59 hours and counting – Part I

Posted on October 26, 2014


“Your hair is disheveled and you look tired. Have you realized that you have been travelling for 50 hours straight?” said my father as I stepped out of the side entrance of Madras Central, with the evening sun bouncing off the clock tower.

“It’s 59 hours and 15 minutes,” I hit back, with a glint of pride, “and I am not tired.”


To travel endlessly is a carnal desire for many. To travel just in trains is the wish of a niche set of individuals sometimes labeled as lunatics by the ignorant. As Paul Theroux said, it is essential to write what you see during the travel that matters the most than superficial descriptions of scenery laced with a heavy dose of adjectives. I abide by the Theroux code: not many expressed their desire to travel like him.

In what is my maiden attempt to pen down my travels, I had the choice of two trips. The first: a trip from Mumbai to Allahabad (a tribute to my hero Phileas Fogg) and later Delhi, which lasted two weeks in December, 2013. The second: a trip to Madras; a visit home after 10 months (August, 2014).

As part of an experiment I had decided to stay away from home as long as possible. Finally, the levee broke. Ten months was my limit after which I savoured the comfort of T.Nagar and suffered the inadequacies (like every place does have) of a city slowing adapting to a cosmopolitan setting. Travelling in the Mumbai-Madras direct trains are a morose, drab affair. Ever since August 2013, the journey home has been through a circuitous route. I had always wondered how it would be to travel from one end of the country to the other, Mumbai to Kolkata to be precise.

Madras, Kolkata and Mumbai have the unique colonial bonding, which Delhi doesn’t. Rudyard Kipling captured this connection in a short story City of Dreadful Night, witnessing how the cities were then.

Kipling wrote: Bombay is too green, too pretty, and too stragglesome; and Madras died ever so long ago. Let us take off our hats to Calcutta, the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent, as we drive in over the Hughli Bridge in the dawn of a still February morning. We have left India behind us at Howrah Station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar.

The fact that the three cities had individual railways function outside their respective presidencies in the 19th century embodies that connection. So, the Mumbai-Howrah-Madras trip did indeed have symbolic value.

I have always been asked about the secret of getting a confirmed train ticket. The key is to plan the trip well in advance – there is no comforting feeling than to have a confirmed ticket. But at the same time it is equally frustrating when the days inch by slowly ahead of the journey.


The heavy drizzle set the tone and infused some melancholy amidst mixed emotions. As informed, the taxi driver was waiting for me, right on time, as I loaded my luggage – a large travel bag, a backpack with travel essentials and laptop backpack – into the vehicle. The Eastern Freeway was empty, the silhouettes of gothic buildings of Bombay glowed just before dawn. Arriving well before time, the taxi driver and I had a cup of tea right outside the Chhtrapati Shivaji Terminus, with the local civilization of merchandise hawkers, breakfast vendors already in business.

I had a reason to savor my drink.

The Gitanjali Express was scheduled to depart on time at 6:00 am. The pairing train from Howrah had arrived ahead of time the previous night. The Mumbai monsoon had just crossed its peak, but the nightmare for Central Railway was far from over. To enter Mumbai by train (except the Konkan line), one must travel through the scenic Western Ghats.

With heavy rains, occurrences of landslides and other mishaps are always expected. Three days before my journey, the Gitanjali Express departed Mumbai almost 12 hours late. If any such delay were to happen during my journey, I was bound to miss my connecting train. The back-up plan, however, was in place. I had tickets for the same journey a day later. If I missed my connecting train, I would have taken a flight to Madras; if Gitanjali was delayed both the days, I would have taken the next direct train to Madras. And even if that had failed, a flight back home was the only option. A typical rail fan’s dilemma, if it was any indicator of worry days ahead of the travel.


Gitanjali Express is from the South Eastern Railway stable, which means expecting a clean rake would only lead to disappointment. I am a sleeper class traveler, that’s where the charm of the travel lies, I have always felt. However the sleeper class also draws the spotlight for the worst filth. The dirt in the rake had been just swept away overnight when it actually required a proper cleaning. And like any other train that involves Howrah, it was a signature crowd.

