About The Book
In 1991, Monisha's family uprooted from Sheffield to tv1adras in the hope of making India their home. Two years later, fed up with soap-eating rats, stolen human hearts and the creepy colonel across the road, they returned to England with a bitter taste in their mouths.
Twenty years on, Monisha came back. Taking a page out of Jules Verne's classic tale, Around the World in 80 Days, she embarked on a 40,000km adventure around India in 80 trains. Travelling a distance equivalent to the circumference of the Earth, she lifted the veil on a country that had become a stranger to her.
As one of the largest civilian employers in the world-featuring luxury trains, toy trains, tv1umbai's infamous commuter trains and even a hospital on wheels-Indian Railways had more than a few stories to tell. On the way, tv10nisha met a colourful cast of characters with epic stories of their own. But with a self-confessed militant atheist as her photographer, tv1onisha's personal journey around a country built on religion was not quite what she bargained for … Around India in 80 Trains is a story of adventure
and drama infused with sparkling wit and humour.
Monisha Rajesh was born in King’s Lynn in Norfolk and grew up all over England. She read French at the University of Leeds and taught English at a high school in Cannes before studying postgraduate journalism at City University London. She has written for the London Evening Standard, The Guardian, TIME magazine and The New York Times. Monisha now works at The Week magazine and lives in London. This is her first book.
25 November 2009
London had never looked so grey. From the eighth-floor windows of TIME magazine's Southwark offices the city's skyline was spiked with cranes, aerials and chimneys unfurling charcoal plumes. Even Westminster's spires, normally bouncing back glimmers of winter sun, had disappeared under the late-November fog.
Shivering beneath the air vent I turned back to my computer and scrolled through an article detailing how India's domestic airlines could now reach 80 cities. Intrigued, I printed out a map of the country and pored over the airline routes. They were impressive, but nowhere near as much as the railway network, which ran the length and breadth of the country, embroidering the tips of its landmass. I scanned the map, taking in the extent to which the railways covered the country. It was almost 20 years since my family had tried to move back to India to settle, but after spending two traumatic years in Madras we had made a hasty retreat home to England. India and I had parted on bad terms and little more than the occasional family wedding had succeeded in tempting me back.
As I stared out at the skies, sombre at 10am, India's sunnier climes were an inviting prospect. I had barely stretched a toe beyond Madras and Hyderabad where my extended family lived, and always knew my curiosity about the rest of the country would get the better of me. So far every trip back had involved frog-hopping from one relative's house to the next, having my cheeks pinched, marvelling at my cousins' increasing waistlines while they frowned at my bones, and flying out as fast as I had arrived, with a suitcase full of murukkus. But I had never seen India as a tourist. If I was to go back and give it a real chance after 20 years, what was the best way? Leaving a gargantuan carbon footprint behind 80 flights was hardly the right way to go. As I traced the railway lines with a finger, an idea began to form in my mind. I called out to my colleague across the desk.
'Willy-Lee, what do you think of travelling around India in 80 trains?' He glanced at the diagonals of rain spattering the windows and put on an oversize pair of Dior sunglasses, flipping his scarf over one shoulder. 'You should so go:
That evening I stayed late after work and trawled Amazon for travelogues on India's railways. While there were almost 3,000 books relating to the history, modernisation, finances and, of course, the British hand in building the railways, few were personal accounts. Both Rudyard Kipling and Paul Theroux had covered segments, and Michael Palin had endured a few journeys in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. But with the exception of Peter Riordan, a journalist from New Zealand, it seemed that nobody had recently written about a solo journey around India by train. As I gathered my things and waved to Willy-Lee, who was transcribing an interview with Dame Vera Lynn and staring mournfully at the clock, I wondered whether there was a reason for this: were the railways too dangerous? Maybe those who had tried to circle the country by train had fallen ill, been mugged, or died along the way before anyone could hear about their adventures. Still, the thrill lay in the uncertainty of it all.
