Going Off the Rails in India

Though symbols of progress, trains in India continue to be a setting for violence and crime.  
Going Off the Rails in India 3
Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

In November last year, I made the first journey of my life to Uttar Pradesh (not counting one brief trip to see the Taj as a teenager). Air connections to Allahabad were poor, so we took the train. At Mughalsarai I awoke, thinking of Mughals and sarais and wondering vaguely about breakfast. A sharif-looking, well-turned-out cabin attendant in uniform came in to clear out the used sheets and blankets, asked what we would like to eat, got us coffee. Then he said, “I’ve collected too many hundred-rupee notes selling bottles of water. Can you give me four thousand in larger notes and I’ll give you my change?” I promptly handed him the money and thought he’d produce the hundreds right there. He told me he’d be back in a moment. The moment turned to a quarter of an hour. The train moved out of the station. I went into the vestibule and asked the other attendants where the man had gone. They said they had no idea who I was taking about.

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Trains have been as much symbols of speed and progress, as the setting for protest, violence and crime, particularly in North India. By the late 19th century, interfering with trains was seen as an act of treason against the state and punished accordingly. The draconian measure was the result of both civilians and railway employees regularly attacking trains or their passengers to express various grievances with the colonial government. Train dacoities became, early on, a well-established genre too. And while the Godhra incident seems particularly horrific in scale, it is by no means unprecedented for trains to facilitate communal feuds.

“A battle between Hindus and Muslims was raging inside this compartment. These women from poor households seldom got a chance to fight on the streets. Now, by a stroke of good fortune, they found themselves confined together in a third-class railway carriage, and so decided to make the most of this rare opportunity to vent spleen at each other.” In this early 20th century story by the Urdu writer Rashid Jahan, women from the two religions not just “vent spleen” at each other but have a fantastically vigorous brawl featuring ripped clothes, luggage flung out of windows, and hair torn out. The train is an express, there are few stops, and the long journey enables them to be, as it were, themselves.

I grew up in Shillong, far from any railway line, and my first few journeys by train across the Gangetic plain in the early ’90s were undertaken in fearful anticipation of trouble. An early memory of train travel is seeing a thief being battered by a compartment’s worth of men, one of whose napping wives the clearly desperate burglar had clambered atop and tried to wrest jewellery off. He crawled away on all fours, blood dripping like a tap, and I considered the puddles on the floor and wondered if I would survive the journey. After that there were only minor problems with stolen footwear and ‘eve-teasing’ but danger seemed always imminent. A couple of years later, a 20-something neighbour of mine from Shillong was found dead in the toilet of the Guwahati Express from Delhi, divested of all his belongings including the clothes on his back. My boyfriend took the same train a few years later and was robbed of a bag containing his passport, house keys and most of his money.

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

As for me, I moved to south India and, simultaneously, air travel became commonplace, so for a good two decades I forgot about North Indian train-bound desperados and cut-throats. Till this recent sleight of hand in Mughalsarai. I spoke to ticket examiners, sympathetic fellow passengers, pantry attendants and all agreed, when they heard the details, that I was the sucker. I spent the morning being utterly disbelieving, angry, ashamed. Then we reached Allahabad and reading the papers over the following week, a new vista opened up against which my loss seemed pedestrian—I’d only given away a few thousand on being politely asked to. Others were staking their lives on train travel. A three-month old baby had been stolen from its mother, travelling from Allahabad, after a fellow passenger waved a handkerchief before the woman’s face rendering her unconscious. A man who, trying to economise on future dowries, had pushed his four young daughters out of a moving train in Bihar the previous month—leading to the death of one—had now gone missing. The Railway Protection Force busted a gang that had been routinely using a two-rupee coin to cause signal failure on the tracks and loot the passengers of stalled trains at gunpoint.

And then, leaving Allahabad on the Bundelkhand Express, I found myself on the other side. I shuffled down the corridor at dawn to use the restroom and coming back to the cabin found the door locked. I rattled the handle and could vaguely make out my husband through the tinted window sitting up on his berth. He was waving frantically at me—perhaps instructions on how to unlock—and I wondered why he couldn’t come down and do it himself.

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Illustration by: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Also, when had he changed into a white shirt from the blue one he’d gone to sleep in? Suddenly, a youth whom I hadn’t noticed before jumped down, slid open the door and then leapt back nimbly. I looked at him in horror and realised I was in the wrong place. Apologising profusely, and returning to my own cabin and my sleeping husband, I realised the older Englishman’s gesture had meant, Get away. I must have seemed to him in that dim light like a wild-haired beggar woman bent on attacking him and his son. “Jeldy Jow”, in colonial-speak, was what he’d been communicating. I started to feel annoyed, rather than contrite at having awoken them, then went to sleep imagining I had avenged Gandhi’s being thrown out on his backside from a moving train.

“Jeldy Jow” was, incidentally, the only snatch of local lingo that Mark Twain seemed to have picked up when he travelled across India—largely by train—in 1895. But he apparently had it much easier than me in 2017. A train he missed was recalled for him by a smiling station master. In fact, all the natives were nice and “The face and the bearing that indicate a surly spirit and a bad heart seemed to me to be so rare among Indians—so nearly non-existent, in fact—that I sometimes wondered if Thuggee wasn’t a dream, and not a reality.” Nope. He just got lucky.

  • Anjum Hasan is the author, most recently, of The Cosmopolitans. Her new collection of stories, A Day in the Life, is out in March.

  • Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is a Kolkata-based graphic novelist. His work includes the graphic novel Ghosts of Kingdoms Past and the comic "Fish Tales" for the Swiss magazine, Strapazin.

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