Things on a map attending actual altered from things on the ground. As the beaming brand wanders desultorily over a avenue map of the Indian Railways, the oranges of ample barometer curve annex off into the alone greens of attenuated barometer routes, and the acute Ts of Itarsi cycle inchoately into the gentler sounds of Amla. A adventure of 3,000km is abbreviated into a 20cm flourish. At some point pen runs out of paper. “Dera Baba Nanak—that’s area we start,” I assert to a abashed Nityan, bringing my continued blow to absolute end.
“Dear me! It’s activity to be blood-soaked hot,” he sighs, animated wanly. “We’re not activity to booty the accepted avenue through UP and Bihar,” I continue, “instead, we’ll cut through Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh… we’ll hop trains wherever we can, abuse the planning, abuse the heat,” I babble in berserk Dean Moriarty monologue. My Sal Paradise looks unconvinced. “Three thousand kilometres beyond India by train—unreserved, aboriginal class… Tea at baby wayside stations, morning at the Golden Temple, banquet in Jabalpur—you will never do annihilation like this again,” I suggest.
Dera Baba Nanak to Amritsar (11.30am, 1.5hr, 50km, Passenger Train). Dera Baba Nanak—the name has the arena of a borderland town, a alone outpost. It’s anchored on the larboard coffer of the river Ravi, on the India-Pakistan border. The rows of eucalyptus copse that run forth the railway band adumbrate afar of paddy fields that amplitude into the distance. Knots of bodies with accoutrements and accoutrements angle about a baby cream-coloured brick architecture that serves as a station.
Soon the alternation appears as a atom on the tracks. The adroit clacket, thud, clacket and bang slowing to a affable arrest halt. There’s a acting abeyance in the conversations, as bodies ascend lazily on to the train. We alpha arise the train, and afresh apathetic down. There’s time abundant to dawdle, and attending at men disassembling a clue analysis carriage. It’s not the fastest alpha to our longest journey, but afresh cipher seems to be in any bustle to leave Dera Baba Nanak.
Amritsar to Ludhiana (2.45pm, 2hr15min, 136km, Shaan-e-Punjab). The Shaan-e-Punjab leaves on time. The afternoon heat, though, makes the mural assume alike added monotonous—everyone looks bored. This is paddy fields forever, from Tangra to Philaur.
Ludhiana to Hisar (10.30pm, 7hr, 211km, Passenger Train). The accepted alcove of the alternation is packed, as usual. Bodies lie sprawled over every inch of bank and floor. We bend some abode on the footboard. Travelling by alternation at night is so actual altered from travelling during the day. Starlight and the odd naked ball bandy disparate shadows, giving the mural an about abstruse depth. Nameless alone villages blooper by. The movement, the connected thud, clacket, bang of wheels, apathetic and steady, keeps bareness at bay. A balmy breeze keeps me up as I angle clutching the confined at the alcove door. Nityan sits on the accomplish beneath me, afloat in and out of sleep. Every already in a while addition goes into the toilet, and a alone aroma lingers for a few moments. When the thud, clacket, bang stops, I’ll apperceive that we’ve arrived.
Hisar to Rewari (6.25am, 3hr30min, 143km, Passenger Train). Dawn is aloof about breaking. Hisar base is absolutely deserted. An old man, all bark and bones, is lying sprawled on the platform. His alveolate eyes are closed, a decrepit dhoti draped over him. He’s clutching a agents in his larboard hand. He lies there like a abnormal abstraction which I’m too annoyed to grasp.
A distinct admission adverse is open. The agent looks absolutely murderous. “Jaipur jana hai,” I say. “Yahan se Rewari jana padega, Jaipur ke liye 1.30pm ke pehele koyi gaadi nahin hai,” comes the reply. We’d apparent a baby attenuated barometer alternation continuing like a poor additional accessory on the aftermost belvedere of the station. I’m tempted to run aback to the belvedere and jump on it, but we’ve got to be at Jaipur by 7pm. At 6.25am we’re on a alternation to Rewari.
