By Manik Sharma Mar. 11, 2019
A country is often defined by the way it travels, and for India, the Rajdhani has served as the quintessential vehicle. The train, which has turned 50, has earned near-cult status as a wistful compromise between affordability and indulgence.
For 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.
The history of India, can’t really be told without the railways either, be it the struggle for freedom (Kakori), the induction of elitism (railways under the British), or the savagery of tragedy (Partition). The Indian train, culturally, is just about as popular as any other trope, be it a song like “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from Dil Se or Rajesh Khanna’s “Mere Sapno ki Rani” from Aradhana. The political symbolism of Vajpayee’s Samjhauta Express, given our decaying relationship with our neighbours of late, is for everyone to re-analyse. A country is often defined by the way it travels, and for India, especially a rung of its society that cannot straddle the elitism of flights but has earned its fair share of modernity, the Rajdhani has served as the quintessential vehicle. Introduced back in 1969, when it first ran between Kolkata and Delhi, the train has earned near-cult status, as a wistful compromise between the heart and the mind, between affordability and indulgence.
While we may seek the vanities of luxury, the Rajdhani, quietly, reassuringly continues to functionally address a problem with margins, by staying within them.
My first few years spent travelling in the Rajdhani were navigational disasters. Largely, because I held back, and refused to talk to people I found uninteresting. The idealism of young age perhaps demands enlightenment at each curb, each bogey you ever enter and exit. Between Mumbai and Delhi I would intentionally book the upper berth, preferring the safety of isolation. On one journey between Kolkata and Delhi I pretended to read for about half-an-hour so that a middle-aged woman would stop chatting to me. Gradually, though, I realised that it was the sum of all these journeys that make us who we are — the ones we commit to, and the ones we don’t. Doesn’t that sound like office between Monday and Friday? Foremost, though, it is this sense of a vehicle that though ordinary is special in so many ways, because of the shared etiquette amid the sheer volume of people it transports every day.
The Rajdhani, in contrast, has always dressed unassumingly, providing reasonable comforts rather than the sprinkle of luxury.
Image Credits: Getty Images
For enthused modernists, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bullet train might be a thing of fancy. An elitist conception that, perhaps understandably, is pelted by stones through the many slums and suburbs it passes. The Rajdhani, in contrast, has always dressed unassumingly, providing reasonable comforts rather than the sprinkle of luxury. The sheets have perpetually struggled to regain the whiteness of yore, the soup sticks seem like they resurrect on each journey, and the toilets continue to struggle with the countless visitors that put them through hell. But there isn’t perhaps another service for which the adage “itne paise mein itna hi milega” fits better.
Grumpy travellers and millennials like myself, might see the railways, or the Rajdhani in particular as an embarrassment, perhaps even an aberration, but for a couple of generations now the train has helped people across India, to meet family, their loved ones, at times even under duress, all without having to shell out a fortune or struggle through their skin.
We may well be right in wanting the speed and luxury of an improbable modern train on tracks in India, but the undeniable reality is that only a very small fraction of the country’s population would even be able to afford its services. While we may seek the vanities of luxury, the Rajdhani, quietly, reassuringly continues to functionally address a problem with margins, by staying within them. The room for improvement notwithstanding, if the state of a people can be derived from the way they travel then the Rajdhani’s shy yet persistent half-century of rides showcases this country’s capacity to live within its limits, but not without the sprinkle of a reasonable dream.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
He tweets at @Manik1Sharma