The Lokmanya Tilak Express may have been just another run-of-the-mill express without added superlatives, but it was at least a proper, daily train, linking major cities with – wonder-of-wonders – a pantry car. And – still more wondrous – a man at Coimbatore Junction cleaning the invariably grimy air-conditioned classes windows before it set out on its 30-hour journey through India’s heartlands to Mumbai. Once again, I was throwing myself to the tender mercies of the TTE: I had been due to join this train this evening, at Guntakal Junction, sometimes called (by me) the Crewe of Andhra Pradesh. The Guntakal tourist board can have that one for free.
But here I was at Coimbatore. With my rail pass, there was no question of my not having a ticket valid for some form of travel, but could I wheedle my way into the reserved coaches for the additional 700km? Due to the complexities of Indian Railway’s booking quota system, my status was that I had reserved from Coimbatore, but with a boarding point of Guntakal Junction, all part of SD Enterprises of Wembley’s wizardry. Put basically, booking onto long-distance trains at an en-route station can be tricky, as only small quotas of berths are allocated to passengers joining half way. However, when these are full, you do retain the option of booking a ticket from earlier in the train’s journey but nominating your actual station as the boarding point. For the normal traveller, this obviously incurs additional expense, but a Indrail Pass holder has no such concerns – they have already paid their $160 and have a valid ticket from anywhere. Thus, when tickets from Guntakal had booked out even before faxes could be sent from Wembley, I was placed in the much larger quota from Coimbatore, the train’s originating point. Would any of this carry any weight with the wearer of the pressed white trousers?
My own berth, the reservations chart told me, was occupied by a 6-year old named Bhumi as far as Bangalore, so I dumped myself in a berth that ought to be unoccupied that far. Deeply confused by the whole procedure, and apparently ignorant of the magical powers of an Indrail Pass, the TTE announced that he needed to defer to “a higher authority” regarding how to regularise my situation and wandered off in search of such a deity, mumbling about how if there were any sums to be paid, I would need to do so.
Coimbatore’s outskirts, which stretched on and on, seemed to be in flux. Many acres of land beside the railway lines, once slums, had been cleared and were now bare earth, bar the occasional isolated railway bungalow, neatly whitewashed but with CONDEMNED equally neatly painted on their walls in tall red letters. Out of the city, the landscape became almost desert-like in places – red sand, with straggly thorn trees sheltering goads, interspersed by occasional lines of palm trees. In deep quarries by the line, on whose cliffs temple towers tottered, human figures far below carried huge baskets of rocks on their heads. Totiyapalayam, just outside Erode, was a beautiful white and blue-washed, red tiled village whose enormous banyan tree looked perfect for drinking chai under in the midday heat. Alas, we chased through at 80mph.
The TTE had returned. Apparently unable to locate any higher authority – or possibly said capricious authority had told him to sort out the situation himself – he had decided to be merciful, but – he warned in ominous tones – the TTE who replaced him at Bangalore City might not be so minded. I should meet him on the platform at that station, ‘to be introduced’ to the new holder of the reservation charts. Is this was it felt like to be a débutante?
The shift to a poorer, harsher countryside was gradual, but it was very evident as the train progressed east and north. The soils were thinner, the vegetation and crops sparser, the animals thinner, the cottages and huts noticeably less well built – now mainly of wood and roofed with dried palm fronds, with much less concrete construction in evidence outside the towns. Whether coincidentally or not, this shift coincided with the village temples becoming more and more ornate, their mandir towers now covered in brightly painted statuary, in stark contrast to the increasingly two-or-three tone countryside. We paused at Salem Junction, home to no famous witch trials (‘Look For Something Festive In Every Day’, said the Notice on the Government Railway Police station) and turned north. Sharp-toothed peaks, a murky brown with patches of green, dominated the eastern skyline. The express was now travelling up the very centre of India’s broadening triangle, away from the inverted apex.