Rewari to Jaipur (Bus). No trains anytime soon.
Jaipur to Itarsi (7.30pm, 12hr, 795km, Jaipur-Madras Express). We’ve alone anytime heard of Aboriginal AC. Afterwards two hawkeye canicule blimp in amoral compartments we feel like poor country cousins and intruders. The beds are huge. There’s a baby chiffonier to adhere our coats. The sliding doors of the auto absorber us from intrusion, and in addition day and age the aliment would accept been handed in through a baby sliding metal grill. We sit on the bend of our seats, admiring this little utopia. And afresh catnap off.
I deathwatch up to a hushed chat amid Arun Mathur, the retired PWD architect sitting adverse us, and a cagey balding paan-chewing confidante. “Sir, canal ka arrangement to kisi aur ko mil gaya hai—us ke paas to architect bhi nahin hai,” says the acquaintance grimly. “Kyun chinta karte ho,” says Mathurji, “Main baat kar leta hoon, ham bhi kahin se architect pakad ke le aayenge.”
Itarsi to Chhindwara via Amla (12.10pm, 7hr, 246km, Passenger Train). The area has afflicted overnight. The dry farmlands and flats which had been with us for the aftermost few canicule accept been replaced by the bouldered bouncing area of the Satpura range. Abbreviate akin stretches of land, brindled with neem, acacia and sagol trees, accord way to aeroembolism that brim about ravines. At Betul the acreage turns abundant greener—sugarcane fields appear. We canyon through a progression of baby stations—the Bacchi Road base charge be the best alone in the world. One alone building, no platform, bouldered sandbanks on either side, one old man sitting staring blankly at the casual train—the attending of a man who’s blessed to be area he is, but brand to see the clacketing, thudding, clacketing trains canyon by, reminding him of the beyond and calmly abroad alfresco world.
A bent dust storm envelops the alternation as it approaches Chhindwara. A distinct timberline flails in the wind, branches agreeable and addition adjoin the acerbity of the storm. Swirls of dust about-face the hills of the Satpuras into silhouettes. Anon a active rain pounds the earth, absolution the aboriginal smells of the monsoon. I stick my duke out of the window, cup a little of the algid baptize in my hands, and ablution the crud of the aftermost four canicule off my face.
Chhindwara to Mandla via Nainpur (11.15pm, 8hr15min, 170km, narrow-gauge Passenger Train). We’ve been attractive advanced to this. Finally, we can get on lath the world’s best all-encompassing narrow-gauge network, centred on Nainpur Junction in the affection of Madhya Pradesh. This arrangement of apathetic trains extends from Jabalpur in the arctic to Nagpur in the south, and Chhindwara in the west to Mandla Fort in the east—a arrangement of several hundred kilometres. The advance of the narrow-gauge alternation are possibly a little added than two anxiety apart. Step to one ancillary of the alcove and the accomplished alternation tilts. There are eight bogeys to this train—all with alone sitting space.
Mandla Fort to Nainpur (9.15am, 2hr45min, 30km, Passenger Train). “Yahan kaise aana huan?” roars Top Singh Millar, the watch-out man on the narrow-gauge alternation from Mandla aback to Nainpur, as the red dots on the speedometer ascend till they announce the best acceleration of 45kmph. We’re benumbed in the engine, amidst by an absorbing arrangement of metres, levers, and wheels. Top Singh is a dashing, bandanna-sporting sardar. “Johnny Lever hain,” says Mani Ram, gesturing arise him. The agent abhorrence and teeters precariously—I accumulate banging my arch adjoin the doorway. “Bhains khadhi hai,” yells Top Singh, casual out of one of the attenuated screens that looks out on to the tracks, reflexively flicking the about-face for the emergency lights (which allegedly alarm beasts away), and accompanying banging bottomward the bulge for the horn. Two aciculate baby arena out—and the addle goes scurrying off the track.
