Some of my earliest memories of travel involve my parents, me and two or three massively stuffed suitcases piled into an unreserved compartment of the Saurashtra express. It was the annual summer vacation to my grandmothers ancestral home amidst the Chikoo and Mango orchards, in the sleepy seaside town of Gholvad, on the Gujarat border. In those days, before the wonders of the internet and the rush of adulthood, tickets in the general compartment cost a grand total of 20 rupees and could only be availed by lining up at the ticket window an hour before the train departed. Even for 1980s, 20 rupees to travel 400+ kms was cheap, and the train was always stuffed to the rafters. The only way a seat could be procured, to avoid standing through a four hour journey stuffed between smelly armpits and greasy pant bottoms, was to pay an enterprising coolie a few extra rupees and hand him your handkerchief which he would use to ‘reserve’ you a seat. The coolie would achieve this by fighting off the charging hoards, swoop into the compartment just as the train was pulling in, and depositing the said handkerchief on a seat. It is an unwritten rule of train, and bus, travel in India, that once a handkerchief occupies a seat, no force on earth except the owner of the said handkerchief may occupy that seat. Of course sometimes there were more handkerchiefs than space on the seat, and a wooden bench for three usually held at least five.
It was in those formative, wide eyed, years that my love for train travel developed. No matter how crowded the compartment, there was always place for one more, and once handkerchief disputes had been amicably sorted out, everyone settled in for the ride. And what a ride it was. You had for company an assortment of people of all shapes, size and ages, old women and crying children, college kids and newly weds, government clerks, housewives and office goers all squeezed into an impossibly small space. There were people sleeping on luggage racks, drinking chai, playing cards, shouting at each other, chatting, laughing and cutting vegetables whilst chewing on beetelnuts, groundnuts, peanuts or whatever other nut could be procured. Travelling in the train was akin to being in a communal boarding house, and sharing food, drink and sweat was de rigour. It opened up to me a whole new world far away from my sedate Parsee upbringing. I got to see all sorts of characters, eat junk food that was normally forbidden at home, and hang out by the door with the beedi smoking crowd. Collectively we would watch the countryside zip by in a blur of green, brown and blue, and for those brief few hours we were one large loud Indian family. The sounds, smells and sights of those journeys come back to me whenever I enter a train.
Over the years as we grew older and got busier, trains were replaced by flights, and open aired compartments by air conditioned cabins.
In the the last few months we have taken more trains than we have in the last five years, and done several journeys in what the Indian Railways cryptically calls 2S. These are cheap, non air-conditioned spaces on passenger trains, some of which can be reserved in advance, but are usually abundantly available right upto the day of travel. Whilst twenty years has ensured that these tickets no longer cost twenty rupees, and seats are now padded. A 2S ticket for a 200 – 300 km distance can usually still be had for under a 100 rupees! Perfect for two vagabonds trudging around the country, rapidly working our way towards bankruptcy, otherwise known as The reDiscovery Project!
And indeed, it has been quite the rediscovery! A rediscovery of the languid pace of travel and the simple joys of life. Of standing at the door with the wind in your face, drinking chai and chatting with the ticket checker. Of swapping stories and food with fellow passengers, whilst waiting for the call of vendors as they make their way through the train, hawking books, trinkets and all sorts of suspicious looking snacks and drink. Of jumping off at stations with unpronounceable names to stretch your legs and see whats on offer at the platform stalls. Of staring out the window, lost in thought, the soft glow of the evening sun bathing the undulating landscapes in gentle orange hues as the train steadily rocks onwards.
Yes, life in 2S hasn’t changed much in the last twenty five years, and we are glad for it.
PS: Trains remain one of the more cost effective, reliable and comfortable ways to travel India. If you are on a budget, it is the only practical way of making your way across large distances without burning a hole in your wallet or spending very long and uncomfortable hours on a bus. The best way to book train tickets is the new and improved IRCTC website, but if that doesn’t work for you you can also try Cleartrip or MakeMyTrip . With the summer coming up we suggest you book well in advance!