theguardian– Six-people deep, and growing by the second, the crowd tensed. A single knuckle pressed into my back and betel-nut breath filled my nostrils as a steady beat rose above the din. Against the peach pink of Mumbai’s evening skies, the commuter service curled into view, passengers hanging from the sides like moving livery. Braking with a wail and grind of metal, the train slowed into the station and I braced against the surge of bodies from behind. Like relay runners, they began to move before the train had stopped, reaching over my head at the same time as a torrent of polyester shirts and satchels thundered down from the open doorways.
A slice of papaya in one hand my bag gripped with the other, I battled through elbows, meaty shoulders and thick plaits slicked with coconut oil. In the crush the papaya was knocked to the ground and my sandal came off, but I made it on board and fell sideways into a seat as the train jerked away from the platform. Wiping someone else’s sweat from my arm, I watched fellow travellers scrabble for handholds, adjust saris and pull out phones before relaxing into the ride with a mix of relief and pride. I’d survived my first experience on the infamous Mumbai “locals”.
Twenty years earlier I had lived in Madras, now Chennai, but had spent only two years there before my family retreated home to Sheffield. In those two decades, little more than the odd family wedding had tempted me back to India.
Friends spent their gap years teaching in the foothills of the Himalayas, petting camels in Pushkar and getting stoned in Goa, then recounted their adventures to a face that showed no recognition. Strangers would describe the serenity of the Taj Mahal under moonlight, the sound of Jaisalmer’s temple bells at dusk, the adrenaline rush from white-water rafting in Ladakh, and I’d listen with an indifference that, over time, ceded to envy and then guilt: this was supposed to be my motherland, how could I know so little of it?
Then one drizzly November morning I read an article celebrating how India’s domestic airlines could now connect 80 cities. Curious, I pulled up a map and pored over the routes, wondering how long it would take to fly around India in 80 planes. However, the cost – and the thought of leaving a gargantuan carbon footprint – held little appeal and I dismissed the prospect of a grand adventure … until I noticed a network of threads running all over the map, thick arteries fraying into the finest of capillaries. They reached into every nook and cranny, winding up mountains, hemming in the coast, stringing cities and states together. This was Indian Railways, the lifeblood that keeps the country’s heart beating.
My fondest memories of living in India featured the night train I would take from Madras to Madurai to visit my brother at his hill-station boarding school. Tucked up in a cosy four-berth compartment, under starched bedding shaken out of brown paper bags, I’d listen to voices whisper through the darkness as passengers crept on and crept off the train, chaining up bags and twisting cotton into their ears. Under the ineffectual whir of the fan, I’d struggle to sleep, knowing that in a few hours I’d have less than five minutes to splash my face awake, gather bags and jump down into the pre-dawn chill. But eventually I’d succumb to the rhythm of wheels on steel as the Quilon Mail drummed south through the night.
Staring at the map, I realised I was now ready to go back and discover where I fitted into India – and where India fitted into me. Having never attempted anything this ambitious, I went straight to Stanfords in Covent Garden, London, and returned with maps, travelogues, notebooks, stickers and pins, and made a wishlist of everything I wanted to experience. From Amritsar’s Golden Temple and the Ajanta caves and tigers in Ranthambore national park, to the blue-walled city of Jodhpur, Kerala’s backwaters and the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok – famed for its 20,000 rat residents that are so overfed with barfi they often suffer from diabetes.
This was set to be a once-in-a-lifetime journey so I indulged the whimsical: I wanted to try the famous kebabs at Karim’s in Delhi, dig my feet into the wet sand in Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India where the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal meet. I wanted to touch the cool temple walls in Thanjavur and taste tea in Assam. As I pinned my map, I saw that every one of these locations was connected by the railway.
The next stage of planning took me to Wembley, into the unassuming office of Shankar Dandapani, the UK representative of Indian Railways. A goldmine of information, he sat me at a school desk and scribbled down myriad journeys to consider: express trains, mail trains, the day-return Shatabdi expresses, long-distance Rajdhanis, super-fast Durontos, luxury trains and steam trains, labelling them helpfully with “excellent food”, “waterfalls during monsoon” or “sit on right side for views”. He then issued me with my most important piece of kit: a 90-day rail pass costing £350, which included all sleeper services and a number of meals. (Sadly, they’re no longer available, but Dr Dandapani still makes reservations at his office.)
