Memories Of A Lost World
The charm is unparalleled, the romance never dies. There is a
mysterious splendour about an Indian train ride. With different
landscapes, contrasting lifestyles, quaint stations, garam
chais and a host of interesting people, the journey unravels
endearing vignettes of the Indian way of life. It is earthy and
real. And perhaps the only way to experience the colour, richness
and texture of India.
The Royal Orient Express. Just one of those great journeys...
TEXT: Archana Masih. PHOTOGRAPHS: Jewella C Miranda.
Professor Oleg D Sherby is crazy about swords. "Do you think
I can buy a sword here...perhaps a Damascus steel sword?"
The guides didn't know that particular one, well neither did we.
But somewhere down the week-long trip aboard
The Royal Orient Express,
all of us were craning at the sight,
sound, haze and whisper of a sword. Such was our collective enthusiasm
that even drab blacksmiths seemed interesting. As a matter of
fact, Ollie, that's what we called him, even visited one in an
obscure lane in Diu.
He finally bought a dagger. From one of those shops in Jaipur
for Rs 21,000. Our weary eyes popped. The shopkeeper had first
quoted Rs 45,000. The closest anyone got to that was Chandra.
She bought a huge ring, covering three-fourths of her finger for
"The guide must have made a fat commission. That's why he
separated him from the rest of us." The IAS officer from
the Uttar Pradesh tourism department was certain. With fourteen
months behind him in the industry, we believed he knew the tricks-of-the-guide-trade.
But Ollie wasn't bothered, his partner's bout of diarrhoea was
a more pressing situation.
Memories of a lost world. That's what the train promised.
Blue, cream and gold. Oval panes. Brocade curtains. Saffron turbaned
staff. Steam engines. Red carpetted, marigold garland reception.
It sure was an archaic beginning to a journey that would take
us through the dust and colour of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The winter afternoon bore whiffs of a serene old world charm.
A few tracks away stood the 140-year-old Fairy Queen, probably
the oldest working engine in the world. Being prepared for that
one last journey before going back to the Rail Museum,
where she had sat for 25 years, the small engine was a vintage
point within the humdrum of the New Delhi cantt railway station.
But our engine was no less impressive. In fact, we had two, with
a huge emblem. What was more impressive was the qualification
of our driver. Dr. That's what the abbreviation on the board outside
the engine read. We seemed to like him, more so because he allowed
Jewella and me to travel in the engine. The deafening chugging sound,
frequently made worse by piercing whistles, coupled with the shovelling
of coal and the exercise of collecting tokens by the firemen made
Forty-five minutes later, ears shot and
showered with coal confetti, we hopped off. Much as we wanted,
we couldn't find the opportunity of pursuing the subject of our
driver's qualifications. It was only much later, a day
before the trip finished, I finally got the extension of that abbreviation
"Are you Gujarati?" was Chauhan's first query. "Would
you like to see what I've shot in my video camera?" At our
first meeting at the reception area in Delhi, Chauhan showed us
shots of the Fairy Queen on his handycam. From Vancouver,
the Chauhans were on their annual holiday and the the quietest
couple on board. We found out later that his 65-year-old wife Narmada
neither understood Hindi or English, only Gujarati.
Rewari in Haryana brought the end of our brief flirtation with
the steam locomotive. From there began a seven day long association
with the diesel engine. It was the first of the several small, quiet
stations we halted at during the trip. Stragglers on the platforms
looked on curiously. Something, we grew accustomed with as we
went along. Some just stood and stared, some passed disconcerted
glances and some were a cluster of flattened noses on the window
pane. There was violence too. By day five the train had
six or seven cracked window panes.
Yellow mustard fields rushed past, small clusters of habitation
and huge expanses of the Indian countryside. The train chugged
on. References to Vikram Seth's 1, 456 page The Suitable Boy
kept the British and the Indian couple on board busy. Their discussion
rising above the strains of the music of Kenny G's music. The
other end extended into a small library with V S Naipaul's A Million
Mutinies,the most conspicuous book in the shelf. On
a closer look, it even looked like the most thumbed tome on board.
