Edwin dug out a tub of fried mackerel and unscrewed the lid of his mother’s garlic pickle. ‘Try a small amount with your roti and dal; it will go nicely,’ he said, smiling and spooning a rust-red blob onto my foil wrapper. The train lurched, sending the pickle onto the floor. Edwin was right—the zing and zest of smoked garlic and chilli shot through my taste buds and left a pleasant tingling that livened up my lunch.
In the adjoining compartment a family of four sat cross-legged, eating biryani and boiled eggs off old copies of Marie Claire, the smell of cooked onions filling my nostrils. Outside the barred window, Goa’s greenery swayed in the breeze as we sailed past palm-filled villages, and a wave of contentment swept through me. After three months, 61 trains and almost 32,000 miles, I had come to view the railways as my home, my companions as family.
Although I was traveling by myself, I was certainly not alone and had never known such a strong sense of belonging. But it hadn’t always been that way.
My family lived in India for two years when I was a child but hated it, and we moved back home to England. I had never seen India as a tourist and over time my curiosity about the country grew ever deeper until, finally, 20 years after having left, I turned to a map of the Indian Railways.
Running my finger along the wiggles, I realized that there was a train that could take me into almost every single nook and cranny. The lines rippled out for thousands of miles, skirting coasts, slicing through cities, running up mountains and extending to the farthest tips of the landmass. So, with a flimsy rail pass in hand, I boarded my first train in Chennai, in the south of India, and began my awfully big adventure, traveling around India in 80 trains.
Before I set off I was given a number of warnings about traveling alone, some of which I heeded, some which I didn’t. I was aware that as a single woman traveling alone with little more than a rucksack and a battered Lonely Planet, I would draw more than a few stares. But I was approached largely out of curiosity rather than creepiness and I was careful when traveling at night, choosing bunks in compartments with families or students and keeping my valuables in a purse around my neck. Overhead bunks kept me safe from wandering hands, though these were few and far between. I sat quietly behind books—watching, listening and learning—and with a pair of earphones in, but no music playing.
I soon realized that a train ticket was an invitation to intrude into other people’s lives. Nowhere else could I lie above a stranger, listening to him mutter in his sleep, eavesdrop on conversations about mother-in-law disputes, and join dancing and singing pilgrims as they clapped and jangled their way to temples and shrines, offering me advice and sharing their tips.
Trains in India are also a microcosm of society, and I could walk from one end of a train—where a first-class carriage housed politicians and businessmen tapping on laptops—to the opposite end where farmers sat on wooden slats sharing stories and paper bags full of fruit. For all the luxury of Rajasthan’s royal trains, with their regal suites and dapper butlers, the local passenger trains that thundered through the Thar Desert brought me closer to the people and the red hot dust that swept through the corridors.
During a 90-minute ride from Ajmer to Pushkar, I perched on the steps watching the afternoon sun bounce and blaze across the landscape, its Mars-like surface dotted with tiny tornadoes, twisting in the wind.
On a 48-hour journey from Delhi to Kerala, I squatted in an open doorway with a book and a mango lassi, watching as the train wound out of the gridlocked, grimy city. Slowly, BMWs turned into bullock carts and the land thinned out into fields of wheat and rice. Passengers came and went, bringing with them a variety of different cuisines, dialects and clothing, until we arrived two days later in Colgate-fresh Kerala, the sky washed clean and the sun burning anew. Had I flown around the country I would have found myself wedged in between two mute companions, with little more than a dusty oval window to view the land below.
Shaking out bedding from brown paper bags, I felt every night like I was partaking in the world’s biggest sleepover: passengers pulled on jumpers and fleeces, yanked up socks, pushed cotton wool in their ears and snuggled down for the night, some reading by tiny night-lights, others rocking gently to the beat of the wheels on steel. Over four months, in 80 trains, I traveled more than 40,000 miles—almost the circumference of the earth. Riding on commuter trains, express trains, luxury trains, toy trains, Bombay’s infamous local trains and even a hospital on wheels, I came to realize why Indian Railways was lovingly known as the Lifeline of a Nation, the bloodstream that keeps India’s heart alive.
Share your experience of train travel in India with #momentumtravel
Photos: Alamy, Harald Haugan and Monisha Rajesh