And so began my journey around India in 80 trains. Within a fortnight, I discovered that an Indian train ticket was a permit to trespass on the intimacies of other people’s lives. As the trains burrowed into the guts of cities and rolled past the backs of people’s houses, I’d perch in the open doorways watching mothers twist ribbons around their children’s hair. I’d breathe in the warm fried ginger in their cooking and count the coloured underwear strung up to dry. When waxy leaves thwacked at the window, twigs scattering in the aisles, I’d peer between wet blossoms to see idlers squatting around a card game, little beedi cigarettes pinched between thumb and forefinger.
Sometimes our eyes would meet and we’d each raise a palm in greeting. From time to time we’d run parallel with a highway, neck and neck with flamboyant trucks, buses and young couples nuzzling necks on mopeds, arms wrapped loosely round slim waists. No other form of transport can strip bare a country with this much verve and flair.
Meanwhile, inside the carriages, a microcosm of Indian society spanned the train from one end to the other. With my earphones plugged in and my music turned off, I’d pretend to read while eavesdropping on conversations about end-of-year exams, mean bosses, new girlfriends, old boyfriends and mother-in-law disputes
In the middle of the night, I’d ease down from my berth for a trip to the loo, invariably putting a socked foot on a stranger’s blanket-covered back, mumble my apologies and hope they’d be gone by morning. On other days, I’d board at the opposite end, squeezing on to wooden slats with farmers and fruit sellers who would place guavas in my palm, while joking with their friends through paan-stained teeth. They’d count their money, touching it to their foreheads with thanks, before sloping off the train and crossing the tracks to find the next customer.
Over four months, the cast of characters who wandered the aisles, slept above me or sidled up to chat, always embraced me as one of their own. On an Easter break to Bangalore, students from Coimbatore invited me into their carriage, dealt me into a game of rummy, and exchanged samosas for my bag of Snickers.
“Don’t worry if they’re laughing,” one wrote in my diary. “They’re enjoying.” Families would frown at my solitude, beckoning me over for meals, unrolling their chapatis and lining up pots of pickle and dal, no matter how little they had. The constant clamour of music, movies on laptops, babies being rocked, chaiwalas, ticket inspectors and laughter filled the carriages with a kinship unique to train travel.
But it wasn’t always easy. One afternoon I flicked through my diary and found a note from Dr Dandapani about a beautiful route from Goa to Londa, and realised I was near. Without a moment’s hesitation, I leapt into an auto rickshaw, wound my way to Vasco da Gama station and just managed to jump on to the departing train. Shuffling up to the window I watched as the ocean rushed against the shore, kids screaming in the surf. Soon we were clattering around cliffs, waterfalls threading down their crags like thin silver wire. Dr Dandapani was right.
On arrival in Londa, I paced the platform munching on hot, fresh vadas and enquired when the return train would arrive, and was dismayed to discover it wasn’t due until 2am. It was barely 6pm. Gradually the crowds thinned, the skies turned indigo and there was nothing but the chirp of crickets for company. A lone passenger watched me from a doorway. And he wouldn’t leave.
At the other end of the platform I spotted a sweeper and beelined for the elderly man, who led me to a nearby guesthouse where I could stay for a few hours before the train arrived – it was always the kindness of strangers.
Just before 2am I crossed the road to the station as the train was rolling in. With no reservation, I boarded the women’s compartment, a dimly lit dormitory of bundled bodies and bare feet. Finding me an unoccupied berth, the ticket inspector gestured for me to climb up. The train sailed out of the station and I wriggled down under the blanket before turning over to see my neighbour watching me. She winked and her diamond nose stud shone in the milky light from the moving platform. I was back in my safe place, back at home.
Just over four months, 40,000km and at least a thousand cups of treacle-sweet tea later I came to the end of my adventure. In between delays, cancellations, detours and the odd bout of illness, I had witnessed the Golden Temple shimmering at dawn, watched tigers fighting, devoured Karim’s kebabs, touched the temple walls in Thanjavur, collected sand from Kanyakumari, seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight, slurped tea in Assam, spent the night on a houseboat in Alleppey, camped out with camels in the Thar desert, and even watched cataract surgery on a hospital train. These trains had once been a means to an end, but as I stepped off the 80th one, I realised that Indian Railways had become the lead protagonist in my story.
I ambled up the platform at Chennai Central surrounded by the hiss and clank of departing trains, no more my call to prayer. Pausing to let that sink in, I spotted a group of men shoving one another in the doorway of a passenger train. They elbowed, argued, jostled and slipped off the steps, before turning to see me watching. With sheepish smiles, they waved from the doorway. Their train began to move away from the platform and I waved back, allowing the crowd to sweep me into its embrace.