Elephants, history, bargains on India's rails


DELHI, India - Notes from a railway aficionado visiting India.

An anniversary occurs here Tuesday. It seems hardly worth remembering or noting in the pantheon of India's history, but there is some metaphoric poignancy in the event.

One hundred and 10 years ago, on Sept. 28, 1894, in the time of the British Raj, a mail train traveling through the Saranda jungle, near Goilkera, about 220 miles from Calcutta, hit an elephant. The train was knocked off the tracks. The elephant was killed.

I know this because the elephant's skull - which is huge - is enshrined in a glass box at the National Railway museum here.

In India today, elephants are rare. But, the Indian rail system, which helped to industrialize this land, is mighty. Indian Railways employs 1.5 million people, which means that 1.5 of every 1,000 people in this country of a billion people is employed by the national railroad. It is the largest employer in the world. Yet people still complain about enormous waiting lines to get a ticket.

Train rides in India may be the greatest bargains in the world. The first-class fare from Delhi to Agra about 120 miles south, a ride of about 2 1/2 hours, costs less than $18. For that, the passenger gets a wide seat with crisply pressed white cotton covers and a full breakfast delivered by one of several waiters attending the car.

The seat reclines so you can relax listening to the monotonous strain of piped-in Indian zither music accompanied by a gentle drum. After a while it sounds like a soft rain falling on a tin roof. An Indian lullaby.

I returned to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh state on the same train but in second class, which was the same as first only without the cotton covers on the seats. That fare was $8.70 and as it was evening, they served a dinner of curry, tea and a nice cup of ice cream. No lullaby.

The railway stations in India are crowded at any time of day, it seems. Everyone and everything is part of a great, noisy, jostling commotion. The two stations I visited, New Delhi's main station at 6 a.m. and the Agra station at 8:45 p.m. were dusky, dimly lit terminals.

Delhi's is the busiest because many of the great long-distance trains pass through, as well as the local trains. The station is full of people in all sorts of fashions, from the well-dressed men and the women in colorful saris, to the beggars in their rags, often with missing or hobbled limbs, shuffling about with their hands out. At Agra station, I arrived at dinnertime, which in a few places was being consumed by small knots of families and friends on mats laid on the dusty platforms. Homeless wretches were preparing their sleeping mats for the night. Hawkers selling everything from candy to games and books and toys passed back and forth on the platforms. Stray dogs, which are everywhere, trotted back and forth across the tracks. No elephants in sight.

Behind me, while waiting for the Sharabdi Express to arrive, I noted a magnificent train idling on the next track. This was the famed "Palace on Wheels," a train of such opulence it would have suited the most imaginative maharajah.

The Palace transports wealthy tourists on a weeklong journey around some of the grandest sights in India. It has 14 deluxe cars, each with wood-paneled rooms that have two comfortable twin beds. A valet serves each room. It has two restaurants, The Maharajah and the Maharani, a lounge, a games room, two bars staffed by exquisitely outfitted mixologists.

The cost of this eight-day luxury voyage runs between $1,700 and $3,400 a person, depending on the number of people in a room (up to three) and the time of year. The temptation to climb on this train and ride it for a couple of days - which one can do - was practically overwhelming.

On the other hand, according to the rate sheets of the Indian Railways, which seems to set charges by distance, a passenger could ride more than 3,000 miles in a first-class sleeping compartment for less than $170. And that passenger might meet some Indians, which is unlikely on the Palace.

There was a time, more than a century ago, when travelers in third class - the class favored by Gandhi in his commitment to the poorest of his people - had no lavatories . This required that passengers needing to go would alight with or without their pots to relieve themselves at various stops along the way.

150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways, a book by K.R. Vaidyanathan, includes a marvelous letter to the train authorities written by a passenger enraged because his train took off before he had completed his task.

Addressed to the District Traffic Superintendent Saheb Gunj, the passenger complained as follows:

"Beloved Sir: I am arrive by passenger train at Ahmedopore station and my belly is too much swelling with jack fruit. I am, therefore, went to privy. Just as I doing nuisance (filling the pot) that guard making the whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lota (chamber pot) in one hand and dhoti (loincloth) in the next when I fall over and expose some of my personal thing to female woman on the platform. I am getting leaved at Ahmedpur station. This is too much bad, if passenger got to make dung that damn guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am, therefore, pray your honour to make big fine on that damn guard for public sake."

At the Delhi train museum where I purchased Vaidyanathan's book, no record exists of District Traffic Superintendent Saheb Gunj's decision in the matter.

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