Trains are rolling libraries of cultural information
Monisha Rajesh embarked on a globe-spanning journey for her new book which is a celebration of train travel as well as a personal account of self-discovery.
Around The World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure
By Monisha Rajesh Published by: Bloomsbury Pages: 326
Price: Rs 999
Leaning against the window, I looked up at the iron ribcage arched across the roof of St Pancras, blue sky blazing between its bones. It appeared to be rolling back, when I realised it was we who were moving. The 14.31 Eurostar to Paris hummed out of the station, and I sat back, warm spring sunshine flashing into the carriage. As London fell away, I tried to breathe in as much of the city as I could, hoping to hold it in my chest until we met again in seven months’ time. A long journey lay ahead, a journey that would take me around the world. Exactly five years ago to the day, I’d stepped off the Charminar Express in Chennai, marking my eightieth train journey around India. With nothing but a three-month rail pass, an outdated map, and hopeless naivety, I’d travelled 25,000 miles—the circumference of the earth—reaching the four points of the country’s geographical diamond. In between hanging from doorways, squatting on steps and snoozing on piles of laundry, I’d come to understand why Indian Railways is known as the “Lifeline of the Nation”.
Having narrowly avoided a number of scrapes, I’d sworn never to take on anything so ambitious again. Little did I know that the railways had followed me home—their dust in my hair, their rhythm in my bones, their charm infused in my blood. Slowly, the symptoms began to manifest: I’d linger on bridges watching freight thundering below. On warm afternoons, I’d buy round-trip tickets just to sit in the window and read, and at night, I’d lie awake listening to distant horns sound through the darkness. It became a sickness, one that had no cure. At least, no cure that I’d find in London. I had to get back on the rails—but I couldn’t just pack up and leave. After returning from India I’d eased back into the swing of London life, working as the subeditor at The Week magazine, and, by all accounts, the job was the stuff of dreams: I swanned in at ten o’clock, and spent the day reading newspapers and drinking tea, with Coco the office dachshund asleep in my lap. In essence, I was being paid to do what most people did on a lazy Sunday. And now there was someone else to consider, my fiancé Jeremy, who had proposed a few months earlier, next to a bin outside St John’s Wood tube station. Knocked out of the way mid-proposal by a group of Japanese tourists wearing waterproofs and wellies, he had asked me to marry him, in the rain, on the very spot where we had met for our first date.
Dismissing the idea of leaving, I carried on with the humdrum of daily life, suppressing the urge whenever it rose, until I finally gave up the fight: there was too much to discover on the rails, and the trains were waiting—but not for long. Train travel is evolving at high speed: bullet trains are multiplying, longdistance services running out of steam. Sleeper services are being phased out, and classic routes fading away. According to economists and pessimists, the romance of the railways is dying a swift death, but I refused to believe it was true. Nowhere in the world could rival India’s railways, but I knew that every country’s network would possess a spirit of its own, it just needed a prod and a poke to unearth. Trains are rolling libraries of information, and all it takes is to reach out to passengers to bind together their tales.
After a final cup of tea, I patted Coco goodbye, and bade farewell to The Week. Jeremy—better known as Jem—agreed to join me for a month along the way, and I set about organising the trip. Hanging a world map on the living-room wall, I punctured it with pins, and tied coloured string from one to another, watching the next seven months of my life unwind around the globe. Surrounded by stacks of guides and maps, I sat cross-legged on the floor of our fl at, poring over routes, flagging up significant events, and planning with as much precision as such a journey would allow for. One of the greatest mistakes a traveller can make, is to believe a journey can be controlled—least of all one of this magnitude. Nothing but disappointment can result in such a fallacy, and I’d made allowances for delays, cancellations and general tardiness on my part. When I’d travelled around India, the plan was to have no plan, which had served me well within the confines of a single country; but this adventure had too many cities, countries and crossings for me to ride by the seat of my pants. As the day of departure approached, Jem grew ever more quiet, until one morning he sat down next to me.
“Are you going to be okay for seven months on your own?”
“Yes,” I said, in a small voice that surprised me.
“Are you sure?’ He stared at the map. ‘There are some pretty hairy places under those pins. Iran? Uzbekistan?”
“I’ll be fine.”
The truth was that I wasn’t sure I’d be fine. In India, I’d been groped on a night train, cornered in a station, chased down a platform, stared at, leered at, spat at, shouted at, sworn at, and spent numerous nights crouched in hotels after dark with my bags piled up against the door. Above all, I didn’t want to leave Jem behind. What a waste it would be, to travel around Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Canada and America, with no one to build and share memories.
Now, as I looked at the passenger in the seat next to me, I knew we’d made the right decision. Jem had quit his job, bought his first rucksack, and was accompanying me for the entire journey. Alarmed by his suggestion that all he needed for the next seven months was a new pair of boat shoes and a couple of jumpers, I’d taken off his Tag Heuer, handed him a Swatch, and marched him to Blacks for waterproofs and socks. Having grown up in the backwaters of Cobham, Surrey, Jem wasn’t used to bags that weren’t on wheels, and I suspected we were in for an interesting time. That morning, I’d made a last-minute dash to Stanfords in Covent Garden to pick up a notebook for the trip. Turning it over, I stroked the newness of the leather, and opened it up to document the first of 80 trains, sliding the ribbon into place. Looking out of the window, I saw that the train was approaching the Channel Tunnel; I took a deep breath as we went underground and England faded from sight.
On warm afternoons, I’d buy round-trip tickets just to sit in the window and read, and at night, I’d lie awake listening to distant horns sound through the darkness. It became a sickness, one that had no cure.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Around The World in 80 Trains’, by Monisha Rajesh, published by Bloomsbury