Opening the carriage door revealed a heat level not experienced during the past few days in the cool Nilgiris – a blast of heat right in the face. We were speeding along a single line through more sandy countryside, passing close to the backyards of little cottages. A tethered cow shied away from us roaring past, a man in a doti on a low wooden bed in his yard slept oblivious to our noisy passage, back turned. Yellow mustard flowers brightened the edges of villages, pitch black goats picked out against them. The line now snaked through a small mountain range, rising and falling amongst the scrubby, thorny, stone-covered slopes. The pair of diesel locomotives at the head were worked hard to haul the 22 well-laden coaches over the range at good speed, throwing us around long curves where both head and tail of the long train were visible at once, like a dark blue snake in the huge landscape. As we crested the summit at Muttampatti Halt, monkeys beside the line stood on their hind legs, in a vain attempt to emulate the success of their Hillgrove cousins.
The Lokmanya Tilak Express’ pantry car crew were more enterprising than their Kanniyakumari counterparts. Not just chai was being constantly brought through coach HA1, but also a steady supply of fresh dosas, pakoras and soup. A passenger could eat almost constantly, given a healthy supply of low-denomination rupee notes. I liked this train – purposeful, so-far timely and following an interesting route, all rounded off with good food. My companions in the bay of four were a middle-class mother and her 5 year old daughter. Intriguingly, she spoke to her daughter in Hindi most of the time, but in English when doing numeracy problems with her.
‘Vote for Tiger’, ‘Vote for Tree’, said the competing railway union election graffiti when we paused at Dharmapuri, referencing the logos of the competing slates. Beyond, was a more fertile plain, each village marked by haystacks the shape of houses, though larger than any house on the plain. Boulders began to appear, scattered amongst the trees, mountains briefly re-appearing, some seemingly composed almost entirely of naked rock, around which the line wove its way. In the fields, egrets marked the grazing sheep like football players, one-on-one, as the mammals disturbed insects as they cropped the grass; under their rattan shelters, oxen with painted horns hid from the midday heat.
Smart new suburbs of Bangalore were beginning to spring up among villages and farms many miles before we arrived at the city, but at the built-up area’s true edge came the first slums, a ring of blue tarpaulin roofs and piled rubbish, alongside gleaming white apartment blocks. The small glimpse of slums apart, Bangalore was near unique in regards to cities that aren’t Durham, in that it shows its best face to the railway. Well maintained blocks of flats, uncongested roads (to be fair, it was post rush-hour) and an attractive corridor of flowering trees for trains to run along.
We called at Bangalore Cantonment (a word the British stole from the French, bequeathed to the Indians, then forgot all about), then wandered on to Bangalore City. Of the TTE and his anointed successor there was no sign on the platform, so I dumped my bag in berth 10, my allocation from Guntakal in a few hours time and left the already sleeping inhabitants of the bay, with all the curtains drawn, to it – the ability of many Indians to sleep through the entire day on trains and buses is quite remarkable.
Having reversed, the express called at Cantonment again for some reason, then wound our way back out of Bangalore, past the first bit of genuine cow-on-traffic action I had seen: a large friesian, nonchalantly walking the wrong way along the middle of a four-lane highway. The northern outskirts of Bangalore resembled those of Beijing pre-Olympics: forests of apartment blocks, some complete, many under construction, silhouetted against the setting sun. A jobs boom had begot a housing boom, almost certainly too late and high-priced for many.
It was a fine evening for a run across the sun-lit plains, five-foot termite mounds punctuating the fields. Like a gigantic dragonfly, an Indian peacock floated in to land beside a disused viaduct. Soon the train was climbing again, up into the boulder-strewn Nandi Hills. Halted at Thondebhavi, to pass a southbound trainload of Bila Supercement (‘Builds Fast, Builds to Last’), two lads from the General class coach next along saw me sitting in the doorway and came to chat. “We have no place to sit and are sitting like you in the door, but you have a place to sit and are sitting like this?”, one asked, quizzically. Other than gesturing to the lovely evening, I didn’t have a suitable reply.
