Authors: Monisha Rajesh
There was just one issue to address: I needed a travelling companion. India was not the safest place for a single girl to travel alone and while I was prepared to go by myself, some company was preferable. While hunting for the right candidate, I began hankering after books featuring Indian train travel. As I lay in bed one night reading Jules Verne’s
Around the World in 80 Days
, I realised that Phileas Fogg only decides to embark upon his journey after reading an article in
The Daily Telegraph
announcing that a section of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway has been opened between Rothal and Allahabad, thereby reducing the time taken to circle the globe. The birth of the Indian Railways had clearly been an integral addition to global travel. My eyes began to close as I reached the point where Fogg’s manservant, Passepartout, wanders into a temple, not realising that Christians are not allowed in: ‘He looked up to behold three enraged priests, who forthwith fell upon him; tore off his shoes, and began to beat him with loud, savage exclamations.’
Yawning, I wondered if things were still the same. I was not religious in the slightest, but remembered English friends being made to wait outside certain South Indian temples while we nosed around. Slotting a bookmark into the page, I flipped off the light and turned over, suddenly jealous of Phileas Fogg. As much as his hapless companion was becoming more of a hindrance than a help, at least he had someone to accompany him. My search for a travel buddy had proven useless, that is, until the following morning.
By some twist of fate, an email arrived from a friend of a friend. He had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was planning on travelling around Southeast Asia using his pay package. As an added bonus, he was also a part-time wedding photographer, and wanted to expand his portfolio with travel photography. Over scrambled eggs and coffee we discussed the trip. He was easy-going and smiled a lot. Pleased to have a ready-made project to walk into, he offered to accompany me for the full four months. We parted ways and I headed to the Tube, confident and happy that I had found the right man for the job.
Around the World in 80 Days,
Jean Passepartout claims that his surname has clung to him due to his natural aptness for going out of one business and into another and has abandoned his own country of France for England. Passe-partout—the French phrase for ‘all-purpose’—seemed the perfect nickname for my new companion. Twelve years ago he had abandoned his own country of Norway for England, and had now left a job in sales to pursue a career in photography. Less manservant and more travel buddy, his remit now extended to being my personal bodyguard and friend for our journey around India in 80 trains.
A week before Christmas, on one of London’s most glorious winter mornings, Passepartout and I found ourselves outside a little office on Wembley Park Drive. Low sunshine flashed off windows trimmed with icicles as we stamped powdery snow off our boots and went in to meet Shankar Dandapani, the UK representative of the Indian Railways. The room was hung with a magnificent map of India and posters of Rajasthani moustaches and pagris. It was furnished with three school desks with flip-up tops, at which the three of us sat in a row sipping tea—Shankar in the middle. He picked up the piece of paper on which I had listed a series of trains and turned it over inquisitively while I sweated under my roll-neck dress.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘A list of trains.’
‘There are only nine.’
‘I know. We were hoping you might be able to recommend some others.’
‘Are you doing 80 individually named trains, or 80 journeys?’
Passepartout and I looked at each other like a pair of dunces.
‘I suggest you do 80 journeys, or it could become difficult to find individual trains to cover certain areas.’ Scanning the list, he recoiled, then turned over the page and began to draw columns that he titled ‘scenic’, ‘toy train’, ‘luxury’, ‘Rajdhani’, ‘Shatabdi’. ‘Okay, so you have already organised the Indian Maharaja train yourself, so I suggest the following …’
Within two minutes the list had grown to almost 50 trains long. We leant in, watching with amazement as Shankar annotated a number of the journeys with ‘waterfalls’, ‘beautiful from Goa to Londa’ and ‘nice interiors’.
‘Have you done these journeys?’ I asked.
‘Many,’ he replied, handing over the paper. ‘Right, 50 is enough for now. You can work out the other 30, most of which will be connectors between each of these.’
Finally, Shankar issued us with the most important equipment for the journey: two 90-day IndRail passes. They were parrot-green, as flimsy as tissue paper and so outdated that the original price read $300, and now contained a slash across the middle, with $530 written over the top in Biro. The passes were only available to foreign tourists and allowed us to travel on any train in second-tier class or below. All we had to do was make reservations at the station or online. Once they expired, we would have to buy tickets for any remaining journeys.
‘Take good care of them’, Shankar warned, ‘if you lose them, you can’t be issued with replacements. And have fun!’ he added, as we waved from the doorway.
Outside, we looked at one another and laughed nervously. Passepartout held up Shankar’s paper and examined the list. ‘Wow, I think he just saved us from turning this trip into a total disaster.’
