I’ve finished four chapters of Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 Trains, and while it’s a languorous, easy journey to be on, it doesn’t explore any places in depth. The evils of India are spoken of, the eccentricities of our people and systems come forth, but the curiosity and wonder of encountering new towns or cities aren’t really evident. It must have been a difficult book to write, of course; with so much material, what do you keep and what do you leave out?
Most of the journeys I’ve read about in the book so far are ones I’d make readily. The only one I wouldn’t and couldn’t dream of is the Deccan Odyssey. Successor to the Palace on Wheels, this train offers a variety of routes (as I discovered on its website) and a luxurious travelling experience. But I can’t quite fathom a five-star hotel experience on rails. The train Rajesh took usually travelled at night, allowing daytime for sight-seeing. I don’t sleep well on trains, and I definitely don’t see myself spending lakhs of rupees on a trip that would be more enjoyable on regular trains and buses, with people I could relate to.
As Rajesh talks of waiting at various stations, I’m tempted to part ways with her and explore the places. While this is clearly not possible now, what I can do is go back in my head to places that I have seen. Delhi beckons first. Since my visit two years ago, I think of the city often. Before my 2018 week there, I hadn’t given it much thought and assumed I wouldn’t like it much, but after a chance to explore its life and vivacity, I am drawn to it without question.
Of course, as tourists for a week hosted by G.’s cousins, we probably saw the best parts of it. We ate at unpretentious restaurants when we were not having lavish, hot homemade meals on those winter evenings. Another day, we lost ourselves in Paranthewali Gali at Chandni Chowk, where hot paranthas stuffed with radish, potato, cauliflower, and other vegetables, a lump of hot butter melting on top, arrived in rapid succession. The room was packed, with the waiters serving multiple tables at once; how they kept count of the number consumed at each table I don’t know. Thanks to the lockdown, the whole of Chandni Chowk glitters in my head, calling out siren-style, declaring the glories of Old Delhi. On one end is Red Fort; on the other, a stream of vehicles and people amid shops selling clothes, jewellery, sweets, books, and anything else you can think of. What a sight it will be for lockdown-weary eyes when things are back to normal (or perhaps they already are, considering Ranganathan Street was in form for Pongal?)!
One of the outings we really looked forward to in Delhi was the visit to the National Museum. To see artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which we knew only from faded images in school history textbooks, gave us goosebumps. Pieces created thousands of years ago — the Dancing Girl (I was astonished by how tiny she was!), jewellery, weapons, seals — imprints of the civilisation that “evolved” into what we are today, made me wonder if we would leave behind anything of worth. There is an inexplicable mystery about ancient people, even if they felt and acted like we do (how different can human emotions be?), imparted to them by time and obscurity.
As Rajesh boards her train to Madurai, the journey will proceed to another ancient town where, as William Dalrymple writes, rituals have been preserved for centuries. I haven’t been in Madurai for a while, but I’ll leave you with something I wrote years ago after a visit. The mind jumps from one destination to another, in tune with Rajesh’s travels, so I might as well live vicariously through her trips, even if a lot of it will be in different train compartments!