I have great pleasure in informing readers of this blog that the venerable Rajdhani Express trains of the Indian Railways continues to maintain the highest standards in passenger service, comfortable travel and catering that has a "must do trans-fat" attitude.
If one ignores my near fatal cranial concussion, there is much to still rejoice about the Rajdhanis.
Our little jaunt to the capital, for the missus did accompany me, suddenly happened a few weeks ago. It was not a pre-planned thing. What with the short holiday to the "gelf" last month and the traumatic Sensex movements, this blog's solvency has come under severe strain these past few weeks. Not everyone can be a Member of Parliament with feeble party loyalties no?
So when the brother-in-law announced he was flying in from Johanessburg for his annual leave we were at a quandary. On the one hand flight tickets to Delhi were mightily pricey. And on the other there was little point in using up most of the plain vanilla two-day weekend in a train.
But then there was the biltong.
The brother-in-law had graciously agreed to bring back a kilo of this unique South African delicacy. Now I am not one to be seduced by exotic food in most cases. But:
1. Biltong is made of beef 2. He brought a kilo of it 3. The entire wife's side of the family is vegetarian 4. IT WAS ALL FOR ME.
This was exactly the sort of thing that my grandmother told me happened to good catholic boys if they prayed regularly, confessed at least once a month and did not skip engineering coaching classes to see Mohanlal fillims at Jose (not pronounced hoe-ze) Theatre in Thrissur.
While the missus weighed the pros and cons of the expenditure, I convinced her by saying that we had to stick to our priorities. "Darling," I told her, "I just cannot take the risk of missing out on fresh bil... brother-in-law dear... fresh from Johanessburg on his leave. It is our duty to meet him before two to three weeks from date of packaging."
She nodded both sideways and back and forth in that way she does when she wants to reserve the right to blame me for the decision later, and I immediately pounced upon the internet.
Within minutes I was online and worked out a great compromise. We booked train tickets to go and, ironically perhaps, Go Air to come. It was what mathematicians call an "elegant solution".
I don't know about you, but the missus and moi always get very excited about travelling by the Rajdhani Express. And the 2653 August Kranti Express was amongst the most prestigious. Don't believe us? Well it has the ultimate post-modern, globalized, BRIC-era symbol of greatness to itself: a Wikipedia entry. So there.
Now many of you readers may not be aware of what "August Kranti" really means. (Yes I am talking to all you fellows who attended all the events at your college literary festival except the "boring" India quiz where they asked questions about Mahalanobis and Homi Bhabha. Instead you went and saw, shudder, pot painting.)
August Kranti is another name for the Quit India movement which began in 1942 from the August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai. It was during this movement that Gandhiji began a Civil Disobedience Movement which, as you can see on Wadala Bridge every evening after 6 PM, continues to this day.
But coming back to our train of thought (ha!). There is something romantic and mysterious about a Rajdhani no? It is of course the flag-train of the vast and very profitable Indian Railway system. And therefore, commensurately, there is a sense of travelling in the best of the fleet, if you will. The Rajdhanis are always clean and well maintained, efficiently manned by a hive of worker ants and great value for money. It is hard to find anything unimpressive about the train.
So even while I was marching down the platform at Mumbai Central, panting and gasping for air as I walked to coach number A7, I was looking forward to the trip. I reached first--the missus was held up at office--and I quickly marked my territory on the side upper and lower berths with luggage. Next to me, sitting on the full length lower berths were an elderly couple.
The woman gave me the suspicious, judgmental look that middle aged and upwards passengers save exclusively to be thrown with venom at youths and youthful people who sit next to them on long distance trains. They furrow their foreheads, sit as far away as possible and then stare for ten minutes. After that they steal glances every five minutes and whenever the youth opens a bag, stands up, sits down and so on. This was understandable when I boarded the Trichy - Cochin Express during my engineering days. Back then we carried three bottles of "what looked like Coca Cola" per passenger and traveled in groups of 15 or more. And then suddenly, after the fifteen minute stop at Erode Junction, the bottles would miraculously fill themselves with "Coca Cola" again. Antakshari would start at 3 AM or so with a Sukhbir special.