And then, suddenly, the hills were gone and we were back to the sun setting red over the red, Indian plain. Cottages were illuminated either by the flickering orange of the cooking fire or the flickering blue of the television. At each little station the train thundered through, the stationmaster stood, as per the rulebook, with his green flag extended at ninety degrees, or a flashing green light as night drew on, giving the sign to the trans-sub-continental express that the line ahead was clear and all was well. When we did stop, the two General class coaches next to mine was immediately besieged by food and drink sellers, engaged in a chorus so animated and co-ordinated that it was near religious. The General class coaches have no corridor connection to the rest of the train, so get no pantry car attention, making them a captive market for the platform vendors. Being next door, it would have been rude not to try the local wares. I never got their name, but Dharmavaram Junction’s chickpea fritters were particularly good and had the added bonus of being able to read all last month’s cricket news in the paper they came wrapped in.
By morning, the train was scooting across the hot plains of Maharashtra, having somehow lost an hour on the schedule overnight. In a land of hard beds, my hard upper berth was comfy enough, bar the slight over-proximity to the air conditioning unit, which led to occasional moments of near-Arctic coolness when it whirred into action. The carriage awoke, almost as one, at the first call of “Chai-chai-chaichaichaichaichai” (generations of travellers have attempted to transcribe this particular call, to no great success) at 8am, the brushing of teeth at the open carriage door by the sink being a shared communal experience. By now, everyone in this little half-carriage (the other half was one-tier air conditioned compartments, and we never saw them) of two-tier bunks was at very least on nodding terms with each other. My ownership of a printed out schedule for the train was a cause of great interest and much passing of it around the carriage, as was my smashed phone screen and the story behind it, involving a marble floor at Shoranur Junction’s Tourist Home.
Breakfast was the Indian Railways veg cutlet, whose ubiquitousness was near-legendary. Slightly spiced and perfectly edible in themselves, the insistence on placing three of them between two almost amusingly bland slices of bread to make a precarious sandwich seemed to be the trademark move. No sooner was breakfast paid for, than the friendly pantry car attendant was taking orders for lunch. When I declined – I might be off the train by the time it was served – he began playfully jabbing me in the stomach. It wasn’t clear if this was meant to mean that I needed fattening up, or that I was so fat already, that one more biryani wouldn’t hurt.
Approaching Pune, the plains showed signs of greater fertility, teams of white oxen ploughing dark-soiled fields and lush green crops. Towering over these in the university town of Pune was a single tall glass skyscraper and beyond, the same grey skeletons of part-complete boom town apartment blocks that had ringed Bangalore. The line exited Pune past an army camp and training ground whose barbed wire fences and watchtowers stretched along the line for miles, a machine gun poking in the train’s direction from each tower. Over the line stretched occasional stone bridges that would have looked at home in Woolwich or Leeds – this was one of the first lines built on the subcontinent under the Raj, and much of the infrastructure of the steam age survived.
The train made an advertised ‘technical stop’ at Lonavala, the technical nature of which didn’t stop many more passengers squeezing into General class to head into Mumbai. Here, we had reached the edge of the plateau, the only way was down over 600m, through the Western Ghats, to sea level at Mumbai. Cautiously, the express edged down ferocious gradients, pausing three times on the descent to check that the brakes were still capable of halting the train. The triple lines dipped in and out of tunnels, switching from one side of the ridge to the other, precipitous drops to the valleys far below now on the left hand side, then on the right. At Monkey Hill, a line had been built straight up the slope ahead to divert and slow runaways. Slowly, the plains below emerged from the haze and we roared through Karjat Junction where trains heading uphill have extra locomotives added to the rear to cope with the ascent. The Victorian-era switchbacks and reversals that steam locomotives needed have gone, but the ghat still challenges 20-plus coach long expresses. I would soon be heading into the mountains again, but for now I was back on the coastal plain, racing towards the sea as the houses, shacks and factories began to crowd in on either side.