We found our carriage. We checked our names were on the manifest. We checked the numbers on the side of the carriage – 1 to 72. We assumed that 1 was at the left end of the carriage and 72 at the far right. So did everyone else. We all piled onto the train to find that the absolute opposite was the case. 72 people - almost all of them at the wrong end of the carriage - most laden with big bags, then tried to rearrange themselves into the right configuration. It wouldn't be all that easy anywhere but in India you can start a war out of something like this.
We were looking for seats 10-13 which were three rows in from the far end. Coming towards us were all the people looking to reach the higher numbers. We shuffled, squeezed, lifted and prodded and slowly made our way down the carriage. A party of European schoolgirls and their teacher were accompanied by several local guys from an adventure tourism company, dressed in matching green T-shirts. All the girls and their teacher were randomly spread through the train with only a scrap of paper with the seat numbers to help them.
At the mid-point of the carriage are a set of facing seats with a long table between them. I suspect these are much prized by family groups as the best seats in the carriage. They're perfect for spreading out the picnic that mother or grandmother has prepared and giving the kids space to bounce around. You can't book these since the train booking system means you get what you're given, but it was clear that the man who'd got them was determined not to lose them. The girls from the school party had all shuffled into the space around these tables to make space for people to pass them.
An angry voice was bellowing down the train. "That's MY seat – how dare you. Get out of my seat". The girls tried to explain they weren't stealing his seats, they were just letting people pass. "Get out of my seats NOW" he hollered. My sister and her partner were caught between the mad man and the girls. They tried to intervene, explaining that the girls were just letting people pass, not stealing his seats. They asked him to try to calm down "WHY SHOULD I?" he shouted. Eyebrows were raised up and down the carriage. Losing your rag in India just isn't the done thing and this guy was making a real exhibition of himself.
By this time we had our bags on our heads and were nearing our destination. The luggage racks were already full and our only hope was to stuff the bags under the seats. We brushed aside a few small cockroaches to make space and squeeze them in. My sister was still shuffling down, tutting to herself like a true Brit, and rolling her eyes at fellow travellers. Mr Gobby was still sounding off about his seats, the school girls were looking totally baffled at such rudeness in such a normally polite country and their poor teacher was counting her flock to make sure nobody was lost. Eventually we all had our seats and were ready to do battle with the chap in front who wanted the blind down when we wanted it up and to try to keep the over-friendly cockroach out of my bag.
The train departed on time and rolled through the city – not that we could see any of it but we knew it was out there. This was one of the Shatabdi trains which are supposed to be the faster and more luxurious options. It was painfully slow and far from luxury. A few years ago we actually got a nice train in southern India running between Mysore and Chennai. It was fabulous. The seats were comfortable, the tickets included food and the staff fed us repeatedly on the smoothest train line in India. Ever since that journey, we've had nothing but disappointment on all the other carriers.
This carriage was so-called AC Chair Class. The seats are all pre-booked and there's no 1st class on this particular train. This bedlam of fighting and pushing was in the highest level carriage on the train. One man with a bad attitude had spoiled the beginning of the journey for dozens of travellers.
Guide books will often tell you to take day trains rather than night trains. They tell you that they give you a great chance to see the countryside. Fact is that the windows of most trains are so filthy that you'll see India through a thick film of dirt. The only way to see better is to go out in the space between the carriages and look out the windows on the doors. It's best to do this before the train has been going for too long and before the toilets get too stinky. More often than not, the carriage doors will not be closed so you can look through the open door at the world outside. This is not a land that employs too many people in the Health and Safety industry. My sister was horrified at the idea that someone might fall out.
Soon after departure the food service started. You cannot go hungry on an Indian train because there's an almost constant stream of people trying to sell you food. On this train the salesmen were employees of the train company but in some parts of India they are just random locals who hop on and off the train. Trying to guess what's on offer is part of the fun. "Sheeps sheeps" turned out to be potato crisps, "dreenks" were obviously drinks but it took some time before we sussed that "Vesh peasah" was vegetable pizza (and very delicious they were too).
People did hop on and off during the stops. We had a leper with no nose (cue my sister's bad joke "My leper's got no nose. How does he smell? AWFUL" which may sound callous but is a survival instinct in a country with so many badly deformed beggars). Another chap with no legs propelled himself from one end of the carriage to the other with his hand outstretched completing the journey within the time taken to stop at a station.
Occasional glances through the window showed us a lush green countryside of tall sugar cane, something green and low to the ground that was popular with the little white egrets, a village full of boys flying kites off their rooftops and a set of three large effigies about to be burned for the annual Dessurah festival. The only other evidence of the festivities that we saw was a single loud, bright explosion of fireworks. My husband said he thought we'd hit a buffalo.
We eventually rolled into Dehradun about half an hour behind schedule with only about a third of the travellers we'd started with. Getting off the train proved a lot easier than getting on had been. This 6 hour journey had covered a crazily short distance of just 240 km but despite the fuss and the frenzy, a trip to India is incomplete without at least one or two journeys by rail.