Monday 13 July 2020

T is for Trains

The best way to experience India is to travel by train. It is not the fastest: in 20 hours, an express may cover only 500 km. But the leisurely and continual journeying gives you an idea of the scale of India. It also allows you plenty of time to look out of the window, to see India in all its slow rolling details.  This is true travelling in a landscape.

Trains are not only a vital element in modern Indian life, they are splendid cultural artefacts, living dinosaurs of the Raj. Steam rather than diesel or electricity powers the thousands of locomotives on the network. In part this reflects the country's limited resources; but it is also of a piece with much else in India today. Whether it is in transport, language or bureaucracy, the country preserves, as if in amber, the rhythm and rituals of fifty years ago. To step onto a platform as a battered hissing train arrives, is to step back in time,

With a resource as complex a railway network, the Indians are able to indulge their love of paperwork to the full. Buying a ticket, reserving a berth - anything to do with the railways - involves queues, forms and interactions with countless species of clerks, most of whose responsibilities are so carefully circumscribed that an ordinary enquiry is likely to involve a platoon of them. Along the bustling station platforms, a small forest of signs hanging above offices maps out the hierarchy of this station world.

Fine distinctions extend to the trains themselves. As well as the express, mail and passenger trains, there are a variety of track gauges: broad, narrow, and narrower. On board, the railway has its own caste system, though less stringent than the Hindu scheme. At the top is the first class air-conditioned car, followed by ordinary first class. Then there is second class reserved and second class unreserved at the bottom.

First-class, like express, is a word used loosely on the Indian railways; first-class sleepers feature hard seats which turn into harder bunks. Most Indians bring their own sleeping-bags. Food and drink, on the other hand, are readily available on the journey. At every station stop – and there are always many - the air is full of the reedy mournful diphthongs of the chaiwallahs as they hawk their small thermos flasks of hot tea. Around mealtimes, men with trays of food pass through the train,

For the westerner, the stations and the trains are like something out of an old film-set, with the hub-bub of the milling crowds, people jumping on moving trains, the steam and the screaming whistles. Indians harbour no such romantic illusions. For them, they are often simply the only way to get to work in the towns. In the early morning, the seats in the already overflowing passenger compartments are supplemented by people crowded into freight wagons hitched behind; some even sit on the roof, or stand on the links between carriages. The builders of the railways, the red-faced, moustachio'ed Victorians, would probably have approved. For all their sentimentality, they too were hard-headed about trains. They knew that, like the roads for the Romans, railways were instruments of empire. And they remain today as the British Empire's most valuable legacy to India.

A Partial India A to Z

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