The popular conception of Indian trains being filled to the brim, with passengers and their goats clinging onto the roof, has been fiction for a long time. This was good, because after five days in Delhi, I was on my way to Chennai (formerly Madras), in the southernmost state of India. It was a 34 hour train ride - one of the longest direct routes available, and being inside the carriage was a plus.
The modern Indian railway system is a massive network of rail, IT and bureaucracy which dwarfs many governments. Its reach across the subcontinent is as wide as its bureaucratic insanity is thick.
The stations themselves are a mad rush of inactivity. At major stations, from dusk till dawn till dusk again, thousands of passengers sit waiting for their ridiculously late trains. They chat, sleep and picnic on the station floor. Life continues to stroll along, just very slowly, and on the same spot. The occasional porter, dressed in bright red, darts through the crowd.
The murky combination of smells and sounds blur into a unique blend. It reminds of me airline food.
Amidst the noisy, static crowd, another crowd throw themselves at the bureaucracy. Prospective passengers line up for a form, then proceed on a scavenger hunt across the station, searching through the dozens of boards to make a shortlist of trains, then log on one of the handfuls of computer terminals to cross-reference the shortlist with train availabilities, then fill out the form and line back up again. It works. The trains pull in, after traveling a thousand kilometres, and they have all the reservations by name.
Near the reservation window sits the concession board - an epic work, embodying India's pains, hopes and political realities.
The deaf, blind, mute, and orthopaedically handicapped get 75% off, so do the mentally retarded, cancer patients and non-infectious lepers (presumably, infectious lepers do not get any discounts). Recipients of the President's Police Medal for Gallantry get 75% off, but the recipient of the President's Police Medal for Distinguished Service only receive 30%. War widows, war widows of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka and war widows of Operation Vijay against Pakistan all have their own concession categories, respectively receiving 75%, 75% and 75% discounts.
At big stations, the list covers the hall like a memorial wall. At smaller stations, they have long since given up on updating the list. With each budget, new voter segments and powerful unions are added. This year, it's amputees and farmers.
On the train, nothing happens. But a lot of nothing, and all the time. There's nowhere to go, so you just sit in your bunk and sleep, and then sleep some more. Of course, you can't do this on an empty stomach. Snack sellers travel up and down the trains at stations, offering samosas and other fried bits, while beverage-mongers stay through the whole journey, at all hours, with their mesmerising chant: "Chai, chai, coffee chai; chai coffee, chai coffee, chai coffee; chai, chai, coffee-chai...".
Three meals a day are offered for purchase. Chilly omelet for breakfast, veg/chicken biriyani for lunch and dinner, with curry in little plastic pouches. After the meal, the tinfoil boxes go, en mass, out the side of the carriage. The snoring slowly returns, the chai-chant ebbs in and out, and the train rumbles on...