0345 hrs and Nizamuddin Railway station resembles a zombie movie set. It is mostly dark, a few sputtering streetlights barely illuminate the car park. People are everywhere on the pavement, scattered like dead bodies. The odd person walking about, does so in a slow stagger. I am looking for a porter but there are none in sight. I am resigned to heft my heavy luggage single handedly At the entrance the metal detector looks forlorn and the X-ray machine is catching forty winks, as is the policeman manning it. A bright blue sign tells me that I am under the watchful eye of the camera but I don’t suppose that it is awake either. As I gingerly step through the metal detector, it squawks. So loudly that my bones jump out of my skin. Not a soul stirs, not even the on duty policeman’s.
I finally reach the platform and shake the chaiwallah out of his stupor and ask him to rustle up a Kadak. As the tea leaves boil in anger, so do I – Trainenquiry informs me that the Chattisgarh Exp has magically lost 45 min between Ghaziabad and Nizamuddin. Resigned to my fate, I sip my cuppa and wait… and look for a porter but there are none in sight, still. But then the PA System springs to life with Tada.wav and so does the station. The first of the morning’s arrivals – the Dakshin is about to turn up. The train soon makes a dignified entry. Nothing is dignified in the manner the passengers get off the train though. But at 4AM in Delhi winter, not many people are. Much later comes the announcement that the Chattisgarh is expected any minute.
A porter is still not in sight and to confound matters the damned train is coming on PF2, leaving me to heft more than 40kg across before the train turns up. Chuffed at managing the herculean task without mishap, I wait under the HA1 coach indicator and watch the train pull in. Three coaches later the Punjabi equivalents of Blistering Barnacles and Thundering Typhoons are being let loose. The bloody indicators are reversed and a 20 coach walk with the confounded 40 kgs of wedding presents lies ahead. And just when I am about to load them in my coach – a smart alec cop sniffs an opportunity to make a quick buck and demands to know what is in them. That gets my goat and I throw the rulebook in his face with such fury that he is later seen buying me a cup of chai in an attempt to control my blood pressure!
My bay in the 2A portion is empty – no one is due to board before Bhopal. I make my bed as we pull out but I am snoring before we manage to touch Faridabad. Before long I am up. We are thundering through the fields of Southern Haryana as a hint of Orange colours the morning sky. Low White mist hangs like a curtain above the Green fields and for a moment I wonder if this was the sight that inspired someone many years ago to think up the colours for the Indian flag. Palwal, Kosi Kalan, Chhata are left behind and on the approach to Mathura.
Cries of “Chai, Masala Chai…” ring through the coach and the pantry service for the day has started. Having heard many stories about the train’s pantry I am eager to try it for myself. If the quality of the brew is any indication, then the start has been on the right note. The chai is exactly what was needed to clear the cobwebs between my ears and a second cup is ordered just make sure of it. Mathura is despatched, along with Raja Ki Mandi, Agra and Dhaulpur and I am back on the door to watch the train toot its way into the curve before the massive bridge over the Chambal. A hobbit sized breakfast of Aloo Parathas and Bread Cutlet has been ordered. That finished, I seek the steward to send to my compliments back to chef. After all, I couldn’t think of the last time when I had spicy paranthas laced with fresh coriander at 110kmph.
The steward comes back to ask my lunch preference. It seems that apart from the regular menu, I can order anything I like – the deal is settled at Paneer Bhurji, Dal Tadka, Jeera Rice and Fresh Paranthas. At Gwalior, I actually step outside to check the train’s name in case I had mistakenly stepped aboard the Palace on Wheels. But it is indeed the Chattisgarh, among the most hated trains on this sector for reasons beyond my comprehension. At Dabra we are pulled into the loop again. I am on the left hand door watching fresh sleepers being lifted off a flatcar when a soft voice hails me. I turn stare into deep kohl rimmed eyes requesting me to step away from the door. I am dumbfounded for a moment before I move away. She takes over the door and starts recording the crane that is lifting the sleepers with her camera.
