Around India in 80 Trains with Monisha Rajesh

Indian Train RajasthanThis week I have a guest post/interview with London-based journalist Monisha Rajesh. She embarked on a journey across India in 80 trains, travelling widely in the country, covering luxury trains, toy trains and a newly launched non-stop Duronto Express in the blog 

What did you do before embarking on your epic journey?

 I’m a freelance journalist in London and was working at TIME magazine while writing for a number of other consumer magazines.

What made you want to do the trip?

I was reading an article at work about how India’s domestic airlines had boomed to the point of being able to connect over 80 cities, which was quite a feat, but at the same time didn’t strike me as being too eco-friendly. After a quick google I found a map of the Indian Railways and saw that the network was far more impressive than any airline’s route. I’d lived in India for a couple of years in 1991 but had barely stretched a toe beyond Madras and had always wanted to go back and cover areas like Assam, Punjab and Sikkim. It looked like there was a train for the most extreme tips of the country and I wondered if I could travel around India in 80 trains, and there was the title of my book!

How was the trip funded and how long did you go for?

India is a relatively inexpensive country so the trip hardly broke the bank. It was nothing a few months’ savings couldn’t handle. We also bought an IndRail pass in London, which is like a little golden key given to foreign tourists. The pre-paid pass cost us £350 each for 90 days and included unlimited travel in air-conditioned two-tier compartments, although it meant I could travel in any of the lower classes too. If I’d paid for individual tickets the cost would have more than doubled. I set a goal of 80 trains in four months.

Have you noticed similarities between the British railway system and the Indian system?

To be honest, Indian Railways is by far and away superior to the British system. In terms of price, punctuality, friendliness, atmosphere and variety, no other railway network has a patch on Indian trains. Yes, they can be achingly slow at times and rather grubby, but it’s no worse than hopping on a late-night train from Beaconsfield into London and stepping over empty cans of Fosters, half-eaten bags of Quavers and general muck. Like everywhere in India, there’s always a residual Britishness, whether it’s the archaic language on train signs or the Shatabdi speed trains that offer cornflakes, hot milk and a crisp newspaper at breakfast.

What is the best thing about train travel in India?

The freedom. There’s something so comfy and relaxed about Indian trains that pervades every compartment. Everyone sits cross-legged chatting to anyone who will listen, and there’s always something to fire your curiosity, whether it’s a group of bauls – wandering minstrels – who play beautiful music in the corridors, or hawkers selling everything from Paulo Coelho paperbacks to wedding outfits.

And the worst?

Buying tickets at short notice isn’t really an option unless you’re a foreign tourist. Whimsical travel is reined in, as bookings open 90 days in advance of a journey and the tickets go like hotcakes. That’s why the IndRail pass is so useful, you can often jump on trains, flag down the train manager and be assigned any spare seats he may have.

Did you watch Bollywood films featuring trains along the way?

Not one. I did watch the Darjeeling Limited which was quite the parody of train travel, but I was devouring books which might be why my rucksack weighed a ton. Paul Theroux, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, Chetan Bhagat, Amartya Sen and Rohinton Mistry have been good company.

Who’s been the most interesting person you’ve met on the trains?

This was more of an interesting situation than anything else. I was incredibly sad and homesick one day, desperate to talk to either my best friend Jane, or my parents, and boarded a Shatabdi train from Chandigarh to Delhi that I hadn’t booked. The inspector found me the only spare seat on the entire train in executive class and when I glanced down the carriage I saw Jane’s parents, Chris and Lynn, from Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve been so happy to see anyone and literally launched myself onto them. They gave me a hug and it was like having a little piece of home in my hands again. That’s the fun of Indian trains, you never know what you’re going to get.

Did your schedule work out?

 Perfectly. Mainly because I didn’t have one. I had a handful of dates when we had to be in certain areas, for example Kanyakumari for a solar eclipse, Mumbai to board the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, Madhya Pradesh to watch orthopaedic surgery on the Lifeline Express and Khajuraho for the classical dance festival. But I didn’t want to plan more than a couple of weeks in advance. Life never goes to plan and it’s much more fun to live in the moment and see where it takes you. My best experiences came from serendipitous meetings, trains I hadn’t booked, cities I hadn’t heard of and people I didn’t know.

What message have you taken away from the experience?

 Live a life without expectation and you can never be disappointed. Keep an open mind, listen more than you speak, and remember that everyone has a story to tell.