"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf" ~ Rabindranath Tagore


A Real Traveller

Romola Butalia writes spontaneously from a train as she sways and lurches lulled by the rhythmic sound of the wheels as they glide over the tracks.

I am probably a 'real traveller'. I hope that in writing this, I would have defined some of the attributes.

On a summer special train to Delhi from Bandra Terminus Mumbai. This leg of my journey to Uttarakhand is from Mumbai's worst station, without a shred of doubt. I reached the station early. All waits seem interminable and indefinite at an Indian railway station. As anyone who has waited indefinitely at a station knows, stations In India, like samshan ghats or cremation grounds, are a great leveller. Everyone is reduced to the lowest common denominator.

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Jammu Tawi AC Special 0905 will take me to Delhi Safdarjung station where the esteemed Palace on Wheels berths. It is slated to becomea a luxury station, close to the diplomatic enclaves, for convenience of the privileged foreign tourist who can be shown one side of the Indian coin. However, I think that is impossible, because in India, as we all know, the coin always has two sides. The station, where the train chugs in four hours late, is currently no better nor more organised than a sleepy village station.


I have an internet reservation in a 3-tier compartment . Unfortunately, it says 'male'. How I will resolve that with the TTE is yet to be seen.

I am currently sitting in an Ac first coupe with the promise from the TTE (train ticket examiner) that I will not be disturbed by anyone. With luxury like this, I feel obliged to write a travelogue.

I have the entire day ahead of me In Delhi, before I board the Ranikhet Express. From Delhi Sarai Rohilla to Kathgodam. I have an internet reservation in a 3-tier compartment . Unfortunately, it says 'male'. How I will resolve that with the TTE is yet to be seen. I can show him all the other tickets as proof of a mouse click error, because if I say it was a glitch in the railways system he will certainly make me get off at some godforsaken station in the middle of the night. If it was an AC compartment, I could have hidden in the folds of a blanket in the upper berth, extended my hand and hoped he would not want to see my identity card. But at the height of summer I will not reduce myself to such ignominy. At my age, I should be allowed to travel as a male or female, and the choice should be mine.

To satisfy your curiosity of why I am travelling First AC and then 3-tier sleeper - the rapid downfall from H to S - is not in my hands. Neither the first nor the other. This is the summer season when families obviously spend all their time travelling everywhere, when they are not at stations or buying tickets. For those of us who travel all the time anyway, this is a terrible time of year. There are virtually no tickets, tatkal or otherwise, so one travels any which way one can, if one has to go some place else. I have no idea who can plan their life 3 months ahead and therefore sleep well those three months knowing their summer reservations are in order. I have often wondered who books all the tatkal tickets between 0800 and 0822 when normal mortals find themselves able to log on to irctc.co.in .

Given the choice, I do believe everyone would like to travel AC 2-tier, which is value for money. In Rajdhani trains, I mostly prefer to travel AC 3 tier because it is greater value for money, especially if you are not taller than the length of the berth, or fatter than the width, and you ensure you get the side upper, which is as good as it gets, as long as you can still scramble up those footfalls or ladders. If you worry about your luggage getting stolen, the lower berth may provide a higher degree of emotional security. I like the privacy of the curtain that the AC 2 tier affords, but I can live without it on occasion.

Despite the advantage of time, a flight is merely a means of reaching somewhere. It cannot have the romance of train travel. Indian Railways provides an incredible slice of life, every time. I never remember talking to a stranger on a flight, despite the fact that the proximity is mostly higher. I do not remember travelling on a train without sharing conversations with fellow-travellers I will not meet again. I have never enjoyed a flight the way I have enjoyed train journeys. Train journeys evoke emotions, flights sanitise you against feelings. Flights are about convenience, order, control. Trains are about compromise, chaos, surrender.

When you travel by train you can look through the window in spontaneous mindless witness consciousness that you cannot be taught in 'meditation classes'. Your journeys can take you across the board through the entire cross section of Indian society, particularly if you are flexible about your class of travel. I do not recommend unreserved travel, but some of my most memorable journeys have certainly been there.

The rhythmic sound of the wheels as they glide over the tracks are an ode to travel. The motion as one sways and lurches is a comforting grounding. And more than anything, it affords the luxury of transitioning between people and places as one speeds along in this journey of life.

For those who could not read between the lines, a real traveller, enjoys travelling per se, appreciating the uncertainty of travel, the novelty of different situations one has not attempted to control overly, the spontaneity of experiencing what is, as it is, without tailor-making it to suit our sensibilities. A traveller has no agenda, no ultimate destination, he is a wanderer who has many homes, but none that he needs to call his own. He values travel who enjoys life.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.