Cover Story: how is it to be on the longest train journey in India?

On A hot summer afternoon in 1853, as the first steam locomotive pulled out of Bombay, India entered the rail era. Today, 160 years later, even at a time when the Railways are making headlines for the wrong reasons, a ride aboard the Vivek Express is the opportunity of a lifetime.  It’s India’s longest train ride, starting from Dibrugarh in Assam and sweeping down the eastern coast to culminate at Kanyakumari. It covers a staggering 4,300 km (more than 1/10th the earth’s circumference), in an unforgettable four-night-three-day grind.

Having grown up reading the works of adventurers such as Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling, I wasn’t  short of inspiration. Boning up on railway fiction might help you prepare for 82 hours on the tracks, but as India flashes by the window, nothing prepares you for what lies inside: a journey that opens your eyes to ways of travelling and surviving the Great Indian Railways experience. Perhaps, a line by author Paul Theroux about the romance of travel comes close: “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.”

First Post
In 1881, the British set up a 65-km metre gauge line from Dibrugarh in north Assam to the Margherita Garden Estate, mainly for transportation of tea and coal. Today Dibrugarh, a bustling town on the Himalayan foothills, is the only non-Capital city in the country to have important trains such as the Rajdhani Express and Vivek Express originating from it.
After braving a downpour, as we await the station master and train staff at the crew lobby, we chance upon an intriguing procedure:

Driver Mohammad Rahimuddin, 55, blows hard into an alcometer for a breathalyser test done to ensure drivers aren’t tipsy when they guide the train. That done, he gets an update on the locomotive’s load capacity, electrical output and power certification from the staff before he heads to the pilot’s cabin.

“Most of the 22 coaches of the Vivek Express have been built in the integrated rail coach factory at Kapurthala and the rest at Perambur. A majority of passengers on the train are soldiers manning our borders since China is just 220 kilometres from Dibrugarh,” station in-charge R. Bhattacharjee tells us over tea-bag chai and biscuits.

Riding on hope
Author Bill Aitken, whose Branch Line to Eternity introduced readers to the romance of feeder railway lines, says spending four days on a slow, squalid train is worth it just for the great value for money it offers. “Travelling 4200 kilometres for peanuts must be the cheapest fare in the world anywhere?” he surmises.
Aitken isn’t off the mark. The Vivek Express takes you across more than 600 stations, halting at 56 major destinations spread across eight states (see map) in two tier air-conditioned comfort for Rs. 3475. The ticket for third AC is Rs. 2305, the sleeper class Rs. 925 and for the general class Rs. 545.

The general compartment, where more than 200 people are crammed into a space fit for just 90, is where this economics is at play. Bodies dripping sweat, satchels welded to the arm and voices raised to holler at those stepping on their toes: the compartment begins to fill with workers and tea-pickers at Dibrugarh itself.

By the time the train reaches Tinsukiya in Assam, the closest station to Arunachal Pradesh, a catchment area for Kafkaesque contractors looking for cheap labour – it is spilling at the seams, and then, where it doesn’t seem likely: Six workers invade the train loo, Occupy Wall Street style, and refuse to come out. After all, they too have a ticket to ride and no standing room.

“What can one do? The cheap fare is provided by contractors who take their cut. It isn’t our job to check tickets here. That will be done by the flying squad,” philosophises a moon-faced ticket inspector who refuses to divulge his name. Oblivious to the heat, grime and noise, clad in similar vests, flip flops and jeans, a group of youngsters is engrossed in a game of cards.

What drives these agricultural workers, who form the biblical salt of the earth, to seek employment thousands of kilometres away in Kerala and Tamil Nadu? Dilip Sonowal, 25, who boards the train along with eight others from Tinsukiya, has an answer: “Higher wages and assured employment through the year. The highest we can make in Assam is Rs. 200 even if we work overtime. In Kerala, if we get an extra Rs. 30 every additional hour, we can earn as much as Rs. 350. Aur phir, videsh jaa kar kuch naya dekhenge.” Travel, the ultimate teacher, did someone say? In the tradition of a Columbus and Robinson Crusoe, it is the feeling of being the first man in new terrain that has inspired Mangal Jyoti Chakma, 18, a tribal farmer from Arunachal Pradesh, to head for a rubber factory in Tamil Nadu’s Kottayam district. No one in the last five generations of Chakmas has worked in a rubber plant. But the prospect doesn’t daunt him. “I will learn and earn. When I go back home, it will be in air-conditioned,” he declares, eyes gleaming, high on hope and youth.

Thoughts for food

As I settle my portly 85-kg frame into the lower berth, an old Indian Railways tagline: “To learn a thousand dialects, eat a thousand cuisines and meet a million people, you need just one berth,” comes to mind and for a few moments, I let my mind wander. When one negotiates more than 4000 km on the longest train journey in India, one comes across mountains, rivers, backwaters and the sea. One unravels local tongues and makes friends with fellow-passengers even as one’s tastebuds explode with a smattering of food flavours.

