Zen and the Art of Indian Train Travel

Long journeys on Indian trains are not unlike that sad little spliff making rounds at a beer-sodden house party at 3am – it seems like such a good idea at first, and the next thing you know you’re slumped in a corner unable to move, talking to a wall and making a mental note that you should make better life decisions in the future.

It is early afternoon when I leave behind the gorgeous hills and boulders of Hampi and head for the railway station in Hospet. Having been too stubborn to splurge on one of the direct tourist sleeper busses running between Hampi and Mumbai I now have three trains and 25 hours in transit to look forward to. Despite ample practice train travel in India remains a disorienting experience that invariably involves me muddling my way from A to B in various stages of confusion, cluelessness and despair.  But not this time! I had a kilo of bananas, half of Banagalore’s book selection in my backpack and a reluctant feeling of competency and optimism. I was determined to conquer the Indian railway system and make it my bitch.

My first test came before I even entered the station. Queueing to buy the ticket for the first leg of my journey I am, as always, the only one doing so – everyone else is more than happy to skip the queue and head straight for the counter, shoving their hands through the little hole in the glass separating the teeming masses from the supremely disinterested woman working at the ticket counter. Brandishing a wad of rupee bills in her face, they shout the name of their destination, grab a ticket and leave without ever acknowledging my presence. Breathe, smile. I swat the hand of the next person away (feeling every bit the English headmistress) and shove my own hand in, taking full advantage off my arm’s length. Hubli! I shout at the cashier, who remains stone-faced and painfully slow, mulishly blocking out the riot on the other side of the glass pane. Her stocky figure is wrapped in a synthetic red sari with golden embroidery, making her look like a miserable Indian bride who was dumped at the altar.

Squeezing my way past a group of very insistent rickshaw drivers who are eager to take me right back to Hampi, I enter the station am promptly informed by the information board that my train will leave from platform 1 half an hour late. Big surprise. I silently congratulate myself for having budgeted an extra two hours for delays.


The revised departure time has come and gone when a speaker hums to life. Over the static I just about make out the number of my train and “platform 2”. I join the throngs of passengers migrating to the other platform, some scuttling across the train tracks carrying giant bundles of luggage while the less suicidal of us take the stairs.

When asking other passengers how long the trip to Hubli is expected to take, the answer ranges anywhere between four and six hours. Breathe, smile. I am a leaf on a river stream. I will not miss my connection. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.

In the end the train pulls into platform 3 an hour late. As soon as the train starts slowing down people start clustering strategically around the open doors, vying for position and elbowing each other in the ribs. There are always more people than seats in the unreserved compartment and the first rush invariably resembles a scene from the Hunger Games. It is a ringing slap in the face of everything considered holy by German U-Bahn commuters. The disembarking passengers stand no chance, engulfed as they are in an onslaught of new arrivals pushing them further into the compartment. A woman eventually manages to squeeze through the crowd with the help of murderous stares and a couple of well-aimed kicks, finally stumbling onto the platform with her sari in disarray and a look of grim victory on her face.

I spend the four hours (not six, thankfully) of the train journey squeezed between two very rotund Indian men. The one on the right keeps shooting disapproving glances in my direction, as though the uncomfortable and crowded state of our carriage is entirely my fault and has nothing at all to do with his demonstrable love of samosas. An elderly couple has made itself at home on the opposite bench with their little granddaughter and they spend the entire journey happily munching on an endless variety of snacks that the woman keeps pulling out of her seemingly bottomless bag. My stomach growls. The iddly man has come and gone – I have no hope of reaching him across this crowd. The bananas are long gone as well.


Meanwhile, the guy in the corner is sabotaging my reading by shooting questions at me at regular intervals: Where are you from? How old are you? Where are you going? What do you do? Are you alone? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?

My imaginary boyfriend and I get along splendidly, thanks for asking. Though I don’t get to see much of him – he always seems to be either working in Calcutta when I am in Kerala, or visiting friends in Delhi when I am on my way to Hampi. Whenever we are travelling together the poor thing is always back at the hotel, laid up with some mysterious illness. He’s not much of a cuddler, to be honest, but at least he doesn’t give me grief about hogging the blankets.

And of course we are getting married soon, what sort of woman do you think I am!?

We reach Hubli at half past nine, with an hour to spare. I breathe a sigh of relief – it should be relatively smooth sailing from now on. I buy some vegetable biryani, scowl at the people occupying the platform seats with their luggage and sit on the ground next to a stray dog. It looks like my train is leaving from platform 2… We’ll see about that.


