One of the most fascinating aspects of travel in India, are it’s extensive rail networks. And what better way to explore the diversity of the country, than by getting onboard the longest train ride the country has to offer.
Snaking it’s way from Kanyakumari at the southern tip to Dibrugarh in Assam in the Northeast, train no 15906 is eponymously named the Vivek Express after the revered Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda. Befitting moniker as well, since the Swami toured the Indian subcontinent extensively, wishing to understanding the conditions prevailing in British ruled India in the late 19th century.
National geographic photographer Matthieu Paley got on board the Vivek express and shared a photo essay of his experiences on the 5 day journey.
We accompany his camera as it captures the chaos in the second class compartments, the people for whom the train is a lifeline and for others, a source of employment; the food on offer during the journey and the variegated scenes across the country, as well as scenarios that you would be hard pressed to find in other rail networks across the globe.
The Indian railway network, introduced by the British as a way to bridge enormous distances; brought trade and commerce to distant lands as it did communicable diseases. The train is a throwback to those days and Paley dwells on the dwindling romance of this slow travel in our lives, amusingly evidenced in the way he gets time to wash his shirt in a stream, as the train makes an unscheduled stop in West Bengal.
“From our broadcasting box you can’t see any grass at all. It is simply a carpet of humanity.” – Richie Benaud
I don’t remember a time when I was not fascinated by a test match. Cricket in it’s other forms, yes. Vacillating when it came to One Day Internationals, a resolute no when it came to 20-20s. But a test match played between 2 of the best internationally matched teams ? Count me in. Hell, as a kid aged 9, I would even follow the fortunes of Ranji teams in India and first class matches in England on the back pages of the dailies.
Testing a player’s grit, stamina and temperament, their ability to break down a mammoth 5 day affair into a couple of hours at a time, drawing out fascinating battles between bat and ball, these are all characteristics that test matches have dished out in droves over the years, inadvertently creating true classics of the sport. And these are oddly, the same things that are in short supply in the other formats. So it was no surprise, that when a dear friend called me up, to ask if I was interested in watching the 2nd day of the India v/s Australia test match at the M. Chinnaswamy stadium at Bangalore, early March of 2017, I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
I have some memories of an attempt to watch a test match earlier. That was a decade and a half ago, as a freshman in my engineering college. A classmate had an extra pair of passes to watch India take on the West Indies at the Wankhede in Mumbai on a rain-drenched weekend. On the 4th day of the test match, I distinctly remember traveling for more than 2 hours and setting my foot in the Garware pavilion end’s stands, only to discover that the match had already been wrapped up some time ago.
This time though, we arrived right on time. India, after having ignominiously lost the opener at Pune, had put in another dismal performance with the bat. A score of 189 had left even the pundits wondering whether this was the same team that had beaten South Africa and England so emphatically in the last 6 months. But nobody could have foreseen the fascinating duel that lay ahead.
Here, I have to put forth a few observations about watching a match from the stands, as compared to watching one on television.
There is an interaction between the spectators and the players, that is not immediately evident on a digital screen. Whether it is booing the opposition, or rooting for the home team, one can see the immediate effect the crowd’s loyalties have, on the playing teams.
It is a matter of give-and-take as well, because, in a session that leans towards sopor, a Virat Kohli can whip up enthusiasm with his gestures and ask the crowds to get going. At which point, the crowds, roaring, infuse an amount of energy that lifts drooping shoulders and spirits, and veritably the ball, the over and the session itself. Things that I never realized all these years, from television. Heck, at one point, Kohli even introduced a change in bowling just as Ravichandran Ashwin was getting ready to bowl his next over, just because the crowds started chanting Ravindra Jadeja’s name. This dynamism has to be witnessed first-hand, to appreciate the nuances that test match presents to the crowds, who are treated as much a part of the game, as the players themselves.
Then there is the rhythmic, thunderous beat that accompanies a bowler as he runs in to deliver. Ball after ball, in anticipation of a something that they hope would materialize, the spectators keep up the tempo. Like the background score accompanying a cinematic sequence.
Exchanges between spectators and the players, who are demi-gods in India, are as much a matter of pride and inspiration, as a matter of mirth and much joy. A kid no older than 5 or 6, shouted himself hoarse for every player that came to field near the boundary ropes. Only one, KL Rahul managed to hear the kid and looked up, and that acknowledgement, lent itself into a great cheer that rang through the stands for the kid. A dose of inspiration for the kid, who, you never know, could wield the armor for his country some day.
