[Back to Matt Faherty’s journey through India, now in its sixth week. We left off last time in Ajmer. From Ajmer, Matt proceeded to Jaipur, but in the interests of time, I’m skipping the Jaipur entry, the crux of which was a thoughtful and vivid description of Amber Fort in Jaipur, followed by a description of how bored Matt was by Jaipur generally. This entry gets Matt from Jaipur to Mumbai by means of a 17-hour train ride, which is the basis of the following disquisition on the nature of train travel in India. A soundtrack has been provided for your listening pleasure.]
Crazy Train: Seventeen Hours on the Mumbai Express
When I decided to travel throughout India for a month on a budget, I assumed I could easily do so by train. My point of comparison was China. While decent trains in China are relatively expensive for the country, they are also extraordinarily convenient. The Chinese government went all- out in building a massive rail network to service its gigantic population. As long as you aren’t trying to take a train ride during a holiday, you can typically buy a ticket between any two major cities for around $20-$30 and then hop on the train 15-30 minutes later. Imagine walking into Grand Central Station in New York City, buying a train ticket to Dallas, and then getting on said train fifteen minutes later. That’s the way it works in China.
That is not the way it works in India. Despite having one of the oldest rail networks in Asia, India’s trains are hugely over-burdened. Most major cities only have a handful of trains travelling between them each day. To automatically reserve a seat, customers typically have to buy a ticket more than a week in advance, more so for popular routes. If a customer applies to late, they can still get a seat, but only by going through a convoluted waiting list process.
I purchased my ticket for a ride from Jaipur to Mumbai four days before the departure date. I was initially slotted into the 158th waitlist spot (I’m not sure how many spots there are overall). At that point, I and hundreds of other passengers have nothing to do but wait and hope that enough people drop out to move us up the waitlist into a reserved seat. There are even websites with algorithms to track the odds of any individual ticket coming to fruition. Two days before departure, I was in the 81st waitlist slot, and a website estimated I had an 85% chance of getting a ticket. I was confirmed three hours before departure. If I never got a seat reservation, I would get a refund but no transfer to another train. At that point, I would probably sneak on and just sneak on and claim I was a confused American if discovered.
Each train has four classes of seats: Class 1, 2, 3, and Sleeper Class. I opted for sleeper class on this particular 17 hour ride, though I have a third class ticket for my next equally long ride from Mumbai to Hyderabad. The sleeper cars make up most of the train and are the cheapest seats of course. Though, they aren’t really seats, they are bare, hard cots. They are arranged in groups of eight seats, spread out across either side of a central aisle. On one side of the aisle are two parallel cots, one on top of the other. On the other side of the aisle are six perpendicular cots, stacked in threes, parallel to each other across a mini aisle. Typically people sit on the bottom cot until they get tired and sleep on whatever level their cot is on. There are only windows next to the bottom cots and a single outlet next to the bottom cot on each side.
My train left Jaipur at 8:20 PM and was scheduled to arrive in Mumbai at 2:30 PM. I arrived at the station at 7 PM and my train fortunately arrived a bit early, at 7:45 PM. I had asked for a top cot on the parallel side since it’s the most secluded, but the waitlist gave me the bottom parallel cot which isn’t bad either, since it has an outlet and a window. To my surprise, ten minutes after I sat down on my empty cot, another young Indian guy sat down next to me. I was confused. I thought maybe I didn’t understand how the seating worked. Ten minutes after the train got moving, I figured this guy had the empty cot above us and just didn’t like it for some reason, so I opted to take his place.
The cots are quite hard, and there is no separate compartment for luggage (though bottom cots can put their bags under their cots), so I had to put my large and small backpack near my feet. It wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t really mind. I had a bunch of podcasts downloaded on my phone, some writing to do, my parka jacket for warmth, and decent seclusion. I could live with this.
An hour later I got kicked out of my cot by the guy who actually had a ticket for it. I woke my usurper up and tried to ask him to leave, but he didn’t speak English and shrugged. Whatever, the adjacent top cot was empty anyway. I moved my stuff and settled down once more.
An hour later I was woken up and then kicked out of my new cot by its rightful owner. Again I went back to my real cot and woke the guy up. I showed him my ticket which clearly denoted my rights to this seat and asked to see his ticket. A helpful bystander translated, and the guy dug out his phone to look for his e-ticket.
He dug around for quite a while, but five minutes later he held his ticket up to my face. It listed the same train number, the same destination, and the same exact seat. We had to split a single cot for the next 17 hours.
These cots are not big. I cannot lie flat on them, even at a diagonal angle. They are probably around 5 feet, five inches long and two feet wide. Even splitting this cot with someone I didn’t mind lying in bed with would not be fun.
At first we tried cutting in in half. I set up my backpack in the middle to try and lean on while he lay down in a contorted position so his knees were pressing up against the backpack and my weight, kind of like Forrest Gump and Bubba. This did not work for me. The problem was that I had nowhere to put my legs. I couldn’t put them across the aisle because people were constantly walking by. At best I could either assume a fetal position and try to stop them from falling into the aisle, or I could put them slightly in the aisle via the standard siting position while I awkwardly leaned sideways.
