My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

Sign up for my newsletter: The Internet Personified

5 April 2012

The wheels on the train go round and round

Thanks, in no small part, to my current state of finances, I've begun taking the train more. The more money you earn, the more expensive flights seem to be, it's really odd. I like flying because it gets you to your destination so fast, but left without a choice, I've rediscovered the magic of the Rajdhani.

Cellphone picture, which is why the bad quality, of the scenery whizzing past the train
I have a long history with trains, mostly with my mother. When we lived in Trivandrum for two years when I was about six or seven, we took a long train, a "first class coupe" from Kerala up to Delhi. A few things stand out about those journeys, one was when we were in Agra (because the train routed from there in those days), we'd get "khullad" chai, smelling of earth and tea spices which we could drink and then discard with a smash on the tracks. The blood red oranges of Nagpur, along with the puri-aloo. Another was transporting our Alsatian, Bobo, from Trivandrum to Hyderadabad. We were moving to a small flat in Delhi and it seemed kinder to him to give him to my grandfather who wanted a dog for his huge farm. Every long station stop we'd get off and go to the guard van, where he was kept and take him for a little walk.

Coming back from Hyderabad to Delhi, we'd always have the same snacks. Funny, how most of my train journeys are reminiscent of food. My mother would have packed the South Indian curd rice, which actually keeps quite well, and because I loathed the smell and taste of curd, she'd call it "white upma" and I ate it quite happily. I mean, I knew what it was, but somehow, not calling it curd made it easier to stomach. I remember watching a little girl, in one of the top berths, steadily and methodically eating her way through an entire tiffin container of chicken biryani. Just sitting there, feet dangling, and eating.

One time, when I was older, in my late teens I think, again, we were on a journey to Hyderabad, and this one guy kept crowding me in the corridor while I waited for the coolie and my mother to finish negotiating the luggage placement. I moved away from him, but he persisted, and then reached out, without warning, and fondled my breast. I said nothing, but turned around, grabbed his collar (he was about 6'7" or something) and started wildly lashing out at him. It was all so silent, my mother and the rest of the passengers who were watching her were quite shocked when they turned around and saw me. "What happened?" she said, and I finally found my voice and said, "He touched me!" and then the rest of the passengers surrounded him and seeing himself trapped he broke free of my grip and dashed out on to the platform. I hope he missed his train.

But that was pretty much the only grope-y experience I've had. I've heard horror stories, of course, and I always make sure I'm sleeping with all bits of me covered and tucked in, but on the most part, people leave me alone, I sit there with my  book, wearing something loose and nondescript, and try to blend into the background.

I complained on Twitter that no matter what kind of passengers I have around me, if I ever have a lower berth, I feel the stretch and tug of an impending fight settle in my belly. Because invariably, someone over the age of 40 will ask me to exchange with them. "Bad legs, beta," they'll say, trying to smile at me, ingratiatingly, and I will grumble and moan and feel cheated, but change with them anyway. Nowadays, I give them the once over, if they seem sprightly when they enter and do lots of bending and stretching (or if they annoy me, and some of them can be REALLY annoying) then I claim a bladder infection that makes me need the loo several times at night and let them try their luck with the person in the other lower berth. Somehow, maybe because I'm a woman, maybe because I look younger than most, I'm always asked to be accommodating first. I like my lower berth, I specifically request it, because I like to wake up early in the morning, and don't want to have to wait for other people to get up, and I like watching the world go by with my cup of coffee. Once this even happened to me on a plane, where this dude claimed he had bad knees and wanted to swap his middle for my aisle. Of course, being a sucker, I did, but as soon as we were in the air, I pointed to the row of empty seats beside us and he looked martyred and said, "I was moving ANYWAY." and I said, "Good" and he did and yay, everyone won.

You can predict the schedule of the Rajdhani, at 4.30 when you get on, you get a little tray with a sweet, a samosa or something and a vile cheese sandwich. Also a coffee kit, which is quite sophisticated, a little paper bag filled with your coffee acrouments. At around seven, you get a breadstick and some butter and some soup. It used to be tomato, but now it's some kind of veg thing. Then at eight, you get your dinner, I usually get the chicken, which is greasy, but I like the routine of getting the same meal each time I'm on the train and then at nine, you get your ice cream and at 9.30, people are making up their berths, and if you're lucky, you'll get another passenger who likes to stay up later than 10 pm, so you can read, but usually, it's lights off, and you toss and turn in the dark till you finally fall asleep a couple of hours later. It's nice because it's so predictable. Most people don't bring reading material, so you can eavesdrop on their chats, while you read. Sometimes, they'll ask you questions, but I solve this by plugging myself into my iPod from the moment I get on. I don't know, I like my journeys to be full of silent contemplation, no more chatting than is necessary. Is this weird? It's the one thing I like about travelling alone, the chance to be alone.