As is wont to happen, we also overheard a bit of backyard punditry on the game. One that veered from the correct line and length to bowl to paeans on how cricketers from a previous generation would have coped with the situation.
As the hours ticked by, the Indian bowlers put up a great spell of bowling to restrict the Australian batsmen, but didn’t take too many wickets. In a match where fortunes swung a lot, not much happened on a Sunday when my friend and me happened to witness one of our favorite sports, live. But as we were to introspect in the days to come, our team began to claw their way back into the match and series on that very day. Us, with the players and the rest of the spectators, had played no small part in keeping the spirit of test cricket alive.
Ball by ball, over by over and session by session, as the cricketers toiled away, we had realized what a great microcosm of life, a test match was.
The Cauvery has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. For peasants and the gentry, it is a source of life and livelihood, for pilgrims it is as sacred as the Ganges and for politicians, it is a pivot that might decide the fate of the next election.
For tourists and travelers though, the Cauvery can be a source of great inspiration. For it is born in a spring adjoining a temple, been a witness to kingdoms and civilizations of great importance through the ages, it’s waters irrigate the great rice bowls and crop fields of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
A gently flowing river, I have often wondered what it might be, to trace the Kaveri from it’s origin to it’s end point – accompany all the places it journeys to and learn of the culture, the cuisine, the history and the stories that emerged as it’s present day narrative. All this thought, came from reminiscences of a day we spent on it’s banks not too far ago.
The hill station of Sakleshpur is not blessed with the kind of beauty bestowed on some of its brethren in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. But in July of 2016, that is not what I was gunning for either. July is when the monsoons have well and truly arrived on the Indian subcontinent and Sakleshpur, situated on the foothills of the Western Ghats, witnesses the kind of downpour that gives a whole new meaning to the word, torrential.
As soon as we enter the town, and it is a small town on the Bangalore-Mangalore highway, the shades of green are kicked up a notch. There is still not a single drop to welcome us, although there are remnants of muddied puddles beside the road. On narrow, winding roads surrounded by thick forests, we eat up the miles towards Sinna Dorai’s bungalow. This colonial-era bungalow, painstakingly renovated and quite reminiscent of a bygone era, served as the erstwhile residence of the British managers of the Kadamane (literally translates to the home – mane, in the forest – kaadu) tea estate.
The ancestry is quite evident from the moment you enter your room. J. L. Benson, one of the colonial-era managers, lovingly penned down notes on his experiences on the tea estate that take you back in time to the early days of the tea estate operations.
Then there is the fascinating story of the bear-girl of Sakleshpur, a veritable Mowgli thought to be taken by a man eating leopard but in reality, reared in its infancy by a bear. These and a few other, related books are a staple in every room in the bungalow. Some of the places described in the story of the bear-girl, the hospital for instance, are just a walk down the tea estate. It is an enthralling feeling to see what has hitherto been etched in your imagination, appear in front of your eyes.
Late afternoon, we meet Radhika who manages the estate along with her husband. She expresses her surprise at the errant monsoon this year. Apparently, bright sunshine is a rarity during the monsoon. The previous weekend, the monsoon didn’t even permit guests at the bungalow to step outside. This weekend, there seems to be no such luck. So we take a leisurely stroll through the premises.
The grass on your feet is a heavenly feeling. There is a wonderful fragrance in the air, one whose source I cannot place at all. In the tea estates that we had strolled down to, there is nobody to be seen. We make our way through a rough road, passing by a gurgling stream that creates a small waterfall. Radhika later reminds us not to stroll around by ourselves since wild elephants are not a rarity there. The previous week, an abandoned calf, feral and hurt, stumbled into the tea estates and became aggressive around the caretakers. So we make our way back to the bungalow, not before we spot a snake in the compound wall, for some tea and pakoras, delectable and a fine accompaniment to the ominous dark shadows growing on the horizon.
Soon a fine misty spray falls down, the mildest of downpours if it can be termed that. Indoors, there is a reading room full of books, a fireplace, wall-mounted animal heads and some indoor games. Cicadas and crickets call out the alarm to retire for the night and inside, it does grow a little cold for comfort.