Livin’ on the ecstasy: another train song, totally irrelevant to India
I put my backpack under the seat, took off my shoes, and we settled on a new strategy. Our heads were at opposite ends of the cot, and we would settle into one position for a while until one of us got really uncomfortable, at which point we would wake the other up and force a new positional strategy. For instance, At first we both curled up into tiny balls on our own halves, with the unavoidable side effect of sleeping with our legs pressed up against each other. Than we switched so we could stretch out legs out near each other’s heads, with my legs near the aisle and his near the window. We tried a bunch of different strategies, but nothing was comfortable for more than an hour. We continued switching throughout the night.
Everyone else on the train, including my cot-mate, woke up around 7 AM. I had barely stretched, so I continued repositioning myself on my half of the cot while getting short bursts of sleep until 8:30 AM.
For now on I will be booking tickets further in advance.
Here are some other things that happened on the train:
- Apparently not too many white guys get the cheapest tickets on shitty Indian trains, because I got a LOT of stares. The worst were my cot-mate, and this other 15ish year old kid across the aisle who would constantly stare at me for minutes straight. By now I should be used to this, but I think my resistance is actually wearing down.
- Both my cot-mate and the other kid tried to talk to me. The cot-mate spoke no English so I just had to smile and shrug. The kid spoke enough to ask to be Facebook friends and for my phone number five minutes after meeting. I told him my phone didn’t work, but he was really adamant about Facebook. I was going to give him a fake name (Matt Johnson came to mind for some reason) but he used his phone to search for me, and then showed me the results and asked which one I was. He then asked me to confirm him right then and there, but I told him I didn’t have internet. For a second I was concerned that he would log out of his account and then ask me to log into mine to confirm but fortunately he did not. Honestly, I am not going to accept the request.
- Unsurprisingly, there is no food service for the Sleeper Class. We are dependent upon random people hoping on the train at stops to sell potato chips, water, and weird Indian dishes. I bought a box of crackers before getting on the train which held me over.
- Along with the food merchants, beggars also hop on the train and try their luck. Most just walk around and repeat something over and over again. One group was three women who literally went around clapping in people’s faces. I saw them wake up multiple people with nudges too. Of course they spent extra time working on me, but my wallet remained intact.
- While trying to pay a water vendor while the train was moving, I accidentally dropped my twenty rupee note, and it very nearly flew out of the window on the opposite side of the train. It was blocked by the guy sitting next to it.
- I had some used tissues I was looking to dispose of but I couldn’t find a garbage can. My cot-mate grabbed the box they were in, and chucked it out the window.
- Every cot has at least one cup-holder. I thought that was a weird addition for such a minimalist setting.
I was nervous about a 17 hour train ride, but aside from the double-booked cot, it wasn’t too bad. Overnight rides are very different from non-overnight rides. Even if I didn’t get the best rest in the world, the sleep really passes the time. Also relevant, it saves on hotel costs. Looking ahead, I have one equally long ride in a few days, but after that I’m pretty sure they are all shorter. This is a rough, but cheap, altogether pretty decent way to travel around India.*
*Irfan: I thought I’d add some additional reading material on trains, for purposes of comparison and contrast with Matt’s post.
- Here’s a nice piece from the London Guardian, “Ten Spectacular Train Journeys You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.“
- Also worth checking out along the same lines: Dan Disney, “Trains: An Essay,” from Cordite Poetry Review.
- A New York Times article about the state of the rail system in Pakistan. I know it’s total name-dropping, but my cousin is the Federal Minister for Railways in Pakistan, and got that position about a month after the publication of Times article and the expulsion from Pakistan of Declan Walsh, the article’s primary author.
- There’s no online version of it that I know of, but Ayn Rand’s “Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise” is a thought-provoking analysis of the development of the American rail system (from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). I don’t know the literature well enough to know how it fares as serious historiography. It’s interesting to note that rail travel plays a significant symbolic role in all three of Rand’s major novels. We the Living begins with a train ride from the Crimea to Leningrad; the Roark-Dominique love affair in The Fountainhead percolates on the train ride between New York and Connecticut; and trains are obviously central to the plot of Atlas Shrugged. Someone needs to write a proper literary analysis of the symbolic role of trains in Rand’s fiction.
- Rail travel plays a rather dark symbolic role in South Asian literature, where rail travel is indelibly associated with the mass killings of the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Counter-intuitive as it seems, rail travel put refugees at higher risk of death than simply walking across the border: precisely because rail travel proceeds by public schedule, people traveling by rail were easier to mark out for death by those interested in killing them (thanks to Manan Ahmed for making that point to me). The classic literary account is Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, but there are similar depictions in Paul Scott’s A Division of Spoils, and in Deepa Mehta’s film, “Earth,” itself based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India. On a slightly different (but equally dark) note, there’s also the fateful train rides to and from the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India.
Deepa Mehta’s “Earth” (1998)