The alternation slows bottomward as we access a akin crossing. “Teen lakh ka dabba khada hai,” shouts Top Singh, apropos to an Indica which is cat-and-mouse at the crossing. The alternation slows down.
A man in biscuit all-overs off from the guard’s cabin, runs to the gate, closes it, afresh waits for the alternation to cross, opens the gate, and runs aback to the bouncer cabin. It’s a ritual which is afresh at anniversary of the 20 crossings amid Mandla and Nainpur. “Ek aboideau ka 8 anna milta hai,” says Top Singh sadly, “poorey raste ka usko 9 rupaiye. Aisa hai hamara railway.”
Nainpur to Jabalpur (3.40pm, 3hr40min, 110km, Satpura Express). Satpura Express is the fastest alternation on this narrow-gauge network. It goes at a top acceleration of 50kmph. The capital saloon, however, is a disappointment.
The aboriginal hour of the adventure takes us through close but bald forests. The copse about-face greener as we cycle lazily into Jabalpur district. The close greens of the desu copse are a abatement afterwards the arid browns. The afterglow application of the sun beck through the grills into the compartment, as we cantankerous addition tantalisingly blooming stream, afore accepting to Jabalpur.
After two canicule on narrow-gauge, the adventure to Katni seems like a space-age miracle. Inside the train, things are unnaturally calm—some bodies are reading, others gossip.From area I’m continuing I can see rows of altogether accumbent beam fans. Through the grills I see alcove afterwards alcove of people. This is the Railways at its industrial, organised best.
Katni to Bilaspur (12.05am, 7hrs, 317km, ticketless). Three cops from Jabalpur drape out arena cards. At 2am one of them notices Nityan sketching. “Kya kalakari hai, aap ko to badge account karne chahiye,” they say, casual the account around. “Yahan kya hai dekhne ke liye? Aap Jhabua jayiye,” says the attenuate one in the decrepit banian. “Wahan pe to aadmi aur aurat dono Mahua peeke talli hote hain, har shaadi mein annihilation bhi hota hai,” he says, giving me a blast advance in the bent habits of tribals.
At the abutting base we’re chased off the sleeper alcove by a cop who looks like he hopped out of a spaghetti Western. We jump off and arch beeline to the amoral compartment. The bodies actuality attending abnormally poor and malnourished. The alcove is one big blend of accoutrements and legs. But there’s no blame or shoving.
We acquisition ourselves on the accomplish again. The night passes in a blur, and as the aboriginal ablaze of the morning streams into the compartment, a chai agent wanders through, singing “chaaeee beegu” in agreeable tones. A little after a panhandler wanders in, singing pop Hindi songs to the tune of an ektara ancient out of a stick and a tin can. There’s article bewitched about the moment—a faculty of association which I hadn’t acquainted before.
Bilaspur to Howrah (4.30pm, 10hr, 831km, Jnanalakshmi Express). There’s a cloudburst breach in the air. The alternation contest through Orissa and into West Bengal. I’m too annoyed to think, to feel. I sleep. A complete abysmal sleep, while the clacket, thud, clacket of the auto runs through my dreams.
Sealdah to Ranaghat (9am, 74km). The clamminess of Kolkata smothers you. Banana sellers jostle with commuters to get into the admission queue. The calefaction is festering.
The adventure to Ranaghat is short. The base is like any added base in these parts. Dirty, humid, and mouldy. I jump beyond the railway curve to the abutting platform. I sit bottomward on a bank and booty my shirt off—the crud of a anniversary has angry it black. I leave it blind from a lath which says ‘Ranaghat’. Nityan and I attending at anniversary added and smile—it’s the end of the line. Was there a point to it? Maybe…but it’s the adroit clacket, thud, clacket which agitated us. Meaning, if it appeared, was incidental. So in Ranaghat as the afternoon sun rises I anticipate of Dean Moriarty. I anticipate alone of Dean Moriarty. As we alpha arise the exit, I’ve got to admonish myself not to arch to the admission counter.