But here I was no coke swigging engineering stud.
The missus arrived shortly but this only raised the suspicions of our co-passengers further. At any sign of intimacy, like talking for instance, the elderly woman would gasp barely audibly. Finally I used a quick phone call with Pastrami to dispel her suspicions:
Pastrami: Whats up Sid?
Sid: Oh nothing much I am waiting in the train with MY LAWFULLY WEDDED WIFE for the the train to start. My WIFE OF A YEAR AND FIVE MONTHS is sitting right next to me. We intend to SPEND THE ENTIRE TRIP READING BOOKS and in QUIET PERSONAL INTROSPECTION.
Pastrami: What the... Stop talking in upper case goddamit!
This pacified aunty somewhat.
We settled down soon and looked out of the window while the efficient staff of the Rajdhani quickly stepped into action. Like clockwork a fellow in a smart white uniform went around distributing pillows, bedsheets and blankets. Another with a splendid pair of handlebar whiskers followed shortly after and asked us what we wanted for dinner and breakfast next morning.
By this time the coach was packed and all the berths around us had been occupied. Unfortunately all our neighbours asked for vegetarians meals. And then they looked at me while I ordered. Non vegetarians will be familiar with this situations when they get crowded in by veggies who all look at them ordering food with a hawkish demeanour.
As if the restaurant/pantry car people just wait for us to order biriyani in order to drop the guillotine on some poor unsuspecting chicken.
I succumbed to pressure and ordered veg dinner and veg breakfast. (Then secretly went behind the fellow a few minutes later to change my breakfast order to omelettes. High five!)
For a government run operation of such scale the Rajdhani has half decent catering of passable quality and excellent quantity. But its real strength is in the frequency. On some Rajdhani trips it's as if you are constantly being fed, tea-d and coffee-d. And then just when you are leaning back to relax and settle into the romance of a train trip, handlebar moustache is back on his next order taking routine.
It's all remarkably like the first few times you go to the in-laws' place after marriage.
(Completely fictional, illustrative conversation follows:)
"Beta, one more gobi paratha no?"
"No no no."
Paratha placed on plate.
"And some butter of course..."
"No no no."
Thick knob of butter drops onto sizzling hot paratha. Your heart decides to save time by going ahead and arresting on its own.
(Four seconds elapse.)
"Beta, one more gobi parantha no?"
"NO NO NO NO. I can't eat any more gobi parathas jee... One more of this and I will die. I swear. Jee."
"Koi baat nahi." Says the father in law to groom's relief... "Now let him have the mooli ke parantha instead."
One relents eventually.
And then mother-in-law, who is absolutely not based on people I know in real life, whispers audibly to the missus: "He has put on weight since last time. Kuch tho gym vym karvao..."
On the Rajdhani, therefore, you are eternally arriving on a decorated horse.
Our dinner arrived just as we'd settled in and opened our books. So we had to quickly rearrange the side lower berth and make space for the trays. Everyone ate quietly-the rice was a little dry and I found the dahi handy (whatay seasonal pun!). And then for a few minutes the entire coach reverberated with satisfied, synchronized burping. Now that dinner was done, the missus decided that she would turn in for the night and climbed upstairs. I helped tuck her in and then she cocked her head to one side in that endearing way and whispered that she wanted one last thing before she nodded off.
"But there are people around darling..." I said, a little bashful at the thought of a good night kiss in a train with all these other people watching. Deyvame...
"You said you wanted..."
I gave it to her with a smile secretly hoping she would fall asleep in a few minutes and not roll around too much. That makes liberating the iPod later almost impossible.
Slowly the lights began to go off, people began to change into pyjamas and other night clothes. I settled down to read by the few remaining lights (Pico Iyer - Sun After Dark).
For the first twenty minutes it was bliss. The AC buzzed in the background in a comforting fashion and I read while occasionally looking out of the window at streaks of rain and dreaming of traveling and writing like Pico Iyer. But with less gravity and more fun and frolic.