A distant horn prompts me to step out on to the platform. The Punjab Mail screams past, then the Sampark Kranti followed by the Swarna Jayanti. I’m so busy recording them on my phone that I don’t notice her standing right behind me and I almost bump into her. Apologies are muttered as we walk back and weirdly I am feeling like 14 year old! I am too flustered so to calm my nerves so I stick at the door to watch the lovely countryside between Sonagir and Datia. And then I find her in the doorway looking at me intently. She introduces herself and immediately wants to know what I do for a living. The moment I utter ‘photographer’ all hell breaks loose. A barrage of questions is let loose about my work, my travels and the places I have been to. I try and answer as calmly as I can, but can’t help my ears turn red.
I try and escape to my seat but she follows me there with her questions. I resign myself to my fate but it is getting increasingly difficult to look into those pretty eyes and answer questions about my travels in the jungles of Orissa with a straight face. Finally, the arrival of lunch rescues me – she gets up and leaves saying that she has to attend to ‘her children!’ Heartbroken, I dig into my lunch but not before paying obeisance to Major Dhyanchand watching over the approach into Jhansi. We are behind schedule now but I can’t care less. The lunch quite simply is the best ever I have eaten in a train or for that matter better than many high priced restaurants. Naturally, the soporific effects of such a meal take over and I wake up as we approach Mandi Bamora. The train having is now on time, courtesy the black art of timetable slack.
Tea is on my mind and before I can think of anything, she walks in with a flask and two cups! Among her next set of questions is the purpose of my current trip. As I tell her about the family wedding I am off to, the famous Hindi adage springs to mind – ‘Shaadi ka Laddoo, jo khaye vo pachtaye. Jo na khaye, vo bhi pachtaye.’ Having spent my entire bachlerhood dreaming of such a companion, it comes true 5 years after I gave it up! I decide to turn the tables and ask her about her children. Turns out that she is taking a group of children from Kashmir across India on what was their first train ride. A few of them turn up in our coach with a question about Madhya Pradesh which is promptly directed towards me. The next few hours are spent in their fascinating and inquisitive company. It reaffirmed my belief that a 44 hour train ride could teach more than a lifetime of books and television. She leaves to escort them back to their coach and I am left with my thoughts which are replaced by a text from the wife. It is dark outside, but I can feel the train climb the Malwa plateau via the gap at Bhadbhadaghat.
Dinner is served as we descend the plateau in to Narmada’s vale and it is fit to be served at a king’s table. Matar Pulao, Rajmah, Paneer Masala, Paranthas and Raita. I feel the urge to go kiss the chef but then the steward arrives with the bill. The special service comes with its own price tag and I am supposed to pay 450 rupees including the next morning’s breakfast – not that I am complaining in any way.The country’s navel – Itarsi fades in to the darkness as we accelerates hard toward the forests.
The lights are out, only the reading light is on. My wandering thoughts are scrambled further as she walks in again. The dim warm light, her hair let loose and her hushed tones threaten to turn my brain into jelly. I’ve no idea what she is saying and then she gets up, smiles and leaves me with a good night. We do not stop at Dharakhoh, but I am at the door. The icy cold wind, the roar of the wheels over the viaducts, the damp warmth of the tunnels and the twinkling of fireflies in my favourite corner
of the world, help restore sanity.
The rising sun reveals shows that we are climbing another set of hills. This time it is the Lamti Dongri range between Salekasa and Darekasa. An endless stream of freights carrying coal, minerals and Iron & Steel products is headed in the opposite direction. More are standing in loops at every station. We draw closer to Durg but our progress is increasingly slowed, most likely due to freights ahead of us. We finally pull in to Durg and mercifully porters abound to help me with the luggage. I negotiate with one and start walking when I hear my name. She is at the door smiling, waving me goodbye….