I believe that the best and quickest way to have a tour of India is to travel in the long-distance trains. I enjoy train travel more than any other mode of travel. Plane rides are comfortable and rather convenient but the shock of the quick travel sometimes gets to you. Like two hours back, you were sleeping in your mom’s lap and BAM! you are sleeping on your cold bed in the hostel room. Trains have an aura around them. The constant chug-chug sound, the cacophony of the bearers walking up and down the aisle, plus the opportunity to glimpse the astounding diversity of our country make the journey all the more pleasant. Never mind the dirt or the lack of opportunities to bathe. It is indeed India at its quickest and best.
A long train journey across the length or width of India gives the best chance to savour food from all parts of the country. The most authentic cuisine of the particular place is served at the railway station. I remember being ever so hungry on the trains almost eating everything that that particular station had to offer as its specialty. The idlis down south, the piping hot biryanis of Andhra with the Gongura chutneys, the Missal-pav and Vada-Pav of Maharashtra, the Bhakri of Madhya Pradesh, the aloo chats, chikkis, doodh pedha, everything you can get to have in its authentic style in just one train journey! Coming to the locales, its like a mini-sightseeing trip. More than the destination, it is the journey that is worth enjoying. You can watch the landscape melt into different forms, from the dense jungles, arid plateaus to the hills, cities and towns. Who can forget the numerous rivers cris-crossing our country. It was always fun to watch the river from the train. People drop coins hoping for good-luck, you can watch the dry river beds, the water meandering through the plains and the tiny boats hoping for a good catch of the day. It is like a movie playing before your eyes.
You meet different people, get to watch them closely traveling with them in such close quarters for such long periods of time, strike conversations, get lucky in love sometimes, enjoy the journey playing board games and cards, chat and gossip and read books uninterrupted. Every platform goes into a frenzy the train stops and it is fun to watch the intense activity suddenly erupt in the otherwise calm station. People filling water bottles, coolies trying to get clients, people hunting for change, hawkers selling all kinds of things, relatives and friends welcoming each other or saying good-byes, grandparents welcoming grandkids for their summer holidays, all of this makes every journey memorable.
Of course, there are certain aspects not that welcoming. The dirty toilets, the unreserved people straying into reserved coaches and occupying floor space, the thefts, the robberies are some of the many things that Indian railways should not be proud of.
I know many will wonder why the sudden post on railways. As I was reading the paper that Mamta Banerjee will mostly be the Railway Minister, my thoughts went to railways and the changes in the pre and post Lalu days. The days when tea was still sold in cups and not Kulhads, the days when railways were not so prompt or clean,when 24 hour delays were commonplace, when accidents hit an all-time high to the recent pasts when railways are once again back in form, maintaining even better time than even the Airlines sometimes, posting huge gains, improving service and speed and becoming the delight they truly once were.
Railways are like a throbbing lifeline of our country. One of the most coveted ministries and the largest government agency, the numbers they transport, employ, earn, serve are simply mind boggling. The number of trains operating, the reservation system are all technological marvels. Sadly, we never seem to look at it in awe. All we mostly do is crib about the cleanliness, the food, the heat or compare it with others like the Euro-rail and boast about the things being better there.
Overall, nothing can beat Indian Railways.
All the best Mamta Banerjee, you have a lot to live upto.