A train journey undertaken in the year 1990, a young man's fascination with Indian Railways and its millions of users. 

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The Journey

A train journey undertaken in the year 1990, a young man's fascination with Indian Railways and its millions of users. 

We were glad the train had finally started moving. A gentle wind from the windows brought us instant relief as did the slow rhythmic thakak-thakak of the wheels on tracks reassure us that we were now on our way, moving away from the mass of humanity we were leaving behind on the platform to fend for itself.

It had been a hot and humid afternoon at the railway station in New Delhi. One train was delayed and its entire passenger load had been waiting on­ the platform along with us, the passengers of the Bombay bound Deluxe Express. Amidst all the jostling, many of us looked up at the sky, with a hope that a miraculous cold current would make these brooding clouds to pour. Dear god, please make it rain, turn on your turbines and give us some wind – anything but this relentless sweating humidity. But there was no rain.

With the train slowly gathering speed, people in our compartment started settling down in their seats. The coolness from our windows spread itself in the coach taking away the heavy, unbearable moist heat. Fights broken out had subsided. Children stopped crying, mothers were relieved and uncles started removing their shoes, taking out their slippers from overloaded bags underneath our seats. That's when one of them said, "It's not like this in the Rajdhani Express."

He had not said this to anybody in particular yet the gentleman sitting in front of us was obliged to reply. His close cut hair and his black trunk with his name painted on it suggested he was in the army.

"No sir," he said, with an air of a person who knew what Rajdhani Express was like, "it's not like this at all."

All those who travel frequently in trains will know, this was a standard ice-breaking dialogue. We were looking at twenty-two hours of travel ahead of us.

The evening was young, then there was the night and then most of next day. If all this time had to be spent in each other's company, we might as well start a conversation. And yet none of us knew how far or how deep this seemingly innocuous line was going to take us. "The platform and tracks are cleaned before the Rajdhani arrives", continued the first gentleman. Everyone called him uncle, a common address to any man above forty. This time he spoke to the army guy, finding him a good opening audience. "Everyday before 4 o'clock, when Rajdhani is due, you can see a whole battalion of people cleaning the platform and tracks. Spic-n-span."

"Even the tracks?"

"Even the tracks, sir. Every goddamn day." "Rajdhani is a special train, no doubt," said the army man, "it comes on platform number one," platform one seemed like a high-end luxury place out of reach to ordinary people.

"No," Uncle One brushed him aside, "it doesn't come on 1. It comes on 6. But that's not the point. What does it matter if it comes on 1 or 6? What matters is its special status." With that he looked around for effect. We were all glued to him. "Its special status" repeated uncle gravely.

A ticket checker came and asked for tickets. Uncle looked at him, up and down and up and down, disapprovingly, before bringing out his ticket. We all showed our tickets which he checked one by one.

"The TC is better dressed in the Rajdhani" said an old uncle from the other side of the passage after the TC had left, taking a cue from Uncle One's gaze. "Ironed white shirts and creased black pants."

"Absolutely" said Uncle One. "They don't move around like this nitwit. They are well dressed with their badges and their walkie-talkies. The best part is the whole train is vatanukoolit". At that time this was a new term. Vatanukoolit Yaan is a verbatim translation of air-conditioned coach. Children who came to clean-up at Bombay Central called it Thandi Gadi, or cold train. Why complicate it when it was so simple. That's the way it was whenever they went inside to clean in its luxuriant coolness.

"Air-conditioned coach," declared uncle for those who didn't understand. "The whole train, regardless, is air-conditioned." It was a big deal those days. The lady sitting beside the army guy was wide eyed. An entire train AC?

Meanwhile our train rolled into Bharatpur station. Loud cries of vendors could be heard – tea, samosa, sandwich, aloo puri, water – the loudest were the ones selling tea. Chai chai chai. As the train stopped many of the hawkers jumped on to our coach to catch the first customers and there was a cacophony of an entire menu aurally laid out before us. The lady in front bought aloo puri for herself and her child. The child refused so she got him biscuits.

"None of this happens in Rajdhani," said uncle disdainfully, while paying for a plate of samosas. Everyone was either eating or drinking something bought from the vendors but we did not want to miss a word. We all looked at him to hear another of his observations of the dream train. "Uniformed waiters with aprons come to serve you," he roared, "they talk softly and ask – veg or non-veg? That's all they ask. Veg or non-veg?"

"It must be costly with all this service?" asked the lady, chomping at her samosa.

"No madam. It is all for free."

"Free?! Are you sure?"

"Sure as hell. They don't charge you a paisa once you're in. You get soup and sandwich and hot roti subzi daal pickles curds even a cup of ice-cream. They take care of you like a baby."

"Last time when I was travelling in Rajdhani," the old uncle on the side berth said, "the coolie asked me fifty rupees for carrying one bag. I said why brother, why the hike. So he smiled and said you can't pay the usual twenty, after all, you are going in the khas gaadi." (special train)

"Ha ha ha," laughed Uncle One. We all laughed too. "He was right. If you have come for the Rajdhani, you are Somebody," he said. "People make way for the train and for those who are to go in it. You are treated with respect."

Its not that we did not talk of other things. We did. But every conversation invariably ended with a mention of that wonder train, that solid, beautiful, hi-tech, fast, high-end train, one that gave status to its traveller, raised them above the riff-raff and made them special. All through the journey both these men spoke about this awe-inspiring train and its many features. By evening the next day, we were full of Rajdhani stories.

Two hours after leaving Baroda our train came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. An hour went by. People began to get restless. Enquiries revealed that we had stopped for a signal. Another hour went by and a chai-vendor came in our coach. The lady with the kid and the old uncle bought a cup each. The man served them in Styrofoam cups. Uncle One had gotten down on the tracks talking to people there. He came back excited. Apparently we were waiting for another train to pass. And it was none other than the Rajdhani.

A wave of excitement swept across. All through the journey we were talking about this train. The built up frenzy was palpable.

"Rajdhani is a high priority train," said Uncle One, in reverence.

"It's the fastest," said the army guy.

"High priority is the key," corrected Uncle. "It has the same engine as others but it's given the green signal everywhere," and with a pause, "the Rajdhani never stops."

"And it's going to pass here?" asked the lady.

"Yes"

We all waited in silence. A dull blue evening quietly slipped into the night. Presently a distant roar was heard. The track outside our window lit up with the piercing head lamp of the coming engine and got brighter as it approached. Wide eyed we stared out of our window into the void.

At a breathtakingly high speed the engine passed us, followed by the first generator van, the thrust of its engine slapped a column of thick air onto our train. As the air gushed in through our windows, the empty Styrofoam cup in the lady's hand went up, straight up in the air, and there it floated, levitating in nothingness. All of us gasped with awe. There she was, the Rajdhani, a phantom shadow, moving through her myths and legends, speeding from darkness to darkness. And there was the cup, up there floating. It was an apparition. We were blessed by Her presence. We kept staring at the two for a long time.

And then silence once again.

We watched her gush past, nobody spoke a word. Her red tail light moved away with the fading sound. No one noticed when that hanging styrofoam cup came down. I remember well, it was sometime before uncle could clear his throat and start talking again.