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Illustration: Ezra Whittaker
Illustration: Ezra Whittaker

SocietyFebruary 19, 2023

The Sunday Essay: I grew up riding trains across India

Illustration: Ezra Whittaker
Illustration: Ezra Whittaker

The trains of India are crowded and slow, the distances vast, and your travel companions not always of your choosing. But it’s worth it.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Ezra Whittaker

I was excited, the first time I slept on a train. My mum had been telling me how nice it was to set up bunks inside the compartment, to feel the chugga chugga chugga of metal wheels reverb through your whole body. “It’s like being rocked to sleep,” she said, presumably because if your small children are going to be spending 60 hours in an enclosed space you need to ensure they’re enthused about it. I would have been about six; we were going to see my grandmother in Bangalore.

It was a long way to the Delhi train station: we left the clinic beside the river beneath the mountain passes where our family lived, then bumped for several hours in a car to Manali, then walked down the concrete streets with the many stray dogs and balloons sold to tourists to the bus stand, then the five of us – three children, two parents, lots of bags – took the overnight bus with its roiling corners to Delhi. Then, somehow – an autorickshaw? A taxi? – we reached the Delhi train station, crossed the overpasses above the long segmented bodies of waiting trains, and found our carriage and compartment. Then, with a long whistle and a little jerk, the train would have pulled us away from the station, through the grey air, and taken us south.

I don’t remember that specific train, because it was one of what would become many, and the consistency of the Indian railway system is such that the trains are more or less the same. My first Indian train journey was very like most of the others: vinyl beds that fold away in the day, becoming seats that any sweaty skin sticks to. Open-hole toilets, sometimes filthy, with blurry sleepers racing below. Long platforms, grimy windows, narrow corridors, the entire vehicle shimmying from side to side as it moves along the tracks. I lived in India from the age of six to 18, and in that time, there were lots of train trips, the country unspooling along threads of iron tracks, shiny in the sun.

That trip to Bangalore wasn’t actually my first long distance passenger train ride. Before my parents sat us down and told us we were moving to India; before the driftwood furniture and boxes of books were packed in a container; before walking out of the Delhi airport, hot, tired, hungry and surprised to see a cow, there was a trip from Christchurch to Wellington, for my cousin’s birthday. The photographic evidence of this trip still exists, although my memories don’t: dark-haired small children peering out the window at the dense blue of the Kaikōura ocean. The train was followed by a ferry trip, then a birthday party. I asked my mother recently why we hadn’t driven or flown. “It definitely wasn’t cheaper,” she said. “I thought it would create a bit of interest, be a bit different.”

Choosing to take the train in New Zealand, even in 2005, was unusual, a special treat. But in India, it was ordinary.

A scene: a warm living room in the house in the oak forest where we moved after the mountain clinic. It’s my friend’s house. We’re a group of teenagers, having a games night. Someone is unfolding a boardgame over the table. The colourful cards are worn from use. It’s a map extension of Ticket to Ride, the game where everyone is a private contractor racing to build lucrative routes across an undeveloped continent. This map is India: the vibe is old-timey, colonial. I don’t remember who wins, but I do remember that years of rail travel in India made many of the station names feel familiar, feel like mine. I place my plastic pieces. It’s easy. I don’t think about the lives of real people laying and maintaining tracks, sweating in the sun; transport – like coal and lumber and cotton and wheat and most of all labour – choreographed by empire. The game ends. There is no Ticket to Ride map of train routes through Aotearoa, although trains were for a long time the most efficient and affordable way to move through this country.

Trains have their illusions. Out the window, my father is buying snacks on the platform. Then he starts to move, the whole platform sliding away, taking food stalls and signs with it. My father pays, spins, sprints; hops in the door before the vehicle accelerates, brings us our samosas. It’s our world, the world of the train, that is moving, but the still world outside flicks by like frames of a movie.

