Of all the quintessential Indian experiences—bustling markets, sweet tea, Mughal architecture—it is the train system which truly embodies the country. The trains are a colonial legacy which have become distinctly Indian, cramming all the colour and chaos of the world outside into carriages that run along 115,000km of rail and transport 24 million people daily.
Impressive as they are, such statistics don’t lend themselves to punctuality. Already permanent homes for the destitute, station populations swell as litanies of delays are announced to groaning would-be passengers. Waiting rooms and platforms swarm with the restless and the resting, for two, four, or eight hour exams in patience.
When they do arrive, the trains resemble mobile caste systems: lines of vastly different carriages denoting status. Dusty, decrepit and full to bursting ‘General’ carriages bookend a spectrum of increasingly private retreats for the wealthy along the middle section. While the former group leisurely board their carriages, chaos ensues at either end of every platform. People jump aboard as trains pull in or throw belongings through windows to secure real estate.
Inside, it’s a free-for-all for access to the remaining space. Luggage racks become four person benches, four person benches become eight person benches, and seas of brightly coloured saris cover the aisles. Like the bags of Bombay mix shaking on laps, the contents gradually settle as trains slowly shunt from their stations.
Mayhem still reigns once underway. Cramped arms exchange fruit, seeds and curry on makeshift plates, heads and legs dangle out open doors and windows, and chai salesmen run the gauntlet of bodies, dextrously pouring boiling tea amid a thousand obstacles. Children play games between the tangle of limbs, and luggage is relayed between passengers, as if crowd surfing to Bollywood soundtracks played on crackly mobile phones.
Train journeys are inescapably social. Personal space, stories, news and gossip are shared in a mishmash of dialects as travellers are questioned at length. Marital status and cricket are two of the more popular topics. New faces come and go with the stations while others seem immovable, as if they’ve been rumbling over Indian railways forever.
The action and excitement can’t last though, and fades with the light outside. Sleep begins to spread through carriages, heads droop and shake to the natural sway of trains and what began as a flood of food, beverage vendors and beggars is left to only those most defiant of sleep.
In the morning—through the dawn half-light—a slow motion reel of landscapes, unknown towns, and vignettes of Indian life slips past the train windows. It is inside the carriages, however, that Indian culture comes into sharper focus. Fluid, chaotic, and complex outside, the trains act like a cultural distillery, leaving an intoxicating concentrate bottled in carriages.
Once off an Indian train, the memory of aching limbs and forced intimacy quickly fades, while a less definitive feeling endures, and it is likely you will soon find yourself again on a train platform in search of it, steeling yourself to join the stampede once more.