There's a romance to trains though, the steady clack-clack-clack as it rocks you to sleep, on lesser trains than the Rajdhani, a chance to smoke a cigarette by the open door, feeling very daring and risque, while the wind blows your eyelashes back, making your eyes sting. On the Rajdhani, they helpfully leave their loo windows open, but you have to make sure you go during a non busy toilet time, otherwise people start knocking. It's nowhere near as efficient as a plane, but it reminds you to slow down and take it easy and "we'll get there when we get there."


  1. You've captured That Train Feeling so well! I still remember one of my childhood journeys where the thick stench of radish parathas from someone's dabba choked the whole air conditioned compartment for what seemed like hours.
    And then there are memories of scalding hot chai in those glass tumblers that you had to swallow down (eyes watering, tongue burning) and hurriedly return the glass to the chai-walla before the train pulled away from the platform. I think every Indian will be able to identify with this post. So beautifully written :)

  2. I really hate when people ask my lower berth, I usually book my ticket well in advance and then all goes in vain!!
    Love your blogs...

  3. Why do people love staring on trains?

  4. This was so lovely, eM!

    I LOVE train journeys. If it's less than a 14 hour journey, I almost always pick the train. Except when I'm traveling on work.

    I love the being alone part of it. I love looking out of the window and feel the air rush by. I love waiting to see what snack is up next to buy. I love people watching. I love that I can read and sleep and eat throughout the journey without an iota of guilt.

    P.S: Ask for the side lower. It's even better that the lower because you can sit up even when the others are asleep, and because people generally prefer the lower berth to the side lower, you won't be the first to be approached. ;)

    1. How true... I prefer side lower for that same reason- ability to sit undisturbed for much longer!

    2. My friends and I have "being groped" horror stories...inevitably on the side lower berth in the train. Unfortunately, most of the time the perpetuators move away quickly along the corridor! Also, the incidents usually happen when you are fast asleep. Just my two cents.

  5. thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! brought back a lot of lovely memories. Thanks!

  6. Nice post. Gave a good glimpse into what a long train journey is like (haven't traveled a lot by train).

    And admire your guts writing about the groping incident as well as your courage back then when you stood up to the offender.

  7. Has your life become boring and monotonous? The posts have certainly predictable and how do I say it...common.

  8. Loved this. The description you gave here? That's me, sitting in the train :) A bagful of books, a music player, and lots of (bad) coffee, that's all I need.

  9. you've captured the Indian train ride experience perfectly, gropy jerk and all.

  10. How romantically you have captured the train journey..pretty nice.. The worst part of a train journey for me is the smell and filth -u take Rajdhani or any other train these two things are always there! Otherwise I can actually love train travel !
    And yes the ultimate truth about flight tickets pricing - getting higher with my bank balances but at a higher CAGR!

  11. Very nice, well written travelogue!

    You should have participated in the indiblogger contest as well which unfortunately closed today.

    Train journeys have their own charm esp eating while aboard!

  12. I enjoyed this one. :) Also, agree with your tweet about Burgs.

    Try Goa on a bus. I booked online, didn't realise the seats were actually single beds for two(!) on either side of the bus, upper and lower, and landed up having to share with a single middle-aged gujju gentleman. Thankfully a young gujju family were accommodating enough to switch seats with me, so all was well.

    But try Goa on a bus. You will not be disappointed.

  13. A train wheel consists of a flange and a tread. The flange is the inside part of the wheel and is deeper (or longer) than the other. The tread is the flat portion that actually rides on the rail.
    STC Technologies

  14. I enjoyed all your blogs specially this one gr8 fan of yours ...!!! native KL r8 I'm bit close to it(Cape comorin ;-) ) ...!!!

  15. While we are on grabbing incidents, here's one that forever put me off a certain side of train seating. I've always hated 3 berths in a train. The 6 berths in a small space made me feel claustrophobic! So when travelling with friends and family, I book the 2-berth ones on the side of train and take the upper berth. On one such occasion, when I was sleeping on the upper berth (yes, yes, all covered up, head-to-toe since you mentioned that factor in your post - it was a AC 3 tier after all). Random bastard walks by, grabs my breast and then just walks swiftly away. I was so paralysed that i could only stared at his retreating back!
    guess what part of the train, i will never book a berth when travelling alone!
    And while on berths that you hate, I hate berths that are near an exit and toilets. did you know that the 'ladies' berth is by the exit? And I hate the middle berth.
    Btw, am puzzled that you guys like the lower berth. If you get up early, you've gotta wait till the middle berth person wakes up before you can sit up! Unless you are on the side berth

  16. I like this post. It reminds me of all my train journeys and how they play on the person I am.


Thanks for your feedback! It'll be published once I approve it. Inflammatory/abusive comments will not be posted. Please play nice.