The romance of train journeys, warts and all, came back to me recently. A hastily planned trip to Mumbai, only sky-high air fares available for the return journey, more time on a retiree's hands, and by some stroke of luck - maybe because people hadn't cottoned on to it - reservation to Howrah available in the very new Duronto.
And so there I was, lugging my malfunctioning American Tourister contraption which would not stroll, at grand old VT, CST if you want to be politically correct and dodge the ire of MNS, looking forward to 26 hours of alternately reading Paul Krugman on the return of Depression Economics and dozing off.
If you have misjudged Mumbai's traffic and arrived an hour early at VT you are likely to climb up the ornate marble staircase (the ancient, functioning lift will take you straight to the second floor) to the upper-class waiting room on the first floor.
As befits professional Mumbai, the waiting room is clean, the air conditioning works, the furniture is recently acquired and comfortable, but the public sector catching up with the most endearing doorway I have ever seen.
To go to the adjoining loo, you should normally have to push open the glass door, but I saw people gingerly step into and pass through the wooden-framed space like a magician, to realise that the frame was there but the glass was gone.
Duronto, willed by the irrepressible energy of rail minister Mamata Banerjee, is new and somewhat bizarre jungle green on the outside, not so new but clean and acceptable on the inside.
It is clear that bespoke coaches have not yet been created for this novelty, non-stop from Mumbai to Kolkata and also between similar pairs of metros, so old workhorses have been given a layer of make-up and pressed into service. The train starts on the dot, the air conditioning works beautifully and the public address system is clearer than what I have heard on any Rajdhani.
Easily, the greatest plus of the Duronto is the service of the outsourced catering staff. Tea, dinner, morning tea, breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea before you roll out - winded by so much passably good food sans any locomotion - are served with alacrity, courtesy and yes, a smile.
I ask for endless rounds of tea without sugar right through the journey and get it. I ask for continental dinner but since it is not on offer, I get a decent omelette and toast with soup and good ice cream for dessert.
Wonderof wonders, the staff come after the trays are collected with a big plastic bag for you to please dump all your litter so that the compartment remains spotlessly clean. And when at journey's end, I put a hefty tip on the tray with the saunf, the fellow going round doesn't bat an eyelid, both the service and the tip being par for the course.
Thisunreal public efficiency and cleanliness are given a realistic touch with the condition of one of the loos which is western style and which I must perforce use, given the doctor's advice not to squat Indian style and ruin my knees further.
Thewater tank over the ceiling of the loo leaks, sending a thin stream which will drench the squatter by the time he has finished. I complain, the staff come running and fret that they told maintenance at VT but look what they have let go. By the time morning comes and I must use the facility, most of the water has drained out of the tank (it only squirts a spray on my head every time the train jerks) and I somehow manage to get rid of my overnight discomfort, clean up and gamely return to my seat.
Easily the finest part of the journey, the quintessential charm of long-distance train travel in India, is the picturesque countryside that keeps fleeting across my window through morning till sundown as the train strides through Chattisgarh (Maharashtra has been left behind at night),Jharkhand and finally into West Bengal.
It is green, tree-studded and dust-free,unlike the dusty western UP plains that you see briefly before it gets dark when you set out on the Rajdhani from Delhi for Kolkata. And in between, there are stretches of calm and confident forests, still largely unspoilt, and even a couple of fun dark tunnels.
How I wished I was in a non-ACcompartment without a scratched tinted glass impeding my view. The stations where the train makes its technical halts (no one gets on or off) have character and tidiness and I daydream of another life where I will have a free rail pass and no need to earn a living, like an MP, and crisscross idyllic India year in and year out. Yes, there is dirt and garbage every time you enter a city but it is soon gone, India is still mostly rural and clean.
Thegreatest surprise is reserved for the end. I plan to read a few more pages before I put the book away but before I know it the train is striding beside the Howrah station platform, a full hour ahead of time.
Iam told this has become a habit with Duronto, throwing those who come to receive travellers at the station into a flap. The last word is had by the attendant who comes to collect your blanket and pillow. In his Bihari-Hindi laced with folk humour he declares, Yeh to Duronto nehi, turonto.