The train that pulls into platform two at the scheduled time of departure is going to Hyderabad, not Mumbai, which I only find out when I am about to board. I have by now joined forces with a skinny Korean boy but quickly discover that he is of no use since he is too busy flailing around hysterically at the prospect of missing the train. Luckily an Indian man pops out of nowhere, informing us that our train is leaving from platform number 4. We grab our backpacks and run across the bridge (damn those stairs!) and along the endless line of carriages. The display board remains stubbornly blank and I can’t read the tiny lettering on the side of the train because my glasses have started fogging up. I ask five different people whether the train is in fact going to Mumbai. I get an affirmative answer out of four of them – good enough.

I find my carriage and jump on, relieved to have caught the train just in time – we have already started moving.

Five metres along the track the train comes to a halt again and just stands there for a while. And stands there, and then it stands there a little longer. The man next to me speculates that we are probably waiting for the other passengers – since there has been no official announcement of the platform change most of them are still standing on platform 2, none the wiser.


An hour later the engine finally rumbles to life and the express passenger train starts making its tediously slow way towards Mumbai.

Here are some fun facts for you: The Indian railways comprise 108,706 km of track and 7500 locomotives, which transport an average of 13 million pasengers every day. Between the drivers, station masters, ticket collectors, porters, chaiwallahs, platform sweepers, cloakroom attendants and a myriad other random and indespensable cogs in the system, the Indian Ministry of Railways oversees a workforce of almost 1,5 million people, second only to China’s People’s Liberation Army as the largest employer in the world.

And while nearly every train ride severely tests my Zenmaster abilities the system works remarkably well when you consider the gargantuan task it faces every day.

I always travel in sleeper class, the cheapest option with a reserved spot, and when possible opt for the upper berth which is essentially a slightly padded shelf one meter under the train roof. Up there you have the best shot at some privacy, though you do risk twisting an ankle every time you climb down to go to the loo and a couple of bumps on the head are just an inevitable bonus.

As soon as the train starts to move I lock my bag up and crawl onto my bunk, determined to have a restful night.

No sooner have I fashioned my daypack into a passable pillow (I ooze class, don’t I?) than a young family stomps into the compartment. A young man carrying a comically large bag followed by a young woman carrying – Oh no, anything but that! – a baby. It is staring around good-naturedly, all soft dewy hair and big brown eyes. But I am not fooled. Nothing good has ever come of babies on night trains.

I turn on my iPod and drift off into an uneasy sleep.

The night is a nightmarish collage of screaming babies and a silent but bitter war with one of my fellow travellers who keeps turning on the fan as soon as I fall asleep. Since it is a cold night and the fan is aimed straight at me I turn it off. Ten minutes later I wake up again, freezing, with the fan on full blast. I turn it off. Lather, rinse, repeat. The perpetrator is never caught.

All the while, the baby keeps wailing, screaming and whining. I might, at some point, have cursed elaborately in Slovenian, eliciting concerned looks from the young parents. (I wasn’t cursing their baby, not really. I was just cursing at it.)

At seven in the morning the family disembarks at Arschderwelt (or the Hindi equivalent thereof) and the carriage sighs a collective sigh of relief. I doze for another hour and by the time I wake up my compartment is empty.

The sun is rising over nondescript fields and my lower back, a demanding diva at the best of times, is throwing a full-blown temper tantrum. Ten more hours. Breathe in, breathe out. I am a snowflake on a breeze. I can do this.

I move to the seat by the window and stare into the distance for what seems like half an eternity. We stop for long stretches of time at deserted stations where no one gets on or off.


vadavadabiryanipulauuuuu…. vadavadabiryanipulauuuu…

Iddlyiddlyvadaiddly! Iddlyiddlyvadaiddly! Iddly! Iddly! Iddlyiddlyvadaiddly!

Chaaaai! Chaaaai! Coffeenescoffeechaaaai! Chaichaichaichai!!!

The screeches of the food vendors hawking their wares reverberate through the train, a monotone cacophony that provides the perfect soundscape to my sleep-deprived ruminations. I buy a chai and iddly and have a staring contest with a cow. The cow wins and finally the train pulls from the station.

By now I am deep down the rabbit hole, enjoying that special brand of disconnected zen reserved for sleep-deprived travellers and lobotomy patients. The only thing required of me right now is to get from point A to point B and luckily I had the presence of mind to get on a train that does the job for me. This is the calm before the storm and I make sure to enjoy every gut-wrenchingly boring second of it. I don’t have to walk through the heat with all my worldly possessions on my back. I don’t have to worry about finding a bed to sleep in just yet. I don’t have to deal with the inevitable crowds, noise, touts and stares that come part and parcel of every big Indian city. The compartment is blissfully empty and every couple of minutes another chai vendor comes by, selling little cups of spicy heaven.

By now it is noon. A small part of me wishes that the journey could be over, but by now I am so cosy in my brain dead state that the mere thought of having to Do Stuff is uncomfortable. My head is filled with candy floss and marshmallows.