On the train everything feels the right size to a child: the small gap between the bunks perfect for squirming across, the country the train travels through becoming a manageable string of station names and station snacks. I’ve spent a lot more time on planes now, where the world you’re moving above is abstract and so distant – if it’s even visible through the clouds – that it’s impossible to conceive of the distances travelled. If I don’t understand how fast the speed of light is, or that light has a speed at all, then I find it equally inconceivable that my body can travel at 800 kilometres an hour. It’s not quite teleporting, but it still feels disorienting, one marble-and-glass building becoming another with a different name.

But distances travelled by train are real. On the station signs, the sharp angles of North India’s Devanagri script are joined by the swishy strokes of the Bangla alphabet, or elaborate curves of Tamil. As you travel south, samosas and guavas sold by the snack-walas on the train become vada and coffee. I knew I was properly in south India when I woke up to people selling strings of jasmine to hang in my hair. Outside the window, real people lived their real lives: see the clothes hanging in windows, dusty tree leaves, smoke from the long chimney of a factory, women bending over rice fields in hitched-up saris, small children flying kites or feeding goats.  

And of course, you can exit trains, take breaks in the journey; in our family, it used to be a game, to get out at a three-minute stop and sprint as far as we could along the platform. Otherwise we’d do time trials through the sleeper carriages, which isn’t possible on buses (short!) and cars (even smaller!). I suspect, in retrospect, that most of these races were simply to stop us being under-exercised and overtired on long train journeys.

As a child, when I was never particularly worried about arriving on time, the great inconvenience of trains, their slowness, was never a problem. My mother would pack an entertainment bag for us: we’d pull out a five-way headphone splitter and go to Tatooine or Hogwarts via the 11 inch laptop screen. There was a complicated rotation schedule to take turns on the top bunk to snooze or read our books.

In remembering the train trips of my childhood, I keep wanting to use the plural pronoun, though it was me who had to wash my hands in the stained sink, whose skin got pinched in the chain holding up the middle bunk of the compartment. These memories are my own but they happened to the five, then the six of us, my family moving as a unit. The trains were fun and easy for me, in part, because the money and resources of my family made journeys smooth. Even on a train stopped in the middle of a rice field in central India, 16 hours delayed, low on water and food in the July sun, there was a hotspot to download books from the library and finish a series of fantasy novels. I understand now the work my parents did to look up train schedules and remember the platform number and ensure the night of 2011 when we slept on a station platform in Puri after our train arrived at 2am, wouldn’t be repeated (too often). I’ve travelled on trains by myself now, at least a little, but the arrangement of compartments in groups of six, a seat for each member of my family, cements an association between the Indian railways and my parents taking their children to see more of the country where they lived.

As idyllic as train travel is, it isn’t free of danger. Stickers in the zone between two carriages (I’ve just looked this up and it’s called a gangway connection) list numbers to call if crimes are committed, especially crimes against women. My mother, who had once nearly lost her father on a train as a child, worried about her children being taken, would write her phone number on our tummies in permanent marker, where it wouldn’t be washed away, and tell us to call her if anything went wrong. On more than one occasion, she slept with items of clothing or strings tied to us, so she would know if we moved in the night.

None of those precautions could prevent some of the dangers I did experience on a train. On a trip to Delhi, as a 16- or 17-year-old sleeping on the bottom bunk, I woke up with a strange man’s hand on my hip, lying beside me. Everyone else was asleep, and I didn’t want to wake the whole carriage. I kicked him, hard. He moved away, then moved back. I kicked again, moved, woke my father on an adjacent bunk and tried to explain what was happening. My dad, bleary with sleep, tried to chasten the man, and fell asleep again. The man, who was probably travelling without a ticket and hoping to evade the conductor, sat on the end of the bunk for the rest of the night, and vanished in the morning. Trains are public space: unlike a private car, you can’t choose who gets on. My brother told me that on a recent overnight train, a police officer walked through the carriage, checking in with women travelling alone. Maybe things are changing. 

