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The Superfast Indian Express

After rescuing our bags from the rats at NJP station we began our journey south to Mumbai. We’d first get a 14 hour train to Patna where we’d have an eight hour wait until our next 15 hour train to Mumbai. This was a super-fast express train and we’d be arriving in Mumbai the next day… the train was covering a vast amount of the subcontinent in very little time but we were assured by the adjective used in the train name. Simple.

We’d booked our tickets from NJP to Patna late and were allocated only RAC tickets which means reserved against cancellation. Not really understanding how it was possible, we were told that we were guaranteed a bed whatever happened, the catch was that we’d be sharing with someone unless there were any cancellations. Our train arrived at about 1am, 3 hours later than scheduled, but that is the norm in India and to be expected. We then realised that our carriage was nonexistent and along with hundreds of Indians we stood at the end of the platform waiting for invisible doors to open. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing another few carriages were added to the train. People piled on and Carl and I had to remove some Indians from our single bed that would already be squashed, as we’d be sharing the thin dirty mattress. As usual many Indians with no tickets, or hard seat tickets came looking for beds to share for the overnight journey. It is generally accepted that a bottom berth should be shared so it is advisable to go for the middle berth. The upper berths have a little plastic and some metal railings between you and your neighbour and if your neighbour is unfamiliar with the Western physique then you are in for one uncomfortable night. We finally got settled, rather uneasily into our bed and attempted to sleep listening to the ongoing commotion around us.

Morning approached and as usual we awoke to the smell of toilets and chai. The usual morning aroma was supplemented by Carls feet as we had decided that a top and tail approach was the most convenient. We bought two chais and some vada for breakfast and smiled at our audience who were fascinated at the sight of two Westerners squeezed into a bed.

At about 4pm our train pulled into what I have affectionately named the shithole of the world, Patna. We’d been to Patna before a few times to change buses; it was a dirty, smelly Indian city but what made it stand out from the rest was the aggression of its citizens. Now this is a huge generalisation but we’d never seen Indians get aggressive at all before hitting Patna. We had 6 hours to kill so we left our bags at the rat infested train station and went off for some food and beers in a tourist bar to escape the outside. Alcohol was more present here than anywhere else we’d been so far which may account somewhat for the aggression. We drunk slowly and got tipsy very quickly.

Upon returning to the train station cloakroom I was informed that a rat had pissed on my bag and my attention was drawn to a wet stain. I thanked the attendant and left without tipping him. The electric went out in Patna station and I was left next to my pissy bag while Carl went to get another beer (the train was going to be a few hours late). Luckily Carl couldn’t find any beer so we sat with our bags waiting. When the lights came back on the ritual of staring resumed. Drunk men crouched in front of us to look and families crowded the bench around us. For once I was glad to be getting on an Indian train.

We boarded the train and to our surprise it wasn’t full and we didn‘t have to fight for our beds. We climbed into our two separate bunks and slept until 8am the next morning when we were awoken by hundreds of people embarking. A woman threw her baby on Carl and I was shouted at by a group of Indian men until they realised that I actually had a ticket and a boyfriend – two travel essentials. We got up and shared our booths with a family of mother and son, father and mothers brother, a familiar travelling set up in India. We were joined by two other men after they’d argued with a group of others over their seats. There were two many of us for all the beds in the booth. At least we’ll be getting off soon I thought. At about 1pm the train pulled into a rather busy station. “Mumbai?” I asked a guy sitting next to me. He laughed generously and a fellow passenger who spoke a little English explained that we would be arriving in Mumbai at 1pm the following day. I then remembered the Indian love of irony in naming the various transport options. A VIP bus in India wouldn’t pass the Megabus standards, so for the super-fast express to be neither super-fast or express should really have been expected.

Travelling ‘sleeper class’ in India is both one of the most enjoyable and the most unbearable experiences. We often shared snacks with fellow passengers, took turns in buying chai for each other and chatted to those who spoke English about Indian affairs. Carl usually found a child to entertain and I usually got asked if my freckles itched. We were able to open the windows and watch the world go past, stand by the open doors and feel the wind in our hair. Sometimes there really was nothing better than a no rules Indian train. On the other hand beggars, buskers and sellers constantly harassed us, we constantly battled with fellow passengers who wanted to throw our rubbish out of the window or on the floor, and the toilets were often not used in their proper manner, I’ll say no more on that one.

To be on a train for over 36 hours after getting off a 14 hour train would have sounded preposterous when we first started travelling. However upon hearing that we’d have to spend another night on the train Carl and I gently rocked our heads side to side imitating the ambiguous Indian head bob and went back to reading our books. Occasionally a young Indian would come and look over our shoulders reading out loud to demonstrate his command of English. It was rather embarrassing when our diaries were the chosen texts.

On the second night we retired to our beds early along with the family and the two men who squeezed into one sleeper rather uncomfortably. I’d become accustomed to the swaying and the chugging of the train and always slept well on the sleeper, ironically waking up if the train stopped. The night after a train journey I always longed for the rocking. However, the snoring, burping, farting and other regular noises I could do without. Unfortunately Carl always shares my room.

We were awoken by the baby on board at about 6am and decided to get up and take our seats on the bottom bed for chai and breakfast. We bought samosas from a vendor and book in hand awaited our late arrival at Mumbai where we would be catapulted forward into the 21st century and movie-stardom…

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