50 Years of Rajdhani: India’s Original Social Network

Culture

50 Years of Rajdhani: India’s Original Social Network

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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or a country the size of India, the “chaos of its railways lines”, as V S Naipaul put it, has played a role more humbling than any coaching manual of socialism ever written. It is an equaliser, a leveller like no other, for it embodies not only the much-eulogised multiculturalism of India’s geographic ends, but most significantly plays the crucible in which aspiration and comfort, similarities as well as differences, are all crushed to the point of looking alike. But of the entire Indian railways, if there is one train that symbolises both the modesty and ambition of India it is the Rajdhani, which turned 50 this week.

There is something about trains in general — the kinetics of their movement, the near-savage landscapes they cross, the seemingly endless journeys they undertake, the poetics of it all dissolvable by time, and most crucially, place. The first time I slept through an overnight journey in a Rajdhani, I merely counted the number of states I crossed, the number of people, languages, rivers, and canals I would have skimmed by. For someone without the means or time, to be able to touch so many corners of a country I’ll surely never entirely see, felt strange, even eerie. To middle- and lower-class India, where the size of the pocket is about as much romance as one can command his life with, the Rajdhani has remained a source of moderate yet encouraging endowment. Though it stopped being luxurious a long time ago, it is still restorative for millions of people whose dreams, though they pucker between lower- and side-berths, ruck up with personality.

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