And then it started. First it was like thunder in the distance. It rumbled and rolled. Gradually it grew in strength till it proudly established identified itself: our neighbouring uncle's snore. This was no ordinary snore. No snore that was to be smiled and then ignored. This was, my friends, a powerful snore. A snore that made me sit up and take notice. A snore that spoke of years of experience and uncommon lung capacity.
This was how perhaps Lance Armstrong snored. It was loud, strong and repeated with metronomic regularity. Now normal bloggers would have made some wisecrack here about Deva Gowda or the phrase "sound sleep".
But I am also a journalist you see. And we journalists need proof. Sometimes. So here I am proud to present a Whatay exclusive! At great risk, under the cover of night, we obtained a recording of uncle snoring next to me in the train on my Sony Ericsson P990i. It is only 30 seconds long so you might want to listen to it a few times. Turn up the volume and ignore the random chatter in the background.
Vivaldi's Snore Seasons: [audio:http://www.whatay.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/recording3.mp3]
If you graduated in engineering... wait. What am I saying? Of course you graduated in engineering! Well you probably did one of those resonance experiments where an object successfully picked up a frequency from another object, like a tuning fork, according to your lab record. In the same way, in the space of a few minutes the entire coach began to snore. There were all types of snores:
- Uncles growling thunder with atomic clock level regularity
- Aunty's deep intake and whiny outgo
- That fellow across the partition who snored completely randomly in terms of frequency and volume
- And finally some guy further down the aisle who every few minutes exploded in a barrage of grunts and roars and howls, woke up, looked around to see if anyone noticed, and then went back to sleep
The wife suddenly leaned over her berth and looked down at me. There was terror in her eyes. Like most women she is a light sleeper who, at three in the morning, wakes up at the slightest noise of the refrigerator opening. I advised her to turn up the iPod to drown out the snoring.
It took me another three hours to sleep. The snoring was un-!@#$%^&-believable. The noises of our coach is probably dopplering away into space as we speak/read.
I finally nodded off just around dawn. Two hours afters above mentioned dawn, a little after seven or so in the morning, the dedicated caterers of the August Kranti Rajdhani Express went around waking passengers gently by thumping on berths with palms two centimeters from ears.
I woke up, shook up the missus and prepared for breakfast. In a flash tea and coffee sachets were distributed and breakfast trays were doled out. It was during one of these hurried bouts of distribution that Handlebar Moustache lost his balance and slammed the pointy end of his elbow into my head. It was a perfect strike. His joint landed precisely at right angles to my cranium. For a few moments I completely blanked out. Zilch. Darkness. It was a near death experience I tell you. For a brief moment I even saw a light at the end of a dark tunnel. But this was because we were actually in a dark tunnel at the time.
When I came to, Handlebar smiled in apology and slammed down a Veg Cutlet breakfast in front of me. But it was a good smile, a sincere smile. A smile that said "Totally unintentional. Okay. Enough. Shut up and eat your Veg Cutlets boy." I forgave him immediately. And wiped out the Veg Cutlets in seconds.
We spent the remaining couple of hours rearranging all our luggage, freshening up and trying to eavesdrop the conversation our neighbours were having. "Wait for it... wait for it..." the missus whispered. And just as she predicted, minutes before the train eddie-currented into Nizamuddin, Uncle and middle-30's young man shook hands and exchanged phone numbers.
"They will never ever ever hear or see each other again you know..." the missus declared. "There are few signs of permanent separation like a shared telephone number in a railway compartment."
She is both fair AND wise.
We stepped out of the train, a few minutes later, into the arms of the in-laws (mom, pop, bro) and I quickly inquired about their health and well-being. (It was perhaps too much to expect them to actually bring a little biltong to the station itself. I hid my disappointment well.)
Behind us in the compartment Handlebars and his sidekicks counted out the baksheesh they had collected earlier in the day. Used sheets lay folded to one side. Meal trays had already been cleaned and washed.
As we walked out to the car the mom-in-law threw her arm around me reassuringly:
"You look so tired beta! Don't worry. We will go home and have Gobi Paranthas, Pakode and Gajjar Ka Halwa as mid-morning snack..."
Oh yeah baby!
Picture of train courtesy Government of India. Picture of meal courtesy JuicyRai.