Travelling in small-town India

I arrived here in the evening on a train that runs on meter gauge track. It takes almost 8 hours from Indore to reach here. The official time table indicates a little more than 6 hours, but I do not care since my train to Goa arrives past midnight. Whether this train pulls in at 5 PM or at 6:30 PM, I am hardly bothered since I have a lot of time to kill anyway.

I have travelled enough in this long, wide country to conclude that travelling by train in India is an important part of your syllabus if you think of India as a “full term course”. All the theory learned like “The diversity of the land”, “the different dialects in the speech” come to life when you travel in the train, second class. But meter gauge track is different. It’s like specialising in “small town India” and the villages. The usual trains pass by them with speeds of 110 km per hour as if flipping pages of the book and skipping small, not so important chapters. At the small railway platforms of these very same villages, the meter gauge track trains spend hours.

So we start our journey from Indore and pass on, the two of us, my friend $D and me, passing by stations like Mhow, where we have a stop of 45 minutes. A man sells Kachoris in a cardboard box. It is a long journey and food could be a problem so we eat what we get. By early afternoon we reach Kalakand. Everytime that I have passed through this station, I am reminded of the sweet. I am told the village name is Kalakand because it is famous for the sweet with the same name.

Lucky Ali sings “kitni haseen zindagi” in my ears.

The train stops at the slightest excuse it finds. We do not get annoyed, all this was expected. But we observe. We see villagers carrying huge loads of vegetables in the train. One corner of the coach smells of coriander. On the outside of the windows, hooks are attached, one by one. Some of these hooks carry small logs of wood while the rest carry big cans of milk.

We reach Khandwa at 6:15 PM. According to the timetable we should have been here an hour back.

$D’s train is a good 3 hours late so I have company before I catch the train that will take me to Goa at midnight. Our first stop is the railway canteen run by a bespectacled man who seems well educated and a nice person. Dressed in a simple, clean full sleeve shirt and a little stocky. We order tea and in addition, I order bread and omelette. After a journey like this, where there are no big stations and no food stalls, this is a treat. The man behind the counter continues to read his newspaper while his son, probably 10 years old, tries to engage him in conversations. His trials go in vain.

$D is bored. Unlike me, he does not carry a Walkman. Amidst of all the trains that come and go in front of us, he picks out Bangalore-Delhi Karnataka Express and goes in to roam inside the train while it stands on the platform. “The girls are beautiful inside”, he arrives at the conclusion after he comes back with a wide grin. Evidently, the Bangalore-Delhi culture is in full form inside the coaches. That is the only glimpse we see of the metro culture in one of the busiest rail junctions of Central India. I see $D enjoyed his short lived adventure.

The much sought after train to Bhagalpur arrives. $D finally leaves at around 9 PM. This main part of his journey shall take a good 36 hours more. He has a waiting list ticket. That means no guarantee of a seat. I do not have a confirmed seat for the journey either but Deepavali is around the corner and we are going to our homes to celebrate. Nothing else matters to us. Homecoming could not get better than this. That is the biggest joy.

I stay there, on the platform, sitting on a bench while listening to Six Pence None the Richer’s “Kiss me”. I just heard, my train is on time, a quarter past midnight. This train coming from Delhi and going to Ernakulam in Kerala, will go through the Konkan route and drop me home, Madgaon, in the next 24 hours.

The year was 1999. In the next two years that I went home from Indore via Khandwa, things did not change much. The meter gauge train to Khandwa continued to stop at the slightest excuse and continued carrying logs of woods stuck outside the window. The man behind the counter at Khandwa Station’s canteen continued to indulge himself with late evening newspaper reading while I always ordered my favorite Bread and omelette with tea. I looked at him and wondered if he ever recognised me. Don’t know why, but I hoped for that. But I do not think he ever did. And whenever he noticed me for those 3-5 seconds, each time, it appeared as a mere interruption in his evening newspaper reading project.

$D told me, nothing much has changed there, even now.

Things don’t change much in small town India.

9 thoughts on “Travelling in small-town India

  1. hey aditya, I was thinking…the next time I’m in India (and I do plan to go back), take some time off work and we’ll do some
    travelling together. What say you?

  2. A good post…brings back the memories of our good old days in Indore. And you guys rushing off home at the drop of a hat. Its been 10 mnths I have visited small town Khandwa now. Last time was when I came to Bangalore from Indore via Khandwa. Nothing but the road from Indore to Khandwa is splendid now compared to the condition it was some 3-4 years back.

  3. [aidid] Sure :)

    [Sujatha] Thanks a lot :)

    [amit ghosh] thanks. Things better this side- I would be going home for Deepawali. How do you plan to celebrate it?

    [EP] You bet! Vada Paus in Maharashtra, Vada Sambar in South India and Aaloo poori in North India. Wah!

    [Dinesh] ah, I see- the road is repaired? Thats great, in fact, as I recall, that was the reason why we took this passenger train! Yes, we used to go off for home at the slightest excuse..fun, it was.

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