As I write this, the sounds of the out of tune, out of time Darjeeling Police Band seep into my hotel room. Here’s how I got here.
Having arrived at Sealdah station and fought through porters eager to carry my bags, I find that my overnight train is called the Darjeeling Mail. It’s a romantic name that brings to mind Betjeman’s clever rhymes in the Night Mail. But there’s little opportunity for romance on an Indian sleeper train.
One of the most common images of India is the express train, steam powered, with freeriders of the roof and kids on the fenders. It’s the vision made famous in books such as Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. ‘Is it full of chickens and cows’ asks my sister, half jokingly. Not quite, Laura, but…
In brief, the types of train I’m likely to encounter in India are day expresses and overnight sleepers. On the sleepers there are several classes: first class, second class two-tier, second class three-tier, third class (wooden bunks, no A/C, ouch), and worse besides.
My first overnight journey, from Mumbai to Chennai, was in two tier second class. This means there are two bunks in each compartment. I had a whole wide, comfortable bunk to myself, the other three bunks taken up by a friendly naval architect, his wife and son on their way to a temple near the coast. They explained the systems for me, arranged my dinner and showed me how to prepare my bed.
Only on-board vendors from the ‘pantry car’ were allowed to sell us food, and bedding – two sheets, a pillow and a scratchy blanket – was provided.
‘Do you like curry?’
‘I live in Tooting!’
‘???…um…it’s not too hot for you?’
‘No, it’s fine, although not what I normally have for breakfast…’
Curtains can be drawn across our cubicle, each bunk has its own nightlight, and I get a good night’s sleep. The sensation is odd, rocking from side to side, head to toe. I feel like I’m in a car moving sideways, rather than a train moving forwards.
It’s disappointing that the price of air conditioned comfort is low visibility. Each cubicle has two small (maybe 75cmx50cm) windows, double glazed with dark brown tint and a condensation waterfall. It’s impossible to feel the outside temperature, sense smells or hear the country. India is absent, until we are expelled into the chaos of the terminus.
The trip to New Jalpaiguri, where the Darjeeling Mail (confusingly) terminates, is a rather different experience. There are no two-tier bunks left so I have to travel in a three-tier sleeper. It’s like being in a travelling prison.
Arriving at the station I find the train and my name is once again on the reservation list pasted to the side of the carriage. I’ve an upper berth, giving me a chance (I thought) to decide when I sleep. There are no curtains this time, and finding space for luggage under the bottom bunk is harder. I shove in my rucksack and chain it through one of the steel loops. With less space on the seat to share with others, I’m bashed and nudged as other passengers board.
Sharing my quarters are: a silent middle aged man with thick glasses, natty hat and a toe ring who will go to sleep late but then lie in well past ‘bunk-up’ time, leaving is with nowhere to sit; a sikh woman whose husband and two pretty daughters, mobiles in hand, all board to wish her goodbye; and three members of a Sikkim family travelling to the hills of Darjeeling for some rest and relaxation. The grandfather’s Rockport shoes suggest a life lived beyond Gangtok. His seven year old grandson gives them magazines for their journey. Outlook (an Indian Newsweek) for grandad, Stardust (a Bollywood magazine) for grandma and Gladrags (the She of India?) for mum.
Vendors pass through offering crisps, biscuits, ‘nescafe’, chai, calcualtors and reading glasses. Nothing I enjoy more on an overnight train journey than trying to spell naughty words using upside down solar powered casio knock-off. An excellent purchase. The hawkers will continue to pass through all night, showing no respect for the meaning of ‘sleeper’.
We depart. Bedding is distributed, but nobody comes to take my breakfast curry order. It’s time for bunks down, and we all try and make our beds within the confined cabin. It’s particularly hard when your bed is 2.5m off the ground. Getting in is even harder. With only a metre of headroom and a big leap from the narrow rungs, it’s a challenge to crawl in without falling off again.
There’s no nightlight back here in three-tier, so reading is hard – at least once the glaring fluorescent tube is turned off. Just like prison. The warders practice sensory deprivation throughout the night, with an air conditioning fan as loud as an auto-rickshaw inches from my head and the turning on of lights halfway through the night so they can hvae their snacks and chat in the empty bunk on the opposite side of the corridor.
Still, the rocking motion soon sends me to sleep, although with my head stuck in the curved edge of the roof and a bunk no wider than my shoulders, there’s an unanticipated edginess to the experience.
When I awake next morning, surprisingly refreshed, many bunks are already packed up and we’ve stopped. I’m worried that I’ve missed the station and jump down, only to find we’re delayed at a country halt. I hop down to the tracks and welcome the clear, cool dry air. The landscape is green and the sky is cloudy.
I’ve escaped the torrid plains.