I had got myself a side lower berth. To better that, it was an action side window (where I can see trains go by the opposite direction). To top it all it was an emergency window. After settling my luggage in with the help of a thick chain and a sturdy lock, I opened up the berth to sit down. But, looking back, I shouldn’t have! Filth in the form of red rust and plastic bits was strewn across the tiny rectangle. In a reflex, I just dropped the berth back. I was not surprised, yet was disappointed. The Gitanjali Express is a prestige train. It was started as a classless service by former railway minister Madhu Dandavate in 1977 and had limited halts. Until the Duranto was introduced a couple of years back, Gitanjali was the fastest train connecting the two cities.

After checking the locomotive for this train, I got a glimpse of the pantry. If there was any way a pantry should not be maintained, then the Gitanjali Express is a prime example. The putrid meat, unclean vessels, grubby cooks, rusty fittings: it looked like the train had no caterer but maintained by South Eastern Railway.

The drizzle didn’t stop as we left Mumbai. My co-passenger was Hisbul headed to Santragachi, a suburb of Kolkata. We exchanged pleasantries and got into a conversation before sleep took over in Kasara, the gateway to the scenic Thull Ghats.

The British-era bridges on the Thull Ghats

The British-era bridges on the Thull Ghats

While Hisbul retired to the painful side upper berth, I stretched out my legs, removed the safety lock in the emergency window and tried to take pictures in my amateur point-and- shoot Nikon. The rains were at their best, and the ghats were transcendently beautiful with streams flowing wildly. At one stage, the lines are split by a valley and excess of water from the hills flowed in full pace through the culverts that ran beneath the track to join a river. The clouds also fell low, and the British-era tunnels yet again passed the test of time.

The mystic charm of the monsoon.

The mystic charm of the monsoon.

The stop at Igatpuri meant that the AC traction would take over, and a WAP-4 locomotive from Santragachi shed would lead the train to Howrah. Bombay is the only city to have DC traction in the country in the 21st century, the conversion works are still on. Igatpuri is a quaint little station on the foothills of the Thull Ghats, a tea and samosa in the station is recommended and you can even bundle up some fruits for the journey.

The honeymoon period was over; from the cool climes of the mountains it was now time to face the treacherous heat of central India’s plateaus. This is the reason why people fear the sultry sleeper class and prefer the caged air-conditioned class. Hisbul ordered food from the pantry and regretted it, while I was going on a semi-liquid diet of Tang and fruits.

The 27-year-old was also going home after 10 months. He works as embroiderer for an export company in Lower Parel and stays in a room shared by eight people in Madanpura. He came to Mumbai just after finishing high school eight years back to help support his family, predominantly farmers. He was fascinated by my profession, but was more eager to show his work.

He showed photos of his embroidery on salwars and shawls. “Dubai ke seth log isse karid the hain bahut paise de ke,” he said with pride. He loved his work: his fingers and wrists were his livelihood. Hisbul was no different from me, we both had come to Mumbai seeking an opportunity and enjoyed the chance we got. He earns Rs. 15,000 per month and sends home at least Rs. 8,000. He makes a few more thousands by working overtime. He is among the many who land in LTT/ Dadar/CSTM daily just to seek a livelihood.

The train did not have much crowd as we progressed past Bhusaval. According to a regular traveler from Shegaon to Akola, the TTE would have normally gone mad by this time due to the excess unreserved passengers.

Honestly, I have no problems with unreserved passengers boarding reserved coaches as long as they don’t infringe a reserved ticket-holder’s seat and luggage space. With the supply being short to demand by a mile, it is only natural that the reservation coaches are also invaded. I have done that too many times, but have never caused inconvenience to another fellow traveler.

Like in every train across the country, the Gitanjali has its constant flow of transgenders/hijras asking for alms. They have their territories marked too. For instance, one particular group occupies the train only till Kalyan. Another gang boards at Nasik Road till Bhusval and so on. Breaching the territories is a strict no-no and if done it could even lead to fist fights. Although, one group can go beyond their beat as long as they don’t ask money from passengers.

Best option for lunch, at Akola Junction.

Best option for lunch, at Akola Junction.