The Chauhans moved from Navsari in Gujarat to Canada in 1971
where they own a jewellery store on Main
street. "Oh, Sony and sons. It's a big store. I've
been there." Chandra, the vivacious civil servant from Tamil
Nadu, was excited about the association. "I
didn't buy anything the last time, but now when I go I'll make it
a point to buy something," she added.
The ominous 13. Sitting in the plush reception
area at Delhi cantt station, none of us knew that that was
the sum total of all the passengers aboard the Royal Orient.
13. Out of which, some got off the very next day, some joined
us midway, some did not complete the trip. Eventually, after two tummy
upsets, one sprained ankle, a brief brawl, ten cities and a week
of living on a train, only nine survived to tell this tale.
The morning rays were still struggling
to break the shroud of darkness when we reached this historic
town in southern Rajasthan. Laced with tales of unbelievable chivalry,
of Rajput honour, of hair raising accounts of mass
immolation, of the beautiful Padmini and of the cruel exploits
of Allauddin Khilji, there lay a melancholic charm about this
town. It took you to those lessons in Indian history learnt way
back in primary school and those rousing, thumping patriotic songs
on national holidays.
"My name is Ran Vijay Singh." The reverie broken by
our black suit-clad, earringed guide. "Ran for war;
Vijay for victory; Singh for lion." Thus
with a clinical dissection of his name we reached the
. The sun was now a glowing orange ball above the
ruins of the thrice sacked fort, which witnessed, each time a
poignant and heroic defeat of its Rajput warriors.
A bunch of monkeys welcomed us at the beautifully sculpted
The American couple, Ollie and Marilyn, were
completely taken in by the 400-year-old structure. "We were
probably still head hunting then," said Marilyn, emerging
out of the tower. The low lintels bruised Ollie's head, but he
didn't care. Ranakumbha's tower towered over such paltry physical
"Madam, please buy...only 300 rupees. See, I'm student...please
take..." "Yes, they're pretty...but no thank you,"
said Marilyn to the necklace which I could have sworn was available
on Bombay's Colaba Causeway for Rs 60.
Breakfast every morning was in the small electric blue lounge
in our carriage. Except for the penultimate morning when the
conference room, to be used in a few weeks for an on-board Mahindra
& Mahindra conference, was spread into our first and final
collective meal. The staple fare of eggs, toast, cutlets, juice,
fruits, tea or coffee served with wilful hospitality by two attendants
manning every carriage.
Parmar, the attendant on our carriage, was a pleasant, friendly chap from Sasangir,
Gujarat. Every time we returned to the train,
he would wait to help us with our knapsacks, ever willing
to serve chalu chai the moment we reached the coach. He
recounted experiences with earlier guests, gave us handy tips
of getting rid of shoe bites and spoke about Ramila, whom he would
marry next February. Such was his enthusiasm that ten days after
the trip I still miss his ready service.
Kenny G's saxophone was to remain the only music we listened to on
board. This did not, of course, include the relentless singing of the IAS
officer from UP in the carriage corridors.
"Chod aye hum woh galiyan..." from Gulzar's
Maachis remained Amit Prasad's week-long favourite. In
tribute to the ditty, he and his wife Rani even found time to
watch the film on the video in the carriage lounge during the hectic trip.
"Raj has used his influence to get me a corner room at the
Lake Palace hotel at such a short notice," said Peter
looking across at the beautiful hotel in the centre of
in Udaipur. Raj Singh said he organised designer
holidays for a select clientele.
A later conversation with Sanjay Gupte, the train's onboard manager, revealed that
Singh's agency sent at least
20 passengers on the Palace on Wheels every week. A prospective business
arrangement with Peter, the Californian, had prompted an exploratory trip aboard the
Royal Orient. They broke the journey at Udaipur the next day
to board the Palace on Wheels.
"This banquet hall was used for one of the preliminary rounds
of the Miss India contest," said our guide, pointing
at the section of the
, now converted into a hotel. But the group wasn't really listening. Swords. There
were scores of them on the wall and Ollie had already taken over.
He excitedly explained the contours, the details of every weapon and the guide
forgotten, we found ourselves eagerly following him.
The maharaja's antique Rolls Royce and the judicious use
of the solitary loo delayed us in getting to
the crafts village.No, rest assured that was not our
transport to the village, we just lingered over it a wee bit longer
and reached our bus late.