Food, yes, as usual, it manages to derail my train of thought! I make my way across my two-tier AC through the vestibule and decide to meet pantry manager Ramen Mahato.

He can’t be serious! I blurt out aloud. The subject of my incredulity is Mahato’s statement: “This is a cooking-free train. Aboard the Vivek Express, meals are prepared only for the staff, not travellers,” he says triumphantly and I have visions of turning carnivorous. “What about ticket holders?” I ask in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. “Are we meant to go on a fast and die a slow death?” “For them, the service staff picks up meals. Lunch from Guwahati, dinner at Alipur Duar, breakfast at Durgapur and so on,” says Mahato, making it sound like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and my stomach rumbles in relief. It is another matter though, that the staple fare of rivers of watery dal running through mountains of rice and a squiggle of bright red chillie pickle is painting its own, unappetising landscape which would usher in insurgency in the belly, once we reach Delhi.

As we leave Lumdig in Assam and move towards Dimapur in Nagaland, the first lot of public pariahs – urchins, beggars and a group of eunuchs – makes an appearance. An arm-less beggar looks for alms, finds little success but goes through the vestibules from second AC to three-tier, to sleeper, to general, with a beatific smile. “Even the cops don’t harass us. They know better. They just extracted Rs. 200 from a fauji for having whisky from his consignment of canteen booze,” the disabled beggar who goes by the name of Jishnu, tells me with a wink. “What’s a couple of swigs of Mansion House whisky when the country has other important matters to discuss? Tell me, what about the Chinese incursion in Ladakh?” asks a Border Roads Force subedar, who refuses to give me his name, as he draws dark red curtains over the side berth and draws at his glass, before retiring for the night and unleashing a fusillade of snoring glory.

The insurgency-ravaged Seven Sisters of the North-East are home to a sizeable number of Army and paramilitary soldiers – mainly from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Assam Rifles, The Madras Regiment, BSF and CRPF – who hail from Southern India. Till the Vivek Express was launched, a soldier, say, from Kerala, stationed in Arunachal Pradesh, had to change trains at least four times to reach his destination. “Earlier, we spent close to six days going to our unit. From Trivandrum one took a train to Chennai. From here we reached Howrah two days later. The train in the evening which took us to Guwahati took one day and a night and from Guwahati to our post was another long, backbreaking journey,” says BSF constable SK Nair, 30, stationed in Siliguri. “With a direct train, all that is a distant memory,” adds Nair with a smile.

The two additional days he gets to spend with his family are worth their weight in gold biscuits from the Gulf, says Simon K.M. of Assam Rifles. The 54-year-old Havaldar, stationed in Arunachal Pradesh, is looking forward to catching up with his 24-year old son. “He has just got a job at the Pathanamthitta town collectorate,” he says with palpable pride. “He has taken after me. He is six feet tall, you will see when he comes to pick me up at Chenganur,” he adds. For his 22-year-old daughter, Simon, working with the Assam Rifles for more than 30 years, is taking along saplings of cacti grown in Nagaland, which bear colourful flowers in 13 resplendent hues. “Originally found in the north-east, it survives in Kerala beautifully. I had taken four saplings the last time I came home,” adds the veteran soldier, who says he can’t afford more than two chhutis a year (one in the summer and another at Christmas).

A trip by train from one end of the country to another is also special because it is microcosmic of the Indian way of life. Remember Yatra, Shyam Benegal’s iconic series where Om Puri played the protagonist, which followed the route of the Himsagar Express, the longest train journey in India which connected Kashmir to Kanyakumari before Vivek Express was launched in 2011? On the Vivek Express, the role of the railways in uniting a multiplicity of people across diverse states permeates through strongly.

A seasoned passenger on the train, Beryl King, 24, could unwittingly become a brand ambassador for this brand of integration, railways-style. The polyglot 24-year-old montessori teacher, who boards the train in Dimapur, is headed to Ernakulam, where she goes to meet her aunt and extended family on her departed father’s side, every six months. “The train is ideal for somebody like me who has family in the North-East as well as relatives down the Vindhyas. I am going from my mom’s hometown in Dimapur to my late father’s native place,” she says.  King’s father, a highway engineer from Kerala, couldn’t converse in anything but Malayalam and English when he was working in Nagaland. Her mother, for whom anything other than Nagamese (a mixture of Naga, Assamese and Hindi) was alien, didn’t know English. “But love knows no language and they got married. Who knows where I’ll find my soulmate – in Nagaland or Kerala?” wonders King, as she breaks into a grin and a giggle routine. That she can break the ice by breaking into fluent Malayalam as well as Nagamese, make her popular with many of her fellow travellers.

