“ Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.
See the world.
It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
– Ray Bradbury
The first train of India was formed on 16th April 1853 where the train consisted of three engines and 14 coaches which ran the path of around 34 kilometres from the distance of Bombay (now known as Mumbai) Thana (now known as Thane).The birth of the Indian Railways is the most integral addition to our global travel as they carry 20 million people every day running through various cities, ploughing villages, various landscape sites and coastal regions across the country.
This project is about the longest train of India known as Vivek Express. The journey begins from Dibrugarh in Assam and ends in Kanyakumari also known as Cape, which is the southern most tip of India where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet. It covers a total distance of 4273 kilometres in the span of 85 hours or approximately 5 days. It is also the 9th longest train in the world covering 9 different states in a span of 5 days.
The journey began at 23:45 p.m. an hour late from the actual time on the 30th July 2016 from Dibrugarh station, whose entrance looked colourful as if it wanted me to experience the feeling of a disco with blinking lights. But once you entered the station it looked entirely the opposite. In truth, it was a deserted and abandoned station without a person in sight. Having a RAC -1 ticket in hand for a 2 tier A/c coach I was all alone in the compartment with two attendants, Raju and Bappan Das. I wanted to experience the train in the same way locals did. I wanted to experience living my days in the small cabin space for the 10 days to and fro.
The first sunrise on the wheels was welcomed in by various conversations and bantering of the local vendors shouting “Chai – Chai. People traveling in this train belong to all sorts of caste and communities. The unknown drifters spoke in hush tones about the plight of reservations. There were loud voices of the local vendors selling a wide variety of goods ranging from local paan, to fried oily chips, tobacco, cutting chai and coffee, until the train reached New Jalpaiguri station. Finding myself some breathing space at an open door, I could listen to the sound of the wheels mixing with the sound outside. As the evening rolled in some mysterious, irksome boys barged in and took away the entire luggage of a college girl. The girl and other passengers only realised it when the train had left the station; her berth was empty and she had lost everything.
Days passed and we crossed stations like Mariani junction, Diphu, Kokrajhar. With different stations and different timings, I made my way almost everyday to the non A/C compartments which looked exactly like a fish market. Creative version of hammocks tied, every berth occupying 6-7 passengers huddled together like conjoined babies. Nobody cared about comfort as everyone was desperately trying to find a place to rest. During the train journey, in the general and sleeper class compartments, there were a total of around 400 unconfirmed tickets and the amount of people stuffed in the train was insane. A long journey, negligent and scatterbrained staff, and capricious passengers had left the train to look like a comic book than something to marvel at. As I made my way to a door, I found another bed sheet hung over above the wash basin. I tried very hard to figure out how this man had managed to tie this one at the outer ends. Passing their time, men played cards, watched movies and listened to their regional music.
Cities, towns, industries, ponds, landscapes, fields were passing by. As the train continued around every aspect of India, I realised that the cabins were cities in themselves, carrying the immortal and perennial dreams of passengers. Day 4 when the train arrived in Jolarpettai, and halted for around 15-20 minutes as I had pulled the chain. The reason was the unbearable, unhygienic conditions, inside the train. My courage was met with some resistance from the stubborn staff but refusing to budge they reluctantly took charge and cleaned everything in the train.
Vivek Express had reached its final destination “ Kanyakumari” on the 5th day. I had realised later that I was the only passenger to travel for all 5 days from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari. As the station was coming closer, I captured the empty train which was suddenly all evacuated, vacuous and dead. Also took a final image of the pantry staff in their uniforms named ‘Meals On Wheels’. Happily, they obliged me.
On the 26th August 2016, it was Vivek Express once again from Kanyakumari. This time Vivek Express seemed a little friendlier. This time I captured the quintessential South of India. Rice fields, tall trees, ponds, men dressed in local attire, all flashed by.
Who said, Journey’s end, Journey’s begin! It begins with travellers like us who breathe in the soul of the place and air they travel in. The odyssey wasn’t just an odyssey, but a juncture and befalling truth to meet myself; to enhance and enrich my experience.
This piece was put together by The 88 writer Rashi Arora.
Rashi is a freelance photographer based in Mumbai, India.