It’s a journey of epic proportions. 4300kms through one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world can be nothing but special. It’s no cruise liner, it’s a passenger train and one of the roughest rides in the world.
That’s 15905 – ‘Vivek Express’. This train runs from Kaniyakumari – tip of the Indian Peninsula, to Dibrugarh in Assam – almost the eastern end of the great Indian railway.
The 57 stops, 8 States and 5 days journey is a great way to understand India, but it also turns out to be a test of your own patience. Especially if you skip the comforts of air conditioning and go second class, like most Indians do.
I boarded this train from Kaniyakumari station on a Thursday evening at 11.00pm (it runs only once a week each side) and reached the final destination on Monday morning. Here is how I survived what is the mother of all train trips
SHOWER AND DINNER
If my experience of food on Indian trains was anything to go by, then it meant that the next four nights would be a test of taste as well. So before getting on madness express, I decided to assault my taste buds with some delicious dinner.
Kottu parotta at a roadside restaurant close to kaniyakumari railway station seemed like the perfect answer to my longing.
Chicken, egg, bread, tomatoes, onions, vegetables and a mish – mash of spices served on a banana leaf with delicious Indian curries was a gift from the heavens. Now I was ready for another important prep.
The SHOWER. It would at least be a few days before I could soak my black body in water. So I wanted to bathe as late as possible before getting on the train.
Well, the railway retiring room is not exactly the Taj hotel, but at least it was spacious and the water did not have snakes or insects floating in it.
So I scrubbed myself and kissed the droplets good bye for about half an hour. With a promise that I would meet them at the earliest possible opportunity.
I was now ready for the ride. As ready as a lazy employee would be for a performance review.
Kaniyakumari station at 11pm was deserted, almost eerie. It seemed like Armageddon was just round the corner. And the tired coaches of the Vivek Express were waiting only to take me there.
Silhouettes of palm trees giving shape to the darkness and the Rhino on the Vivek Express were the only things I could see.
My coach on the train looked like it was built for the 1500s. Torn seats, filthy toilets, fans and lights which dint work. Plus, there was nobody, absolutely nobody in the compartment. I thought I had underestimated the hellishness of this ride.
With a pinch of fear in my head I went to sleep. OK it wasn’t a pinch, it was more like a mountain.
If you are traveling with friends or company on any log journey, then of course things become a little easier. There is someone to share the wonderful moments. And the misery.
I was alone. The only way I would have survived was if I made friends with my fellow passengers. That can be difficult if they don’t speak your language or are terrorists.
Thankfully for me, when I opened my eyes at Ernakulam junction – I was greeted by the sight of gentle and humorous sports people from Assam.
Within a few hours, the coach of the team took a liking to me and my insanity. He was amused that someone would take a journey that is avoided by many, just for ‘fun’.
The first day was filled with good humoured conversations about Assamese culture and a 32 year old who quit a good job to commit a suicide. If you haven’t figured it yet, the guy is ‘me’ and the suicide has a fancy name, it’s called ‘The 12 Project’.
As we spoke, we crossed the mountains and trees of Tamil Nadu and made our way to the dryness of Andhra Pradesh.
It was now the second morning and past the 36th hour on the train. I could do with a shower and a nice breakfast. Eggs and bread with lots of tea would be perfect.
But I had to settle for oil-oozing vadas and spicy chutney at Vishakapatnam. And sickly sweet watery tea.
By now the excitement of being on a special train was wearing off. My line up of activities for the day came to my rescue. Yes, activities or as planet office likes to call it, ‘things to do’. As you can see, even quitting a job hasn’t helped me get rid of the ‘to-do’ list.
The activities included people watching, noting characters that crawl the train, paying a visit to the general compartment and trying to enter the pilot’s cabin. Each activity was a tad more difficult than the previous one.
The Vivek Express like most trains in India is a treasure trove of characters. Chai-wallahs, fruit sellers, snack vendors, necklace sellers, tooth brush-soap pushers, beggars, singers, ayurvedic doctors, ear wax cleaners, priests and pimps are just some of them.
The most colourful of them all are the eunuchs. Known as hijras or chakkas in India, they are a breed to themselves. Some of them are sweet, some jovial, others suffer from melancholia. But the worst of the lot are the aggressive ones who will almost get into a fist fight with you for your money.
I encountered a particularly uncouth one. He decided to give me a view of his bottom since I refused to part away with my cash. It is a sight that can be erased only by many expensive hours of counseling.
The general compartment was a different world. There were more people per square foot there than there must be in the most populous jail in the world.
But the wonder that India is, it wasn’t such a bad place. I could see people laughing, sharing a meal, temporary cradles for babies and men chewing gutkhas or smoking bids. As opposed to the grim atmosphere one might expect, people there seemed like they were attending one big party.
Infusing difficult circumstances with joy is a quintessential Indian trait.
The toughest thing to do was to get into the motor man or the pilot’s cabin.
But to my delight, I managed to do that as well. With my serious, learner’s face I told the pilots that mine was an academic project on the Indian railways and I wanted to get a view that they have. At Bhubaneshwar station in Orissa, they hesitatingly let me in, only to throw me out at Cuttack, the next station.
Everything in India is worth savouring. And a train that runs through so many distinct regions obviously has loads to offer.
Sitting on the foot rest of the doors I watched sights pass me by. Sights of mountains, rivers, crimson sunsets & foggy sunrises. Sometimes the train crossed an urban mess but mostly it sliced through the pristine countryside. This was the India that I had yearned to see since I was a kid. And I savoured every bit, or rather, every sight of it.
Let’s talk about food now. I won’t lie to you, for most parts the food was crap. The catering on the train sucks with the staff themselves complaining about the management. But, there were glimmers of culinary delights even in this bleak landscape of bad taste.
They came in the form of snack vendors. Like the rasgulla and gulab jamun of Bengal, pulses salad in Orissa or the jhaal-muri which is a staple snack in the most eastern parts of India. The food plaza at New Jalpaiguri served some kick-ass biriyani. The train was one way to get a brief, just a brief, insight into the culinary landscape the journey traverses through.
I requested a friend in Guwahati to get me some food and he obliged with mouth watering pork momos. To me, that was the culinary climax. It was also the final night of the journey, and I was smiling.
But the smile on my face disappeared the moment I looked into my small bag the next morning. Only a couple of hours away from the final destination, I realized that my wallet, phones and cameras were stolen.
It was almost as if the Vivek Express wanted to add that final touch to my journey. For gaining the knowledge and experiences, I had to be willing to pay a price.
People say some opportunist thief would have stolen my belongings between Lumding and Dimapur. The stretch between these two stations is apparently notorious for robbers who drug passengers. Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened to me.
As the Vivek Express drew into Dibrugarh, I was probably the only passenger to stay with the train through its entire journey.
Apart from the smiles, the wonderful landscapes, conversations & laughter, the Vivek Express ensured that my journey was not over at reaching Dibrugarh. The loss and the overcoming of it took another few days.
That way I stayed in the Vivek Express long after it halted at its new & shiny final destination. And a part of me will stay there forever. For it isn’t an easy journey, but it is the most special.