As an 11 year-old who left India to settle in the UK after spending just two years in the country, Monisha Rajesh’s biggest regret remains that she never saw, say, the Charminar, and “never watched India go by as a wide-eyed tourist.”
So, late in 2009, when 30 year-old Rajesh, a London-based freelance journalist who has worked with Time magazine, read a news piece announcing that an Indian airline planned to connect 80 Indian cities with the rest of the world, she was intrigued. “I wanted to be in all those 80 cities,” she says, over the telephone from her London office.
“But I also realised that airplanes can hardly give you a glimpse of what India is all about.” In an airplane, says Rajesh, you sit next to one person throughout the journey, who is more likely to prefer solitude than endless banter. “You can’t even look outside, because there really is nothing to give you a taste of what that country or city is all about.” Rajesh sheepishly adds that she despises road journeys in India because of awful memories of driving uphill to Kodaikanal to visit her brother in boarding school when she was young. “So that was out of the question.”
If it couldn’t be 80 plane journeys, it would definitely be 80 train journeys, Rajesh decided, and told her friends about it. Travelling across the country solo, however, was not the best idea, she thought, and began looking for someone who wanted to do the same thing. After a friend of her friend, a wedding photographer, agreed to take the journey with her and also be the official photographic chronicler of the journey, Rajesh began researching for the trip. “I named him Passepartout, which comes from the book, Around the World In 80 Days, where Phileas Fogg hires a Frenchman by the name of Jean Passepartout as his valet. Passepartout in French means all-purpose, which is essentially what that common friend was supposed to be on this trip,” laughs Rajesh.
She soon realised that you cannot plan train journeys in India. “We couldn’t have a rigid plan and an itinerary — bookings in India begin months in advance and I didn’t want to plan that seriously.” Rajesh and Passepartout got a 90-day inrail pass which would let them travel anywhere in trains across India for £350.
“There was so much I wanted to do. My grandfather was an engineer in the army who was posted in Siliguri and worked in Nagaland for a long time, too. For someone who had seen Naga spears mounted in a home, and had heard so many stories, not having been to Delhi, eastern India or even Mumbai was a personal loss,” says Rajesh.
The 80 train journeys, then, were Rajesh’s chance to do it all, and more. You could say the beginning of her journey was rather like the whims of the Indian railways itself — Rajesh and Passepartout missed their first, the Chennai-Kanyakumari Express and took Anantapuri Express the next day from Chennai to Nagercoil.
“The little planning we had done revolved around significant events in India. Our first journey from Chennai to Kanyakumari, for instance, was planned on the Anantapuri Express so we could see the solar eclipse on January 15, 2010,” says Rajesh. Rajesh also travelled by train to Khajuraho for a classical festival in March that year, and went aboard the Lifeline Express, which mostly covers Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
The first thing she thought was how everything seemed so familiar. “I was nine years old again — the shutters, the colours inside the train, the seats, and the people chatting before we even pulled out of the station — it was comfortingly familiar.”
Rajesh isn’t overly sentimental when she says she was touched to see what the Indian railways can show you about the country. “You see people’s attires, language — even their expressions — change the moment the train moves from one region to another, so you can imagine how I felt seeing the changes when a train travelled across states.
One day I’d be in Rajasthan where there would these people who would get into the train and bring along a burst of colours. A few days later, I’d be in Kerala where people would get on dressed predominantly in white. It was a riot,” she recalls. The warmth of the train journey, however, comes from the times when locals offer you the best advice there could be about the food in the city, where to stay and what to do while you’re there, she feels.
Her longest train journey was from Delhi to Kottayam, which took 48 hours, but her best journey, hands down, was from Madgaon to Mumbai, on the Mandovi Express, which took about 12 hours. “I think Konkan has the best landscape and the Mandovi Express serves the most delicious food,” she smiles.
Rajesh says she will never forget the characters she met on her train journeys. “There was this lady at New Delhi station, at the tourist bureau desk, who we met 4-5 times because our trains often took us to Delhi. She appeared grumpy and stand-offish and would make her amusement evident to us.
But over time, she began helping us with routes, food and made sure I travelled with compartments with women and families. I was really touched by that,” says Rajesh. Others, she says, tried to lecture her about how wonderful, unsafe and exotic the country is — often all at the same time. “I think they were all right — and I loved how people would gather around if one person was giving us directions. The others would corroborate and often get into fights if they felt we were being misled!”
What really stands out is her time aboard the Lifeline Express. “It had two operation theatres and out of the 90-odd people they screened every day, at least 17 were operated upon. In London, we take our National Health Service for granted. Here, I saw so many children come with polio, which, for instance, doesn’t even exist in the western world today. Just before the Express was about to leave from the station, people would lie on the tracks to stop it from leaving their city.” We call it connecting India.