The next morning at around 6, I curiously peer through the curtains and a most ethereal scene presents itself. A thick mist hangs around in the air. The bungalow’s retro-looking path lights are still on and it adds a timelessness to the scene. Not a single sound can be heard, mother nature has silenced all her children for some time between dawn and morning. There is dew on the window panes and the unmistakable smell of wet earth.
I wipe the dew to get a clearer look and even in the impenetrable morning mist, I can still make out the faint sight of a gentleman in a hunting hat and rifle on his shoulder making his way down the tea estate. But perhaps, I am just dreaming. For Kadamane has that effect – it really does take you back in time.
Sakleshpur really comes alive during the monsoons and time spent at the Kadamane estate can be quite an experience, if the thought of witnessing torrential downpours does not stress you out. We were unlucky to miss the rains considering it was a near-drought year in Karnataka, but the delectable food, the stories that permeate from the bungalow’s walls and the estate itself were rejuvenating. There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied – cycling, badminton, tennis, a 4-wheel drive to vantage view points in the hills in the estate . I will leave you with a video of the Sinnadorai’s bungalow shared on their website.
“The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical. ”
― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
The aspects of uncertainty and serendipity in our modes of travel, are dying a slow death. Not that their presence is a particularly good thing, but I think it certainly keeps some of the romance alive in travel. Think about it, how many times have you fondly remembered the time spent at an airport, even if you were embarking on a life changing trip ?
Most of us are guilty of trading the romance of the journey for the guaranteed pleasures of the destination. While a self-driven vehicle comes quite close to fulfilling athirst for serendipity, nothing comes close to a journey by train. There is a true sense of letting go, almost unrivaled in any other mode of transport. I might be biased, attributable in no small measure to the fact that I was born in the family of an Indian railways employee.
Much into the late 90s, travel by train was an annual exercise. Although we usually traveled to our native place in Kerala, I cannot imagine the setting becoming any different for people traveling to other parts of India by rail.
Preparation for the journey would begin months in advance, for there was no way of knowing whether you were lucky enough to bag a precious ticket. Latest train timetables, even booking agents were consulted before booking. I recollect my father spending a night at the ticket reservation counters to better his chances at booking a ticket.
As the date of journey approached, there was a sense of importance accorded even to the act of packing luggage. Old luggage was first cleaned and polished with a wet cloth. Clothes, gifts and items indigenous to Bombay were neatly packaged at least a couple of days in advance. As d-day neared, meals were prepared and packed separately for each day of travel. Clothes to be worn for the journey were set aside separately, drinking water kegs were brushed and dried, and even footwear was religiously washed.
On the day of the journey, we would reach the boarding station at least a couple of hours in advance. Then as now, the grandiose architecture of the British era train stations in Bombay never ceased to amaze. There was the fear of getting lost in the milling crowds. But that was quickly overtaken by the temptation of snacking at the mobile food carts and the omnipresent chai-wallah. Before the advent of Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri, there was Campa Cola, Aarey and Gold Spot. The ubiquitous weighing machine contraption spat out not only our weights on a ticket, but also our horoscope for the day. There was the delight in discovering treasures at the old book stall, usually a HigginBotham’s, that was manned by a stoic book-seller, standing on a tiny island of space surrounded by reams of print. Then there was the mild exultation when you found your name on the reservation chart, even if it had already been confirmed months in advance.
The journey itself was as variegated as the lands you passed by. Crowds, electric poles, slums and the overbearing noise and smells of an Indian metropolis gave way to hillsides, rivers, pastures and farmlands overnight. The cacophony of metal rolling on metal was accompanied by the (mildly) wondrous smell of diesel fumes mixed with grease and the onomatopoeic chugging of the locomotive.
The food changed with the landscape as well. The comfortingly familiar vada pav and samosa of the city gave way to slightly soggy puri-bhaji as you ventured south, then to bland dal-rice and sour curd and pickle before reverting back to the tastiest idli-vada and fried plaintain you could have on this planet. Just when you were in the mood for a post-lunch snack, a vendor would magically appear out of nowhere, peddling freshly cut cucumber and tomato slices sprinkled with a spicy masala. Ice creams, even close to melting, were prized most heavily in the sweltering Indian summers. And most surprisingly, I never fell ill from the drinking water refilled from the railway water taps.