Class and power, too, are part of the story of India’s trains. It’s literally how the vehicles are organised: perhaps I would like trains less if I’d had to travel in the second class carriages where there are many more people than seats, crushed close together. Instead we – there I go again with the plural – had the reserved seats in sleeper or 3 AC classes. At train stops, disabled people would crawl through the carriages and beg for money; mothers clutching babies would hold their hands out and plead. 

If the trains make Indian distances feel more real, they make Indian poverty more real too. The depth of need within the carriages and without, tarpaulin tents on the roadside and men hauling bricks to building sites on overloaded bicycle carts. My parents could have shielded me from seeing this side of India – but that was much harder on a train. As a child, I didn’t know what to give; whether to look, or to look away. I still don’t.

I’m hardly the first person to write about trains, and India’s trains specifically – long chains of bogies transporting more than 20 million people and millions of tonnes of freight every day. The railways are heavily subsidised by the government and freight. Today, that trip from Delhi to Bangalore for five people would cost ₹4,300 for a sleeper carriage, or NZD $83. In New Zealand, the role of trains seems to be ever decreasing – and ever more expensive. If my mother wanted to take three children from Christchurch to Wellington for a birthday party today, it would cost at least $670, including the ferry; more than the cost of flights. For me, it’s impossible not to compare the hundreds of domestic flights per day, not to mention the constant flow of traffic down State Highway One, to the paltry three carriages for up to 250 people operated on New Zealand’s three long distance train routes.

Travelling thousands of kilometres by train as a child let me know more of the country I lived in: I had long silly conversations with my siblings, learned to maximise the effect of the fan on my skin on the top bunk, and saw more people out the window than I ever could have on a plane. Travelling through this India at a relatively slow pace made the country seem exactly as big as it is, knotted with the railway lines that carried not just me and my family, but domestic migrant labourers moving from Bihar to Lucknow, students travelling to Guwahati see their parents, pilgrims returning to Uttar Pradesh from Haridwar with bottles of holy Ganga water, and millions of others. 

My memories of taking trains across the Indian sub-continent are hard to separate from what I believe trains could make possible in Aotearoa. Trains can be low carbon, relaxing, affordable, safe, good for people in regions and people in cities.

India got trains earlier than Aotearoa, though only by about 20 years. But the differences in the rail systems is stark: India has thousands of long-distance trains, as well as heavily frequented suburban trains in places like Mumbai and effective (albeit somewhat in-progress) underground and overground rapid-transit metro systems in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and elsewhere. The Indian Railways are one of the world’s biggest employers and energy consumers; travelling by train is the norm for millions of people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Meanwhile, New Zealand has expensive rail services between some major cities, aimed at tourists, as well as two daily commuter services (the Te Huia and Capital Connection), and two cities (Auckland and Wellington) with suburban rail networks which are often closed, wasting people’s time.

Some of these differences are a product of scale: India’s population is 1.408 billion, roughly 280 times the size of New Zealand’s, and it also has a much bigger landmass and lower labour costs. But still: train travel in Aotearoa could be much better

I’m actually writing this on a train, in India, with my family, going from Gwalior to Bharatpur: new territory, although the familiar highlighter-yellow mustard fields and grey polluted air make it feel as if I’ve been here before. After five years of living in Aotearoa, catching buses around the country and flying when I could afford it, India’s extensive train network seems even more remarkable. I’m not a child any more; the books I’ve brought along are on an e-reader, not stacked in a bag, and the thought of leaping across bunks is no longer so appealing. With crumbs of samosa on my fingers and pale chai in a terracotta cup – a snack I’ve had on many train trips before – I feel simultaneously nostalgic for past journeys, and hopeful for ones to come. I try to imagine a future in Aotearoa where I could take my (currently hypothetical) children on a trip to see their cousins via trains, press station popsicles into smeared hands, invent my own games to entertain hyperactive small people aboard a long vehicle. It feels far away. But there’s no better way to cover great distances than by train.

Keep going!