You really should at least read the guidebook’s chapter on Mumbai. Or some of the articles you’ve downloaded. Get ready to enter the fray and take on Mumbai, the beast!

Bleh, no, go away. It’s so nice and soft here. Mmmm marshmallows….

A village woman enters my compartment. With efficient, calculated movements, she spreads an old newspaper over the bench opposite, carefully ties a white handkerchief around her head so as not to ruin her braid, tucks the end of her sari into her waistband and lies down. In a second she is asleep and barely moves for the next four hours.

“Pakistan is not a big threat to India” the newspaper headline under her right elbow informs me. They are of course talking about cricket.

There is a youthfulness about her middle-aged face and not a gram of spare fat on her. She has the strong, slender physique of someone who has worked hard her entire life and her bare feet glitter with golden toe rings.

I want to take a picture of her, but decide that would unquestionably push me over into creepy territory. So I take a picture of our neighbour instead.


I’ve finished my book by the time she suddenly springs to life, as though awoken by some internal alarm clock, gathers her bundles and promptly leaves the train at the next station.

The carriage is slowly emptying as we are nearing Mumbai. Soon we are chugging through the suburbs of this sprawling city, equally famed for the glitz and glamour of its movie industry as for the squalor of its slums.

But whether made of corrugated iron or white marble a home is a home, and along the tracks a slum neighbourhood is enjoying the last rays of a Sunday afternoon. A portly old man is sitting on the steps in front of his little shop chatting with a costumer, a girl in a frilly red dress is running away from her mother, giggling, and boys are playing cricket on a clearing. A young man is relieving himself by the tracks. As the train passes he lowers his head, hiding his face behind his arms, and spits. Small square gardens and fields crop up in the most unlikely of places, little bursts of greenery among the concrete and piles of rubble. The houses are built higgledy-piggledy next to and on top of each other, decorated with endless lines of laundry.

The train is moving at a snail pace now, and passengers are jumping off left and right, disappearing into the maze of huts.

I wake up from my reverie as the train finally spits me out on Lokmanya Tilak station, far in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. By now the carriage is empty save for me and my backpack – I didn’t even think that was possible in India.

My backpack hanging out in an empty sleeper carriage on an Indian train.

My backpack hanging out in an empty sleeper carriage on an Indian train.

I mentally steel myself for the final leg of the journey – the suburban train to CST. It’s six o’clock and the sun is setting as I walk to Tilak Nagar past families that are settling in for the night under the highway underpass. On the platform I join a gaggle of colourful saris and screeching children in the hope that the “Ladies only” carriage will be slightly less crowded. The local trains in Mumbai connect the sprawling northern suburbs with the commercial city centre in the south and make for one hell of a commute – they carry an estimated 6 million commuters each day, which is half the entire passenger capacity of Indian railways. At peak times as many as 4700 people may be jammed into a nine-carriage train designed to carry 1700, a situation cheerfully referred to as a “super-dense crush load” of 14-16 standing passengers per square metre.

At this point I am on autopilot, bored and exhausted into a state of such catatonic bliss that the prospect of another rib-crushing journey doesn’t even register.

When the train arrives I hop on, shove my backpack onto the luggage rack and slump against the wall. Victory! I’m in the home stretch now.


Looking around, my head spins – the crowded carriage is Mumbai in miniature, a loud, sweaty and awe-inspiring jumble of new and old, rich and poor, here and there. Young students in jeans and t-shirts hooting with laughter, speaking in rapid-fire Hinglish, next to a woman in a burka playing Candy Crush Mountain on her tablet, tapping and swiping the screen expertly with her hennaed fingertips. Female vendors enter the carriage selling gaudy earrings and hair accessories and teenagers fix their makeup in the reflection of their phones. Old women wrapped in intricately embroidered saris, with pinched faces and bony fingers make way for a hijra who is waking through the carriage clapping and collecting silver rupee coins from every woman she passes. And me, standing in the middle of this vibrant explosion of noise, colour and life.

The iron handle is whacking me on the side of my too-tall-for-Asia head as the train sways down south, and in my emotionally fragile state I sway along, dumbstruck as I take in all the beauty of this big, confusing, wonderful, terrible world with a dopey grin on my face.

7 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Indian Train Travel

  1. Oh, so wonderful! Once again you took me “THERE”. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    Moras izdati svojo knjigo, izredno dobro pisanje!

  2. beautifully descriptive, I wish I had read it sooner. Also I think you hit the nail on the head with the simile describing an Indian train journey, in the introduction.

        • But I splurged on AC 3-tier, so I can comandeer a power socket and get some work done! Yeah yeah, I know it won’t help… If you’re in Delhi we have to go for enemergency beer when I arrive… preferably directly from the train station!

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