. I've never been to Khandwa, but I know to get off the train double-quick and buy lassi and shrikhand from the wonderful dairy cooperative shop...
(The piece carries on)
Read the whole of it here.