Conversations with fellow passengers were inevitable, as is wont to happen with people traveling to the same destination. Invariably, someone would turn out to be an acquaintance of a distant relative. Notes on the family size, the parents’ occupation, children’s ages and each other’s residential addresses in the metropolis were exchanged. I recollect a bank employee who stayed in touch afterwards, even managed to help us with some work later, just because we had the good fortune of meeting him on a train.
Boredom could be tackled with an exchange of comics and magazines. Not a day or night would pass by without somebody playing cards on the top berth.
Before you knew it, the morning or evening of disembarkation soon arrived. Hasty byes with co-passengers were exchanged, and a wave at the train as it sped by leaving you at your destination only with the promise of making a journey in the reverse direction.
Maybe I am naive in comparing my childhood memories with an almost certainly better mode of travel that my adulthood has seen. But every now and then, I cannot help wishing for the rocking lullaby of a train, whistling into the night, putting me to bed with happy memories made for the day and promises of more to come.
Get a taste of what travel by train was like in India, in the past few decades in this wonderful BBC documentary.
Newspaper boys tying and untying bundles of newspapers for delivery. Milkmen and egg vendors ringing their cycle bells. Sweepers doing their best to clean the roads after the previous day’s onslaught of dust and dirt. Flower sellers setting up their stall well before the adjacent vegetable sellers set up theirs. The infamous traffic snarls are either a memory or an omen.
The drift of smoke from the nearest Udupi ‘darshini’ lures you in. Never knew salivating was something you could experience this early in the morning. The concept of a late continental breakfast seems alien now.
The order given, it is time to look at what others are doing on their plates. But the staff are efficient, making sure you don’t have to wait for too long.
More often than not, the soft and slightly more textured idlis and the crunchy hot vadas are the first to arrive. Accompanied by a small bowl of fresh coconut chutney and piping hot sambar that is filled with radish and tomatoes and is heavier and spicier than their cousins from other states.
That is followed by the masala dosa. The smearing of red garlic and chilly chutney on the insides of the crisp-to-a-fault dosa strikes a good partnership with the mashed potatoes, chilli, onion, ginger and coriander that make up the ‘masala’. The chutney and sambar are on par again.
Next up, the slightly lesser known cousin, the neer dosa – is the perfect antidote to any leftover space in your tummy. Soft, light and fluffy in spite of being so thin – this one has 2 different chutneys. One is a spicier version of the coconut chutney you had earlier. The other is grated coconut mixed with ghee and jaggery. These 2 infuse a world of flavors to a small bite of the mild neer dosa.
After all that needs to be discussed in between is done, and the morning seems like a good start, the coffee arrives. Concocted in special brass filter machines for a few hours, this one has a roasty, mildly bitter taste. Milk poured in from a height so that you get a layer of froth on top, ensures you don’t burn your tongue at the first sip. The sugar sprinkled at the bottom of the silver tumbler doesn’t know how to combine with the coffee yet, but you let it be. Because this coffee is the perfect end to a good south Indian breakfast and the best start you could have to a day in Bengaluru.
Nilgiris 1989. John Sullivan, the father of Ootacamund, in a letter to Thomas Munro the future governor of Madras. *
This is the finest country ever…it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any part of Europe…the hills [are] beautifully wooded and [there is a] fine strong spring with running water in every valley.
To be fair, Ooty has lost much of its charm to crass commercialization. There are tourists thronging all the roads leading to the hill station and much of the city center. But there are a few experiences that still retain their old world charm, like taking a ride in the decades old Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built by the Britishers in colonial times and still doing yeoman service to the local populace and the tourists alike.
Read about why hopping on to the ‘toy-train’ as it is more popularly known, is an experience that is not to be missed, in Alde Baran’s article. Some great photographs contribute towards bringing the experience alive. Don’t skip this one – read it now.
Rain, from inside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, has to be the most uplifting sight ever. Some people keep their windows open and stick their tongue out. I choose to keep my window closed and watch it shudder as the rain hits it. When we finally arrive at Ooty, people disembark, but stick around for a few minutes more. Yes, they look like they’re checking their luggage. But maybe another cup of mint tea will warm them enough to admit that they’re actually gazing affectionately at the toy train that gave them a journey that was, strangely, not about the destination at all.