Indian Railways Welcomes You

India 2013

Sunday. Feb 17, evening

One of the reasons I’m happy I live in Canada is that we have a thriving passenger railway system. Not only is it a practical means of travel, but it has all that history, all that clikety clakity romance and adventure. The box car bums, the sweat of the workers driving spike after spike, conquering mountain ranges and interminable prairies. You know, all that ‘This Land is Your Land’ stuff. I once took a train from Toronto to B.C. back in the 70s, and stood between cars looking out at the passing scenery for most of the 3-day trip, smoking cigarettes (and other things) and feeling high on wanderlust, independence, and indestructibility as only a person in their twenties can feel it. A would-be Kerouacian Dharma Bum.

So I’m a little pumped about the night train from New Delhi to Varanasi. The Shiv Ganga, departing at 18:55, arriving 8:30. Not exactly the Rock Island Line, but it’ll certainly do.

New Delhi Station handles more than 300 trains and 360,000 people a day. Seriously.

Darrol watching the river (of people) flow at platform 9.

We are all waiting at platform 9. We’re plenty early. Dennis, always ready to engage adventure, surprises us by buying a little gummy Spiderman toy from one of the dozens of guys selling all manner of stuff from curry to cards.

The following soundclips have Dennis trying to negotiate with the peddler, while experienced India travel-mate, Mat, acts as assistant. It’s 3 little clips chained together to give you the feel for the situation. I have made a transcript as best I could:

Click here to play audio in new tab

Peddler: Playing cards, …flash cards, spiderman, playing cards, flash cards…
Dennis: We could play with that on the train
Mat: We could. He has playing cards, too … play with it anywhere

Dennis: How much is Spiderman?
Peddler: 50 rupees
Dennis: what?
Peddler: 50 rupees
Dennis: Oh, no, no. Too much.
Peddler: Light bulbs
Dennis: Automatic light bulbs?
Peddler: Playing cards.
Dennis: No thank you.
Peddler: … sir?
Dennis: No. I still might go for a Spiderman, though.
Peddler: Spiderman?
Dennis: No. I gotta say no.
Peddler: One for 40 rupees. 10 rupee discount. Colour. Choice.
Dennis: (humming and hawing.) Fine.
Mat: chuckles
Peddler: Very, very nice price.

He eventually gets two of them for 10 rupees each. And for that price, Spiderman will stick to whatever you throw him at. As you will see, the ever gregarious Dennis recruits an innocent bystander into the fun.

We’re traveling 2AC. That’s 2-tier berths, air conditioned. 3rd class is a little more crowded with a stack of 3 bunks, no AC, no privacy, and they don’t give out sheets and blankets. We don’t really need the AC, but the bedding’s nice. The Lonely Planet Guide says 1AC gets you meals included, plus locking doors. We just have the heavy drapes.

Curtained aisle on the Shiv Ganga. There's a 4-bunk compartment on the left, and 2 more stacked on the right, running parallel to the aisle.

2-tier bunks in 2AC class. There are 4 to a compartment. Here, Bill is conked out on the top bunk. My Kobo reader and knapsack are waiting for me on the bottom. Darrol & Ben occupy the other two, top and bottom, respectively.

Ben, Darrol and Dennis have a chin wag - on MY bunk - before turning in.

The rail system isn’t all romance. There’a lot of logistics to be dealt with, and there’s no manual. So it is a life saver to be traveling with Darrol, as well as Mat, Ben and Pam, who have been down this road – or rail – before. Finding your track number, your car and your seat isn’t as easy as it sounds. The station is freaking huge, and the cacophonous throngs go on forever in a din of languages foreign to the Canadian ear, yet somehow the announcer’s loudspeaker manages to be heard above the din. Heard, but rarely understood. And little things, like the guys selling mystery magazines and junk food in the little trackside kiosks know all the details about which car number will pull up where, and what time a train’s coming in, yet there’s no Information sign. And little things like how to tuck in the sheets. There’s a special little flap under the bed cushion that I’d never have noticed in a million years had Darrol not shown it to us. And your bottom sheet tucks right into it, tikety-boo. Clickety clack and tickety-boo. Sounds like a children’s book on trains.

Some of our party are bunking way down at the other end of the car. Shea comes to our area to tell me she has met an Indian couple who are musicians and she thinks I might want to talk with them. So I take a walk. Mahesh & Lakshmi are actually a physicist and a chemist, respectively, but are also serious amateur musicians. He, a flautist (the wooden variety) and she a singer. Learning something about Indian classical music (raga) is one of my goals on this trip. Mahesh is friendly but on the dour side, while Lakshmi is totally sweet and lovely. They give me a list of their favourite maestros:

  1. Shujaat Husain Khan - sitar
  2. Bismillah Khan - shanai
  3. Hari Prasad Chaurasia- flute
  4. Prabha Atre - vocal
  5. Tal Kravitz - saw

“Saw?” I say. “Yes. And theramin,” replies Mahesh. I make a note to google Tal Kravitz, especially.

Time to get back to my berth and settle in. This audio clip should put you right there in a bunk. You can hear the muffled rhythm of the rails and if you really listen, you can hear someone snoring (not tellin’ who). I highly recommend listening to this clip with headphones, by the way.

Click here to play. Put on headphones if you have 'em to get right inside the cabin.

I don’t sleep too well when travelling – planes, trains, or automobiles. Some folks get lulled by the motion and drift away. But me, I’m like a kid who’s had too much sugar. Good thing, too, because my favourite moment of the train ride is opening my eyes around 3 a.m. and seeing, through a crack in the window drapes, a little yellow half moon floating upside down low in the black sky. Like it had parted those drapes itself and was waiting for me to notice.

Monday. Feb 18

My second favourite moment is waking up to the sun shining through the mist on the shanty villages passing by. Following is a collage of stills taken through the train window at around 6:30 in the morning.

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This little fellow comes wandering up to the train when we are stopped.

I'm shooting this from the open door between cars. For some reason, the lad has targeted me as his first customer.

He's good! Who wouldn't spare a rupee for this little sweetheart?

Oncoming tracks in morning sun through crystal mist.

trackside life

accelerating train

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We pull into Veranasi, a.k.a. Benares on time.

Veranasi Junction Railway Station. Veranasi has another station called Mughal Sarai Junction.

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Next, 4 days in Varanasi, the place where every Hindu dreams of dying.

Kind of like Florida. Only it's the Ganges instead of the Kissimmee.

Kidding.

Happy reading!

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