This is the first of February 2018, and the train has become my home since the past three days. Home is now an aisle seat, rushing past unknown lands, as I write this suspended between departures and arrivals. Traversing between the past and the future, train journeys are nothing but about being in the now. It’s about how you are neither here nor there, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it, except enjoying the view, sipping tea, making new friends, craning your neck out to feel the wild-wild wind, doing nothing and yet loving it.
For me, a train journey is a long monologue of a thousand stories one can live in the middle of nowhere.
As this train is about to reach its final destination, the story of how all this began runs like a montage in my head, as I sip tea looking out of the window from my new found 6 by 3 home. It’s in the nowness of the musical chuk-chuk that like many others I got lost in thoughts about the moment that marked the beginning of this journey.
It was in the middle of a cold winter night in Delhi, when I randomly decided to travel from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Beginning the adventure from Delhi, I hopped on a train to Thiruvananthapuram— cluelessly excited and happily scared! Nizamuddin railway station was its usual bustling self that day. A chorus of local chatter, engines being brought to life, and travel announcements made it seem even busier. I could smell the excitement of departures, the much-awaited arrivals, and the eager wait— all together in one breath, the moment I hit the platform. I reached the sleeper class adventure and thanked the railway Gods for the aisle seat.
There is a serious cult of train lovers who turn excited the moment anyone says IRCTC. But I wasn’t a part of the cult until Kanyakumari to Kashmir happened. Some of the factors that kept me at bay were— battling the IRCTC website (it’s much better now), making a booking, wading through the waitlist and finally securing a seat. However, after spending 60 odd hours on the train, not only did I absolutely fall in love with train travels but also explored the joys of train life.
Here are a few moments that define how special train travels in India are:
Every train has a loving mother: She’ll curiously come and sit by you. And you simply wouldn’t know when you’d end up in the deepest conversations with her. She will talk about her life and soon be worried about your unmarried status in life.
A Candy uncle: Candies, chocolates, playing cards, games, earphones, power banks, pens, notebooks, books, and what not! There is a walking supermarket in trains.
A howling kid who fathoms the end of the world with each howl: Thank your stars if there is no crying little sweetheart near your coach. But that’s almost impossible with long train journeys. So brace your earphones and praise the lord for this invention.
A random stranger who likes you and takes all the train journey to effort a smile: Awkward smiles and side-eyed glances will be bestowed upon you. Sheerly out of the experience, let me tell you such encounters are harmless rubbernecking episodes. There is no need to be perturbed unless the person is a big time creep. In case you feel uncomfortable, either withdraw any further conversation or completely ignore. Usually, when such advances are ignored, they subside on their own. Honestly, I have traveled solo far and wide in India, and I feel completely safe. These are usually sweet harmless shy glances that lead to nothing to be worried about. Sometimes, people check you out simply out of curiosity, and that’s that.
A random stranger who makes some space for you: This one is a sweetheart who’d make space for you in case there is a crunch or if you are adventurous enough to travel without a ticket. Usually, this chap is decent who’s only let out a smile when you thank him/her immensely for letting you rest for a while.
A family who shares their oranges with you: This is your long lost train family. They will not eat without you and share everything they are having. They’ll sit and chat with you, and before you know it, you’ll be one of them. I remember this amazing woman from Karnataka, who was traveling with her husband and her son from Delhi. Sheerly out of curiosity when she saw me traveling solo, she started asking about my whereabouts, and soon she invited me to sit with her family. She was genuinely surprised to know about my reckless Kanyakumari to Kashmir plans. Soon an orange vendor arrived near our coach, and we all started sharing food.
A book you sleep to: For the love of reading, there can be nothing better than a long long train journey. Imagine, sitting by the train window, tucked in a blanket as you take a long breath watching the fleeting world pass by— book in hand and peace in the heart. Isn’t that a reader’s paradise?
A toilet window you smoke with: Well, long train journeys can be harsh on the yearning smokers heart. I know so many fellow travelers who take respite in the train washrooms avoiding the prying eyes of T.T.s and other officials. They make friends with the little toilet window or wait for all the passengers and staff to fall asleep to head to the door at night and enjoy a smoke. P.S. Of course, smoking is injurious to health.
A sweetheart staff member: Raju Bhai is from Andhra Pradesh and he has been working with IRCTC since the past 13 years now. His family stays in Bihar as he keeps cutting across the length and breadth of the country in trains. He lives in the train except for the annual vacation that he takes to retire back to the non-train life to his village. We started the journey together from Delhi, and soon he asked me how far I was traveling. After discovering that I’ll be completing the journey with the staff, we became friends.
The wicked T.T. Once when I was traveling from Kutch to Delhi with a broken foot, a wheelchair and two backpacks, little did I know that I was up for a wicked T.T. adventure. Here’s something I did not know and wish I did. If you have made an online reservation and your name is still on the waiting list, even if it’s waiting number one, you are traveling without a ticket. Tickets booked through the reservation counter will be cleared first, and yours will not be considered a legitimate reservation if it was done online. The funny part is that I discovered it with a broken foot while already on the train. The T.T. walked up to my berth and asked for the ticket. I confidently flashed my online ticket which was still waiting number one. So many people cancel, and I honestly thought that waiting number one shouldn’t be a trouble, except for which it was not. The wicked T.T. gave me a reality check and asked me to pay a fine for traveling without the ticket and buy a new ticket. Having announced that, he warned that even then my hope for securing a seat was bleak. I was in a thick soup that too with a broken foot! But guess what, the traveler’s community has always saved me from such situations. One of my dear traveler friend’s father was in the ticketing commission office, and things were sorted. Though the horrors of getting down in the middle of nowhere, with no direct transport to Delhi and a broken foot, still creeps me out! Let’s just say, I am blessed with amazing friends.
And finally, a feeling called HOME: If one knows how to, one can build a home, anywhere. We can’t be at peace in a long train journey if we do not feel at home. Spending a couple of days fixed in a 6 by 3 berth with crammed washrooms is not how many dreams home. This is a real nightmare for the kind of people who dread train travels. However, its a real paradise for train lovers. So how do we feel at home in a train? Honestly, for me and other train lovers, we instantly feel at home, the moment we unpack our sleeping bags in the berth, keep a book by the side and look outside the window. Fellow passengers become, and soon long conversations follow. The window by the bedside becomes a walking balcony. I could spend hours doing nothing and simply listening to music as I watch India pass by my bedroom window. This is what makes me feel at home!
After all, what is home? The feeling of being at peace within and with people around you. It’s amazing to realize that I am still friends with so many people I met on the train. I remember meeting an old couple in a train while on the same Kanyakumari to Kashmir journey. A couple of months and trains later, we again bumped into each other. And reunited as a long lost train family. This is what makes me feel at home!
Ambika Bhardwaj Ambika is a travel writer. She is living her fairytale in a small wooden cottage in the mountains. In her little snowy, little sleepy village, life is a celebration. When snowfalls they make a snowman and when the sun shines they soak in the warmth like lazy cats.
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