We sat down with Monisha Rajesh, author of Around India in 80 Trains, to talk all things Indian Railways – from the country’s best train journey to the serendipitous discoveries she made while riding the rails. Oh, and we finally settle the age-old rivalry between train chai and train coffee. Yes, one really is tastier than the other.
At the start of 2010, Monisha Rajesh packed her bags for India. Over the next four months she travelled the length and breadth of the country on 80 different trains, clocking up 36,000 km – not far off the Earth’s circumference – along the way. The writer tells us what inspired such an epic journey, reveals her favourite destinations and explains why the best way to see India really is by train.
First off, Monisha, you must have bags of stamina to even contemplate such a trip?
Honestly, I didn’t properly consider the enormity of what I was doing before I left. Which was probably just as well, because when I was out there it was really a case of just getting on with things as they happened – I never really had time to take stock and think. I must confess, though, that on the very first journey I was lying in my bunk and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got 79 more of these.’ But once two or three were done, they started to flash by quite quickly. I really got into the speed of it and it became great fun.
I bet! So what made you want to do it? I’ve read elsewhere that you wanted to go back to your roots?
I’ve never actually been that interested in my roots. I’m quite comfortable with being British Indian – my parents come from Madras [Chennai], and my brother and I were born here in the UK. We actually lived out there for a year, and because I had such an awful time part of me thought I should go back – I mean, how bad could it be 20 years on? My friends quite often travelled to India and asked for recommendations – I could never suggest anywhere because I hadn’t been further than where my family came from. It was time to go back and do the tourist thing – see the Taj Mahal and ride camels in the desert in Rajasthan.
You don’t strike me as a typical railways enthusiast, so was there another reason for doing the entire adventure by train?
I’m not a massive fans of trains per se, but they’re just such a brilliant way of seeing the country. And they’re so cheap – my three-month ticket for journeys in second class and below cost £350. OK, so I’m fibbing a bit by saying I’m not a massive fan – by the time I came away I had a lot more interest than before. There’s real romance to Indian train travel that you just don’t get anywhere else. Trains don’t interfere with your travelling – rather, they enhance it. You can eat, read, chat to people, sleep, look out of the window, listen to music and then, almost as a by-product, end up where you need to be.
Did you discover anywhere special that you wouldn’t have visited otherwise?
There were some really remote towns I arrived at that even people in India were unfamiliar with. I think Dwarka, on the western tip of Gujarat, was one of my favourite places. It’s a pilgrimage spot, but I was surprised by how quiet it was – probably because you have to travel so far on the train to get there. I loved it – so beautiful and so peaceful. It would be great to return at some point. I also fell in love with Assam, which was easily among the most beautiful places I’ve been to. It actually reminded me of England – the paddy fields had the same kind of English green and the skies were quite cloudy. If you’d just parachuted in, there’s no way you’d think it was India.
That’s actually what’s so fun about train travel. I took a 48-hour train from Delhi down to Kottayam in Kerala, and it’s amazing to witness the landscape changing so much over five or six hours. The passengers changed, too – sometimes I fell asleep and when I woke up, a family speaking an entirely different language had replaced the one that had been there before. By sitting in one spot and letting things happen around you, you get such a brilliant overview of the country.
Talking of other passengers, was there anyone you met who had a profound impact on you?
There was one guy who gave me a Bhagavad Gita, which I still have. He was telling me about how we shouldn’t take ownership of material goods, so when he took out the book and touched it on his forehead I said, “Well, you won’t mind if I have this, then.” He let me take it, which made me feel really guilty. When I tried to hand it back, he just said, “No, it’s fine – please take it. Just promise me you’ll read it.” It was one of the most touching interactions I had, partly because we were only on the train together for about 25 minutes.
Do you think trains have their own characters, too?
I actually started seeing them as Thomas the Tank Engine characters – the Indian Maharaja, for example, is as a very masculine train because it’s blue, gold and really regal. It’s certainly much more powerful and macho compared to the little cream and blue toy train that goes up to Shimla, which looks as though it would fall apart on the track if you flicked it.
What really struck me is that people are so fond of the trains. There’s a lot of love for the Mandovi Express [which travels between Mumbai and Goa] on the Konkan Railway, largely because its food is so fantastic – especially the chicken spring rolls and biriyanis. It’s not really used by tourists, who generally prefer the much faster Shatabdi train. For me, though, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Would you go so far as to say the Mandovi Express is your favourite Indian train?
Yeah, it is actually – I still think of it fondly even now. When I was out there I did it twice because I liked it so much. The food really is excellent – I love like my rolled-up bits of roti with a little bit of goat curry. Eating on the train is great fun because you don’t know what you’re going to get until you open up the foil – you just ask for ‘veg’ or ‘non veg’ and it turns up, invariably with an egg.
Which brings us on to a particularly burning question. Train chai or train coffee?
This reminds me of a journalist friend of mine who used to work in Delhi. When they opened a Starbucks there, she tweeted saying how ridiculous ‘Chai tea latte’ was, because in all the languages she speaks it translates as ‘tea tea milk’. The tea is actually great first thing in the morning because it has so much sugar, so even if you woke up at four you’d be wide awake. The coffee I like so much because it’s brewed in milk rather than water – it just has a much smokier, stronger taste than coffee anywhere else. Also, I’m not a massive fan of cardamom – which they have in train tea – so if I could, I’d always have the coffee.
Excellent. So, having completed the journey, are you planning another any time soon?
Yes, and another book! It’s going to be around the world in 80 trains – if felt like the obvious next step. I didn’t want to do one specific country because it I tried to re-enact what I did I India, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m hoping the book will be ready later in 2016, so keep a look out.