The train starts at Jammu Tawi and cuts across ten states before it reaches the end of the line, Kanniyakumari; it covers 3,726 km of track, its wheels turning to a shifting rhythm (chaichaigaramchai it says in the North, idlivadacawphee it says in the South); at night at the smaller stations the announcer's voice reverently rolls out the syllables: the Jammu Tawi to Kanniyakumari Express is now on Platform Number One; it carries nuns, tired jawans, chattering families, even a sad-eyed baby monkey on a chain, down the entire length of the country, lazily bisecting the map of India into two in a meandering line; mountains bracket its leisurely jogtrot progress; villages, dusty small towns, tobacco territory, sanctuaries, tea country, factories belching putrid smoke, still lakes, small ponds, huge rivers, it takes them all in its stride, as it should, for these three-and-a-half days mark the longest journey you can make on India's railroads.
<>Not counting the 36 hours you will spend in
> <>In another age, when all good Indians had to sit through Films Division Documentaries before they could watch Sholay, they played one particular film over and over. It was a lyrical look at India (theme: unity in diversity) that anticipated the floats from different states that drift past during Republic Day parades, the one where
> <>And that is the promise of the Himsagar Express: duniya dekho, desh dekho. In just three-and-a-half days, see your country, from one end to the other. Everyone in
<>There's a lurch and the platform, glistening darkly from the rain, moves past, offering a last glimpse of the closed shutters of the poori, rajma and rice stall, the unmanned sandbags, the roll of barbed wire around the station and the sleeping troops on the opposite platform. It's been a long day's journey into night, but at least it's begun.
The train will reach
As the day wears on, our home away from home comes into focus. Half the train is empty. There are exactly seven people in AC 2 Tier. Most of the junta compartments are empty; two are sparsely populated, one contains a single passenger, a venerable gentleman. Like sparrows flocking together, the remaining passengers have congregated in two compartments, which have the air of a house inhabited by a large joint family that has amicably settled territorial disputes. Nuns occupy four berths like a group of dignified pigeons; their grey habits will by some mysterious force remain immaculate all the way through to
At night, we discover the bedding conundrum. The train has plenty of bedrolls going spare in the AC section. The passengers in first class have no bedrolls: we thought that the Railways, like the good Lord, would provide. But while the attendants are sympathetic, regulations forbid the renting of bedrolls. Aha, but they can, they explain, looking at our pathetic, shivering faces, upgrade us to AC for a small consideration-where we will be given bedrolls for free.
We decline--the upgrade costs too much; the AC compartment is an anodyne space; the first class compartments, specially when near-empty, are comfortable; we have shawls and jackets. But the most important reason is the windows. You can't open the windows in an AC compartment. In first class, the dust and grime and rain and wind can knock at the window and be let in. As it is, the view from a train is framed by bars; on a journey like this, the windows must be open.
Our route takes us across an undulating, changing landscape, but not into a world of extremes. J&KPunjabHaryanaDilli, the train says on a straight track; UPMP, it says clattering across a short bridge; Ma-ha-rash-tra, it rumbles in a tunnel; AP, it puffs on a siding; TamilNadu and Kerala, it rolls out at a platform. The transitions from one state to another are gentle; the shifts from mountains to plains to coastal areas imperceptible. An idle traveller could while away the hours collecting images of picture postcard
Or you might want to close your eyes and reflect as you pass each swiftly changing yellow signboard. This is
One of the greatest monuments to love ever built will pass by unremarked in the night, as snoring passengers sleep through the wait on a silent Agra platform; at Jhansi, I will wonder as I shiver whether Rani Lakshmibai's tremendous energy stemmed from a need to stay on the move so as to stave off the cold. The Stone Age and the Chemical Age collide near
By the end of the second day, the journey has been brightened by the discovery of a pink plastic showerhead in a bathroom that allows passengers to wash off the dust (considerable) and dirt (don't ask) of a long journey. The thrill dims slightly when one finds out that there is a wide gap between door and doorframe, allowing anyone who walks by to make detailed notes on your soaping habits.
A man with a baby monkey on a chain rides second class. The monkey looks out at the world with sad, wise eyes that expect nothing; she shivers in surprised delight when she's petted, and gently grooms the petter back. The storm whipping around the rails adding its thunder to the train's rumble scares her; every flash of lightning has her scurrying for safety, which she finds in her owner's arms, her skinny hands wrapped around his neck. Outside, through the bars, the sky lights up in vivid streaks of flame-coloured lightning.
In the morning, everything has changed. This is the spotless South; at Tenali, home to Tenali Raman, a sweeper plies his broom around a station platform already so clean you could eat your morning vada-idli off it. Coconut palms fringe the tracks, standing well back from the train in attitudes of cautious observation. The painted signs that used to advertise the services of Dr Bangali, the famous specialist in social diseases, now advertise IIT training courses and unforgettably, Trunks Panties Shimmies for All The Family.
The Salvation Army is prominent; so are other emblems of faith. The previous night, on a nameless platform, a small group of station employees lined up to perform the evening prayers as the azaan drifted quietly over our heads from a neighbouring mosque. Today, temple bells and offkey hymns compete for attention; brightly coloured gravestones make the churchyards into giant paintboxes; in one town, as we flash by, I see a temple, a church and a mosque line up so that they appear to be one single building, like a hoary cliché out of a moral science textbook.
Night falls at Erode junction--the train splits in half here, one part headed off to
By the time we get to Thiruvanantarapuram the next morning, the train is almost empty. The man with the monkey has left, so have the nuns. We're coated in red dust as we reach Kanniyakumari station. Journey's end, it’s silent, small and bare; the heat is intense.
I should feel elation, but I feel only relief. The trip is over; we are flying back; I can have a real bath; the ground beneath my feet is steady, not jitterbugging; I may never have to get on a train ever again in my whole life. I walk out of the station, profoundly thankful that the journey is over.
An hour later, I have paid obeisance to the mingling of oceans at Kanniyakumari, let the sea lap around my ankles, sat on the sands and looked out from land's end, from the southernmost point of mainland India, at the place where even the longest train journey you can take runs out of rails. And I feel nothing at all.
It happens that night, and then again, two days later, when I'm safely back home. There's a riff in my head, the clacketa-clacketa-clacketa of train wheels. The view from the window is the same, but I can see moving pictures, from the north of the country all the way down to the south, like still camera images, vivid, insistent. The low, plaintive call of the trains at Nizamuddin Station wakes me up at night, and I suppress an urgent need to visit smelly stations, get on the first train I can and keep going till the end of the line.
There are things they tell you about the Himsagar Express, and these are the things I told you in the first paragraph. And there are the things they don't tell you, and the most important of these is: stay away from it. Because once you get on the Himsagar, it'll clatter and chug and judder its way into your blood, and even when you've reached your destination, even when you've reached home, even when you've unpacked your bags, you will never really get off that train.
Afterword: This one's going to live in my mind as the most unsatisfactory piece I've ever written, because it left so much unsaid. One of these days I'll fill in the blanks.