In the three-tier AC section, as Boney M’s ‘Hooray, hooray, it’s a holi-holiday/What a world of fun for everyone, holi-holiday’ blares from their smartphones, a nattily dressed Naga girl duo from Dimapur stands out with its exuberant disposition. “I am like, super-excited!” announces Avi Chishi, a 24-year-old student of theology, as she puts out the loudspeaker and gives her headphones to her friend Vikali Sumi, 22. “We hadn’t ever ventured beyond Guwahati till yesterday. And today, here we are, headed to the tip of the subcontinent on a trip of a lifetime,” says Sumi. “Inside the campus of Dimapur’s New Life Bible College, we mostly listen to gospel musicians such as Paul Baloche and Max Locado. But on a holiday, we can choose to listen to classic rock,” adds Sumi.


Great Railways Bazaar
As the hilly terrain of Assam makes way for Bengal, rows and rows of thatched roof houses run alongside the rail track. The landscape becomes flatter and on the garishly painted walls of the rare concrete dwelling, advertisements for Amul Macho ‘yeh to bahut toing hai’ innerwear compete with Ultratech cement and railway employee union slogans in Bengali.

At Alipur Duar, the first station in Mamata country, the silence of the coach is broken by the high-pitched sales pitch of Rahul Das.
“Nothing less than Rs. 10 for a cup,” he bellows and manages to convince a few buyers. As the warm liquid breaks the lethargy of the evening, we quiz him on his revenue stream. “Between Alipur Duar and Rampur Haat (four stations) I will earn Rs. 700 and then return home on another train,” says Das.

It isn’t exactly an incursion, but selling their wares on a moving train is a revenue model which thrives on Chinese imports. So, we have vendors at New Jalpaiguri, trying to peddle a smartphone for Rs. 1200 and a Tab for Rs. 8000, all Chinese-made. I settle for a Teng Peng multi-point charger with colourful sockets in fluorescent orange, yellow, pink and blue for Rs. 100 and plug it into the power point provided in the coach for mobile charging. Soon, I am the most popular person on the train, with people from adjoining coaches, the pantry staff and even strangers from sleeper class approaching me with requests to charge their gadgets, many of them bearing the inscription: MADE IN CHINA.

Riding with the loco pilots
Doi, doi, mishti doi. At Durgapur, the first vendors of sweetened curd bring that unmistakable Bengali touch to the platform. With a 30-minute stop for refuelling and change of engine from diesel to electric, the halt is ideal to make acquaintance with the charioteers of our train, one thinks. So, between the industrial town best known for its steel plant and Asansol, we request loco pilot RB Ram and his assistant Rajiv Kumar to allow us a peek into their cabin and they oblige.

Outside the drivers’ cabin, truck after truck of coal extracted from the Raniganj coalfields just outside Durgapur, drives past. The undulating landscape is a maze of giant factories, tin sheds, lorry drivers and electrical wires. Inside, with the assurance of a pro, Ram is shouting instructions to his junior on impending railway signals.

Manning their console, with meters to check air flow, braking pressure and speed, needs knowledge of both the mechanical and electrical aspects of locomotive engineering, says Ram, 53, a native of Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, who has made Asansol his home for the 20 years he has been with the Railways. “As you can see, we can’t use mobile phones or take loo breaks. Other than that, the job isn’t tough, not after having driven goods trains for close to 15 years,” he says with a smile. “He is a good teacher, so the long hours don’t bother me,” says Ram’s assistant Rajiv Kumar, 26. “The most enjoyable part of the trip is when we get the engine from Asansol to Durgapur, before it is attached to the train. We are the most crucial personnel on the train. So, we should get adequate rest to keep fresh,” says Kumar.

Vijayawada Mystery
On the morning of the third day, we approach Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada junction, one of the busiest stations in southern India, which handles more than 320 trains every day.  Apart from vendors selling piping fresh dosai, idlis and vadais, the eye goes to the vendors’ fluorescent orange T-shirts that proclaim ‘Beware of thieves’ in English, Telugu and Hindi. Curiosity piqued and an Idly-Vada picked, one asks them why they are sporting the intriguing message.

“It’s on the instructions of cops,” is as forthcoming as the answers get. Befuddled, I look for the closest person in wearing khaki, pot belly and stick and quiz him on the same. The cop summons me and we begin walking in the direction of the train’s last cabin. With about 2 minutes left for the train to leave I am nervous, when he points me to a hoarding and says: “Good officer, saar!” Opposite me is a giant hoarding like a split-screen TV discussion, replete with badly translated moral science lessons such as ‘Lane Mein Jayiye Choron Se Bachiye’ (join the queue to avoid thieves), ‘Sona Mat Pahaniye’ and ‘Buddha Aadmiyon Se Madad Karo’ (help the elderly), courtesy Dr M. Kantha Rao, SP, Railway Police, along with photographs of the ‘good’ officer demonstrating what he is preaching and his phone number.