My word of advice is to carry a lot of coins and slowly dispose them. Taking out your wallet in front of hijras is always a risk. They may snatch it and take all your money away. I had already given away close Rs. 100 by the time we reached Akola. When I questioned another hijra about how much do I keep giving away, she walked off without protest and disturbed others, some in deep sleep. She tried to wake up a saree-clad passenger in the upper berth and was successful after multiple attempts. The passenger turned out be another hijra who decided to sleep in an empty berth after her duty was done. They seemed to be good friends, given that the entire compartment was disturbed by their cacophony.

A couple boarded at Badnera, and the middle-aged lady stood out with gold jewellery around her neck and bangles in her wrists. They were from Amaravati, headed to Nagpur by car. A strike to protest the local body tax meant that their car with an empty tank had to be parked at Badnera, and they boarded the first train to Nagpur. When approached by a ticket checking squad, the lady made me her relative. And honestly we were nowhere close to being relatives due to our contrasting skin tones.

The heat was obliterating. I was constantly purchasing chilled mineral water bottles and mixed it with Tang to keep myself hydrated while reading The Old Patagonian Express by Theroux. The constant feature throughout interior Maharashtra was the presence of kilns at regular intervals. Buildings, however, were restricted to the Tier-II cities.

As the evening sun gave a crimson hue to the clouds, we passed through Jamtha Stadium; Nagpur – India’s railway mid-point – was around the corner.

The aftermath of the heat was evident and the crowded station did not help. A cold face wash and a Haldiram’s kulfi was just the right antidote and to our fortune the clouds opened up after we crossed the famous diamond crossing (where the north-south and east-west lines interject).

The train finally crossed Maharashtra after 960 kilometres. You could imagine the administrative nightmare that the districts on the outer rim face!

The cool morning passed in a haze as I woke up briefly at Jharsuguda, and then at Rourkela, the home of the famous steel plant. The landscape was no more barren, it was lush green and filled with mountains and the mud houses took over from the brick ones.

Welcome to the mineral belt of India, I told myself as I sipped tea and grabbed the Sambalpur edition of The New Indian Express.

The mountains and hills passed, some of them decapitated. The granite quarries went deep into the ground. The craters were covered by the overnight showers. The patterns created by cutting out the raw stone were symmetrical. The stunted rock formations were of different sizes depending on how much they have been drilled through. Unfortunately, I slept through Tata Nagar as Hisbul woke me up after we crossed the station. The excitement on his face was more evident now as he reconfirmed the timetable with me again.

He was heading to Kolaghat from Santragachi. Kolaghat is famous for its thermal power plant which can’t be missed from the train. He started showing more of his work on his cell phone, and was surprised I had not eaten anything in more than 24 hours.

From Kharagpur it was familiar territory. I was regretting the fact that there were just two more hours left before the next leg of my journey. The 115-km journey was scythed through in quick time, bisecting the fields and over the Damodar. People in the bay started to freshen up and dress well, many of them like Hisbul eagerly waiting to go home after a long time. As we passed Kolaghat, Hisbul divulged more about his stay. A big family reunion was planned the next night, and in a moment of pride he spoke about how we would go home from Santragachi, in a car driven by his uncle.

A city I love so much, but sadly coudn't go on the other side of the river.

A city I love so much, but sadly coudn’t go on the other side of the river.

My visits to Calcutta always had a profound impact on me. The laidback feeling hits you as you get out of the colonial Howrah station and into the busy road which can intimidate you. After arriving 10 minutes ahead of schedule, I made way to the retiring room on first floor of the second building that had a wonderful view of the river, and the city on the other side. The facilities were well maintained, and a re-energising bath gave me that push to wander around the river. I checked if a quick ferry ride was possible, but felt it was cutting it too fine. I grabbed a quick meal at the Comesum food court gaping at the pace in which people moved around inside the terminal. I could imagine myself running around like a headless chicken to board a train at CSTM.

It was time to move to the third terminal, the most recent one at Howrah. The heat started to make its presence felt again, as I dragged my bags to platform 22. Coromandal Express was shunted in and a bevy of unreserved passengers slowly started settling into the general compartments. I thanked my stars that I didn’t have walk to the other end of the rake to board the AC compartment.

Part one ends

PS: I would like to dedicate this post to Anusha S, for being a pillar of support, always.