Of the two years I had spent in India, my fondest memories were of the trains: tucked up in a cosy, curtained cabin aboard the Pandian Express to visit my brother at his boarding school. I could close my eyes to the heat and horrors of Madras and open them as the Palani Hills rose through the dawn haze. Trains were my escape, my ticket out of the city. They allowed me to curl up in comfort as my surroundings slipped away. Unlike air travel, a cramped, clinical affair conducted in recycled air, causing bad tempers and bad breath, train travel invited me to participate. I could sit in the doorway, thundering across rivers instead of pressing a forehead to a grimy oval window, watching them snake silently below. Since 1853 when the British waved off the first passenger train from Bombay to Thane, the network had rippled out across the country earning the nickname, 'The Lifeline of the Nation: Trains carry more than 20 million passengers every day along a route of 64,OOOkm, ploughing through cities, crawling past villages, climbing up mountains and skimming along coasts. Eighty train journeys up, down and across India would, I hoped, lift the veil on a country that had become a stranger to me.
There was just one issue to address: I needed a travelling companion. India was not the safest place for a single girl to travel alone and while I was prepared to go by myself, some company was preferable. While hunting for the right candidate, I began hankering after books featuring Indian train travel. As I lay in bed one night reading Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, I realised that Phileas Fogg only decides to embark upon his journey after reading an article in The Daily Telegraph announcing that a section of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway has been opened between Rothal and Allahabad, thereby reducing the time taken to circle the globe. The birth of the Indian Railways had clearly been an integral addition to global travel. My eyes began to close as I reached the point where Fogg's manservant, Passepartout, wanders into a temple, not realising that Christians are not allowed in: 'He looked up to behold three enraged priests, who forthwith fell upon him, tore off his shoes, and began to beat him with loud, savage exclamations.'
Yawning, I wondered if things were still the same. I was not religious in the slightest, but remembered English friends being made to wait outside certain South Indian temples while we nosed around. Slotting a bookmark into the page, I flipped off the light and turned over, suddenly jealous of Phileas Fogg. As much as his hapless companion was becoming more of a hindrance than a help, at least he had someone to accompany him. My search for a travel buddy had proven useless, that is, until the following morning.
By some twist of fate, an email arrived from a friend of a friend. He had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was planning on travelling around Southeast Asia using his pay package. As an added bonus, he was also a part-time wedding photographer, and wanted to expand his portfolio with travel photography. Over scrambled eggs and coffee we discussed the trip. He was easy-going and smiled a lot. Pleased to have a ready-made project to walk into, he offered to accompany me for the full four months. We parted ways and I headed to the Tube, confident and happy that I had found the right man for the job.
In Around the World in 80 Days) Jean Passepartout claims that his surname has clung to him due to his natural aptness for going out of one business and into another and has abandoned his own country of France for England. Passé-partout-the French phrase for 'all-purpose'-seemed the perfect nickname for my new companion. Twelve years ago he had abandoned his own country of Norway for England, and had now left a job in sales to pursue a career in photography. Less manservant and more travel buddy, his remit now extended to being my personal bodyguard and friend for our journey around India in 80 trains.
A week before Christmas, on one of London's most glorious winter mornings, Passepartout and I found ourselves outside a little office on Wembley Park Drive. Low sunshine flashed off windows trimmed with icicles as we stamped powdery snow off our boots and went in to meet Shankar Dandapani, the UK representative of the Indian Railways. The room was hung with a magnificent map of India and posters of Rajasthani moustaches and pagris. It was furnished with three school desks with flip-up tops, at which the three of us sat in a row sipping tea-Shankar in the middle. He picked up the piece of paper on which I had listed a series of trains and turned it over inquisitively while I sweated under my roll-neck dress.
'What is this?' he asked.
'A list of trains:
'There are only nine:
'I know. We were hoping you might be able to recommend some others: 'Are you doing 80 individually named trains, or 80 journeys?' Passepartout and I looked at each other like a pair of dunces. 'I suggest you do 80 journeys, or it could become' difficult to find individual trains to cover certain areas: Scanning the list, he recoiled, then turned over the page and began to draw columns that he titled 'scenic, 'toy train', 'luxury, 'Rajdhani, 'Shatabdi' 'Okay, so you have already organised the Indian Maharaja train yourself, so I suggest the following .. .'