The provocation: a spate of chain snatchings around Vijayawada. During this investigation, the train’s electric horn begins to blare and one rushes to catch the moving locomotive, only to end up breathless in the pantry section!

Being confined for hours together in a common space brings out even the most introverted characters out of their shell and spontaneous friendships formed on trains are sometimes known to last lifetimes. Shyamoshree, 34 a homemaker from Dimapur, Nagaland, for instance, is travelling with her five-year -old daughter Ashtha to Kottayam to visit family friends. They met Ratna Ghosh and her six year old daughter Sayantika, natives of Dibrugarh, a few hours back on the train and have become great friends since. The two girls play antakshri, Atlas, watch games on Shyamoshree’s laptop and transform themselves into announcers on the train’s non-existent public address system every time it slows down at a station.

Out Patients Department
As one takes leave of Andhra Pradesh towards Tamil Nadu, one notices a group of travellers preparing to de-board at Katpadi Junction, near the Christian Medical College, Vellore (CMC). Swarup Dutta, a 32-year-old telecom engineer from Dibrugarh is taking his father Subir Kumar Dutta, 60, a former National Assurance Company executive, for treatment of his lower-back. “The extent of personal care for patients there is much better than Assam. So one doesn’t mind the travel,” says Dutta Junior. Arati Sarkar, 59, a housewife from Assam, who is travelling with her daughter and granddaughter to CMC Vellore to get a gum infection treated, agrees. “It’s a shame that the North-east which is home to 40 million people, almost equal to the population of England, doesn’t have decent medical facilities,” says Sarkar.

Then there was Nun
At Chengannur the Vivek Express turns into a ghost train. Most of the migrant workers have alighted. The general, sleeper and air-conditioned coaches are deserted and one does a recce to find out if there are any travellers left. It is here, in the two-tier compartment that the smiling countenance and sparkling eyes of Sister Janet Baby catch your attention. Almost hidden on a side berth, the 37-year-old assistant teacher in Arunachal Pradesh’s Miao Diocese is viewing the lush green landscape from the window, as she prepares to reach home to her village in Trivandrum district. “This has been my first trip on this train and it was special. The last time we came by plane spending a steep Rs. 20,000, I could never mingle with other sisters and fathers. From eating together, to recounting stories, to moving around and meeting other sisters on the Vijayawada platform, it can only be possible here. That is the biggest charm of a train journey,” she says.

Guard’s Own Country
On the fourth morning, in the final stretch of our sojourn after Trivendrum Central, through cajolement and coercion, we persuade Senior Guard M Abubacker to let us travel with him in the brake-van. It turns out to be the best part of our 82-hour journey. We are cruising through the backwaters, with the landscape a lush expanse of green, with swaying palms, the smell of the ocean nearby and the company of a raconteur.

We count four tunnels and three trains pass us by, as Abubacker Sahib, 57, opens his trunk (that has among other sundry supplies such as flags, maps, torches and rulebooks, a detonator) and heart to us.

The guard’s cabin is a hallowed space. Unlike engine drivers (two of them confined to a small space), he is the lord of all he surveys. “Saar, I am like one-man army. I don’t need assistants,” says Abubacker as he goes on to explain how a guard may need to put a detonator on the tracks in case of a derailment to protect the train. When he joined the Railways 34 years back, the native of Alleppey, known for its powder beaches and backwaters, Abubacker served as a forge-man.  He cleared an exam to become a guard and now, after marrying off both his daughters to ‘suitable’ boys in the Gulf, he has no points left to prove. Abubacker’s sense of pride comes from a sense of finality: ”

After close to 12 guards have changed hands over 4200 kilometres, in the last stretch, for the final 80-odd kilometres from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari, a guard from Quilon division is guiding the Vivek Express, the longest train journey in the country. Personally, it is a matter of great honour, Sir!” The pride is infectious. Suddenly, even my photographer colleague and I are gripped by a sense of having achieved something. Great signal, guard sahib!

Vivekanand Rocks
On the fifth morning, at Kanyakumari, the final station, a few stragglers alight from the train, apart from the train staff. Beyond that is the sea. Kanyakumari at the Cape Comerin, is the Land’s End of the country and believed to have multi-coloured sands. The sleepy township is revered for its Kanya Kumari Shrine and the Vivekananda Memorial, named after the Bengali philosopher, which becomes an island at high tide. The legend goes, that standing in the waters of Kanyakumari if one had three legs, one could plant them each in the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It is a logical conclusion for a journey where all Indian rivers of faith, creed, culture and languages finally submerge. The track stops here.