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.

The Sunday Guardian - - BOOKBEAT -

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

Mon­isha Ra­jesh.

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