In a world of speed and luxury, I had forgotten the charming sloce of India – long distance travel in Sleeper Class on Indian Railways.
This time, I was attending the HID Forum’s Group Relations conference on Leadership in a Gendered World in Bangalore which was based on the Tavistock model of sensing unconscious group processes, which is a different story. I decided to travel the way I used to travel with my family in my childhood – Sleeper Class.
So here I am on the Udyan Express that left at 8:05am sharp. This Indian Railways experience of mine is complete as I booked a waitlisted ticket days in advance and then tracked its progress eagerly, until it became RAC – Reservation against Cancellation.
Itsdifferent being a kid travelling with a family and the compartment my playground to be an adult female travelling alone, with an unconfirmed ticket and responsible for securing her own seat. Not that I hadn’t travelled by train since then, but Air conditioned compartments are just not the same thing.
I arrived early (being anxious to check my seating status) and ended up entering the train as one of the first passengers in our compartment when it was unlocked.
My first sensation was the smell – its a dingy, ammonia laden horrible smell that is particular to a sleeper class compartments with closed windows and unventilated for some time standing in a busy long distance train terminus with all its implied toilets contributing in turns towards nurturing that particular stink.
I few passengers coughed and opened windows, which brought my attention to a group of four handsome young boys a few seats down. They were watching me with equal interest – the beginnings of long distance train intrigue. More windows opened, more passengers came in, and the smell changed. It was now a complex hybrid of our original smell, perfume, hair oil, sweat, different kinds of food being opened and that typical train smell….. quite overwhelming and kind of nasty but intriguing.
The train took off and things settled down. The smells grew less intense, movement of people stilled, sounds lowered. I had claimed a top berth on entry as usual, intending to sleep my way through the otherwise monotonous journey. Plus, I felt that I had better get some sleep done while the owner of the berth sat below, as I didn’t have a confirmed berth for the night.
Lous tea vendors woke me next and I looked hazily around to see that most top berths were occupied by sleeping passengers – I guess everyone had woken up early to be on the train.
Honestly, I slept for most of the journey, but what I do remember is the sheer diversity of people. All kinds of colours, clothes, languages, foods, ages…… the informal friendliness that needs no introductions….. and three mischief making girls sitting on a top berth near me – they were partt of a large family group going to visit their village temple. Take a look