The Indian national railway network is in many respects India’s lifeline. Its locomotives crisscross the whole country. They speed away from the heart of the throbbing metropolitan Mumbai, Victoria Terminus Station, to the peripheral tea gardens of Assam. Even many of the remotest villages in rural India are connected to the country’s most cosmopolitan urban centres, thanks to the railways. Thanks to such an extensive reach, millions, if not, hundreds of millions of Indians from nearly every walk of life depend on the railways for both work and leisure commuting. As of consequence, over 25 million passengers travel on her trains everyday . Last month, I became one of these 25 million passengers on one early January Sunday morning. Like the other Milaap Fellows, the Milaap team decided to send me off to my fellowship assignment (in my case, rural West Bengal) by train. Barely 2 days in advance, I was booked on the Yesvantapur-Howrah Duronto express. This was the train on which I was to commute for 29 hours. It would transport me from Bangalore’s Yesvantapur Station to Howrah Station in Kolkata, the West Bengal capital that is within relative proximity to my area of work, the rural town of Dakshin Barasat.[caption id="attachment_1756" align="aligncenter" width="542"] Travelling by train gives one the opportunity to see much of the Indian countryside. [/caption]Admittedly, I was initially a bit reluctant on embarking on my journey to West Bengal on this mode of transport. Although on previous visits to India I have taken short and comfortable train rides around northern Indian (for up to 4/5 hours at the time), the prospect of being cooped up in a cramped train cabin for 29 hours seemed daunting. A friend of mine, who had travelled on such lengthy journeys before, spoke of my upcoming experience with utter disdain. He warned me on what he described as the ‘perils’ of Indian rail journeys, verbally depicting stark pictures of cramped trains, festering with crawling insects and filthy bathrooms. After hearing him, I was almost tempted to just book an airplane ticket to Kolkata, which would enable me to go to my destination within just 2 hours in absolute comfort in the air.[caption id="attachment_1759" align="aligncenter" width="542"] My sleeping birth made me comfortable throughout the journey, whenever I was sleeping or reading. [/caption]At the same time, my Milaap colleagues, particularly the other Fellows, who were also going similarly long train rides to their respective postings, strongly recommended me to take up “the challenge” of travelling by train. As one Milaap Fellow, Akanksha Srivastava, told me a day before my train journey, “Kunal, what’s stopping you? This is a once in a lifetime experience”. She was absolutely right. I then realised that if I were to take an airplane, I would certainly fly in comfort; yet I would only see the sky and the Indian countryside 40 000ft below me. This was something I already experience regularly whenever I travel. On the other hand, if I were to commute by train in lieu, I would have the opportunity of viewing from my train window, India’s picturesque green fields, hills (such as the Eastern Ghats range), villages, towns and local bystanders. Thus, unlike an air journey, I would be seeing so much of India on the ground. One could say that I would be “running through India’s veins” through one of her “arteries”- the railways.After contemplating on these points, it dawned on me that this would certainly be a once a lifetime experience. If I were to deal with the issues my friend raised, then so be it. Besides, I was allocated my personal bed in an air-conditioned cabin, with hot meals and beverages being constantly served. As long as I had such comforts, including a nice book to read, and some pleasant passengers for company, then a 29-hour train journey would certainly be more than bearable.[caption id="attachment_1768" align="aligncenter" width="542"] Fellow train passengers who sat and slept in berths next to mine. [/caption]And so, on the morning of Sunday, 12th January, I embarked on the Yesvantapur-Howrah Duronto express train from Yesvantapur train station in Bangalore to start my 29-hour adventure. My initial hesitations were disproven within one hour of the train’s departure. The next 29 hours for me were definitely not full of boredom. I actually had a lot of fun. My fellow passengers were very friendly. I had long hours of colourful conversations with them ranging from serious topics such as politics and culture to more lighthearted conversations on life, jokes and their own life stories; which I found most appealing. The majority of them were Bengali IT professionals or civil servants, residing in Bangalore, who were returning to their hometown of Kolkata to visit their relatives and friends. This all happened while scrumptious curries and naans were being served to all of us by attentive waiters. And indeed, I had a comfortable berth on top of the cabin, where I read good couple of novels and comfortably slept as the train prodded away on the rails towards Howrah Station.[caption id="attachment_1757" align="aligncenter" width="542"] I enjoyed my stopover at Bhubaneswar Station. [/caption]The highlight of my train trip was viewing the beautiful Indian countryside. The train went through the rural areas of Tamil Naidu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West, as it sped away on the eastern Indian coast; regions of India had previously never visited. Whenever I looked out of the window, my eyes were in wonder, as I looked at scenic fields, often dotted by charming looking, brightly painted village houses. We had a couple of station stops at small towns along the way. My favourite one was the stopover at Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, where I was served some delicious Indian masala chai (spiced tea).29 hours later, the train finally rolled onto a platform adjacent to a strikingly red-painted yet elegant-looking colonial building, known as Howrah station, in Kolkata. Akanksha was right; this train journey was certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Not only did I get to see so much of India in such a short space of time, I met some wonderful passengers who shared with me their interesting life stories. Over that, the train was pretty clean, despite what my friend said. Oh, did I forget to mention that I still relish on that masala chai back in Bhubaneswar?[caption id="attachment_1772" align="aligncenter" width="542"] Kolkata's Howrah station, just before I departed by taxi for Dakshin Barasat. [/caption]As I disembarked the Yesvantapur-Howrah Duronto express, I knew that I had a fantastic train ride experience. My Milaap fellowship in rural West Bengal was now about to begin.
29-Hour Train Ride: An Adventure of a Lifetime