Christmas and New Year came and went. Despite the high numbers of January de-toxers, the upstairs section of The Crown & Two Chairmen in Soho was jammed with well-wishers waving us off. Almost 40 friends crammed in around beer-covered tables. If this had been my birthday, six dependable friends would have turned up on time. Another seven or eight would have arrived in stages throughout the night, while the rest would have texted me with last-minute cancellations. Outside the steamed-up windows it was snowing heavily. Tubes would inevitably be cancelled and buses delayed, yet the overarching possibility that I might die in a train crash had brought everyone out of the woodwork. At least I knew my funeral would have a good turnout.
Beaming at faces I had not seen for months, I clutched a handful of Good Luck! cards and strained to hear conversation over the din. A pair of cold hands pressed my hot face from behind and my friend Sarah clambered over a few bags and coats, unwinding her scarf, and slid into the seat next to me. She sat upright like a meerkat, glanced around, then hunched her shoulders and whispered:
‘Is that the photographer over there?’
I looked across to where he was chatting with his friends. ‘Yup.’
‘Not my type.’
‘What, tall, blonde-ish Scandinavian isn’t your type?’
‘No, it’s not that. I just don’t fancy him at all. He’s absolutely lovely, but that’s it.’
Sarah raised an eyebrow and yanked open a bag of McCoy’s. ‘Whatever, you’ll email me in a month and tell me I was right.’
‘I will not.’
‘Well, you’ll Facebook me then.’
I poked a crisp at her. ‘I know everyone thinks that’s going to happen, but it’s not. I just don’t see him like that. In fact, the main reason I’m happy to go away with him is precisely for that reason.’
‘I’ve saved up, I’ve worked really hard to figure this out, and I don’t want it ruined for something frivolous.’
Sarah gave me the kind of smile reserved for naughty kids. It had a hint of I-don’t-believe-you at the edges, but she relented. ‘Anyway, you might not have any ideas, but I wouldn’t say the same for him.’
‘Well, that’s certainly not my plan,’ I assured her, then changed the subject. ‘Anyway, I’m really going to miss you.’
‘Yes, I’m sure while you’re hanging out of train doorways, your thoughts will be of me sitting at my desk in East Acton opposite Sexist Chris talking about “scones and
”.’ She finished the end of her pint and gave me a big beery hug. ‘Have an amazing time, love.’
As the evening went on, family, friends and old colleagues flitted in and out of the pub depositing large glasses of malbec under my nose. By the time I and a loyal group of stragglers tumbled out into the snow at closing time, it was safe to say that we were more than a little tipsy. Icy air tweaked the end of my nose as I swayed happily across the road amid the yells, hoots and arguments over the nearest kebab house. The troopers traipsed up Dean Street towards a club where someone claimed to be able to get us all in for free, while others slunk off to the Tube. Passepartout decided to call it a night.
‘See you at the airport, then,’ he smiled.
The snow crunched underfoot and the sky glowed orange as I rocked back onto my heels and reached up to give him a quick hug. Red wine plumped my veins and snowflakes landed on my eyelashes as he turned to kiss me. It tasted of his cigarettes.
Shocked, I pulled back, as he gave me a lop-sided grin before turning and walking up the street. Suddenly sober, I closed my eyes as huge snowflakes fell all around. One word filled my mind: shit.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
1 | All Aboard the Insomnia Express
On 11 January at 5:33pm precisely, the Chennai-Kanyakumari Express pulled out of Chennai Egmore station and began its 13-hour journey to the southernmost tip of the country. We were not on board.
Having failed to reserve tickets in time we were sitting at a friend’s kitchen table a few miles down the road in Chetpet, nursing two bottles of Thums Up and wondering what to do. Taking trains in India involves a process wholly different from taking trains in England. At home it is not uncommon to arrive at London Euston 10 minutes before a Virgin Pendolino departs to Birmingham New Street, slip a credit card into a machine, grab a ham and cheese baguette from Upper Crust, and hop onto the train with a saver return ticket in hand. The booking system in India opens 90 days in advance and is instantly flooded with reservations, building up endless waiting lists—particularly during festivals and through the wedding season.
This, we knew.
But our plan for the next few months was to have no plan. India is not a country that lends itself well to organisation and punctuality, so to try and incorporate any system to the contrary is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole and will only result in frustration or an arterial embolism. However, it was now the festival of Pongal, the Tamilian equivalent of harvest time, and trains in the South had been booked up for weeks. Fortunately Indian Railways has a useful system in place for latecomers, emergencies and the disorganised. It was into this last category that we fell. Two days before a train departs, a handful of remaining ‘tatkal’ tickets is released at 8am on a first-come, first-served basis. They include a small surcharge but are so sought after that people camp out in queues overnight, or lurk online at 7:59am, fingers poised over the ‘Quick Book’ link.
The first destination on our list was Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the railways—and the country—where the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal all meet. A total solar eclipse was expected by noon on 15 January, and astronomers had indicated that Kanyakumari would be a prime viewing position. Passepartout was desperate to photograph the spectacle, which meant that we needed to head to the station in a few hours to begin queuing for tickets that we had no hope of securing.