Within two minutes the list had grown to almost SO trains long. We leant in, watching with amazement as Shankar annotated a number of the journeys with 'waterfalls, 'beautiful from Goa to Londa' and 'nice interiors: 'Have you done these journeys?' I asked.
'Many,' he replied, handing over the paper. 'Right, SO is enough for now. You can work out the other 30, most of which will be connectors between each of these:
Finally, Shankar issued us with the most important equipment for the journey: two 90-day IndRail passes. They were parrot-green, as flimsy as tissue paper and so outdated that the original price read $300, and now contained a slash across the middle, with $530 written over the top in Biro. The passes were only available to foreign tourists and allowed us to travel on any train in second-tier class or below. All we had to do was make reservations at the station or online. Once they expired, we would have to buy tickets for any remaining journeys.
'Take good care of them', Shankar warned, 'if you lose them, you can't be issued with replacements. And have fun!' he added, as we waved from the doorway.
Outside, we looked at one another and laughed nervously. Passepartout held up Shankar's paper and examined the list. 'Wow, I think he just saved us from turning this trip into a total disaster:
Christmas and New Year came and went. Despite the high numbers of January de-toxers, the upstairs section of The Crown & Two Chairmen in Soho was jammed with well-wishers waving us off. Almost 40 friends crammed in around beer-covered tables. If this had been my birthday, six dependable friends would have turned up on time. Another seven or eight would have arrived in stages throughout the night, while the rest would have texted me with last-minute cancellations. Outside the steamed-up windows it was snowing heavily. Tubes would inevitably be cancelled and buses delayed, yet the overarching possibility that I might die in a train crash had brought everyone out of the woodwork. At least I knew my funeral would have a good turnout.
Beaming at faces I had not seen for months, I clutched a handful of Good Luck! cards and strained to hear conversation over the din. A pair of cold hands pressed my hot face from behind and my friend Sarah clambered over a few bags and coats, unwinding her scarf, and slid into the seat next to me. She sat upright like a meerkat, glanced around, then hunched her shoulders and whispered:
'Is that the photographer over there?'
I looked across to where he was chatting with his friends. 'Yup,' 'Cute:
'Not my type:
'What, tall, blonde-ish Scandinavian isn't your type?'
'No, it's not that. I just don't fancy him at all. He's absolutely lovely, but that's it.'
Sarah raised an eyebrow and yanked open a bag of McCoy's. 'Whatever, you'll email me in a month and tell me I was right:
'I will not:
'Well, you'll Facebook me then:
I poked a crisp at her. 'I know everyone thinks that's going to happen, but it's not. I just don't see him like that. In fact, the main reason I'm happy to go away with him is precisely for that reason:
'I've saved up, I've worked really hard to figure this out, and I don't want it ruined for something frivolous:
Sarah gave me the kind of smile reserved for naughty kids. It had a hint of I-don't-believe-you at the edges, but she relented. Anyway, you might not have any ideas, but I wouldn't say the same for him:
'Well, that's certainly not my plan,' I assured her, then changed the subject. Anyway, I'm really going to miss you:
'Yes, I'm sure while you're hanging out of train doorways, your thoughts will be of me sitting at my desk in East Acton opposite Sexist Chris talking about "scones and jem" She finished the end of her pint and gave me a big beery hug. 'Have an amazing time, love:
As the evening went on, family, friends and old colleagues flitted in and out of the pub depositing large glasses of malbec under my nose. By the time I and a loyal group of stragglers tumbled out into the snow at closing time, it was safe to say that we were more than a little tipsy. Icy air tweaked the end of my nose as I swayed happily across the road amid the yells, hoots and arguments over the nearest kebab house. The troopers traipsed up Dean Street towards a club where someone claimed to be able to get us all in for free, while others slunk off to the Tube. Passepartout decided to call it a night.
'See you at the airport, then; he smiled.
The snow crunched underfoot and the sky glowed orange as I rocked back onto my heels and reached up to give him a quick hug. Red wine plumped my veins and snowflakes landed on my eyelashes as he turned to kiss me. It tasted of his cigarettes.
Shocked, I pulled back, as he gave me a lop-sided grin before turning and walking up the street. Suddenly sober, I closed my eyes as huge snowflakes fell all around. One word filled my mind: shit.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
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