Tracking Indiahttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/tracking-india/

Tracking India

The promise was a journey from one end of the country to another,from its tip in the south to almost its eastern frontier.

On Vivek Express,the longest train ride in the country,time slows down and the destination becomes unimportant. India flashes by the window,from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh

The promise was a journey from one end of the country to another,from its tip in the south to almost its eastern frontier. A distance more than one-tenth of the earth’s circumference; 4,286 km in a little over 82 hours; an idea fascinating enough to forgo an anniversary celebration. So there we were on a hot Saturday afternoon,hopping on to the longest train in India,a ride from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh. Till the once-a-week Vivek Express started its first run last month,that crown belonged to the Himsagar Express,a journey that sliced the country tip to tip along a 3,715 km-long route,from Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi.

This was an experience that would perhaps appeal more to a connoisseur of Test matches than fans of Twenty20: slow in the sense of being unhurried,unexciting but not boring,and never really too interested in the end. Originating from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu,Vivek Express is named after the compulsive explorer Swami Vivekananda,and ends its journey three days and four nights later at Dibrugarh in upper Assam,having travelled through Tamil Nadu,Kerala,Andhra Pradesh,Orissa,West Bengal,Nagaland and Assam — making it the eighth-longest train route in the world. A period long enough to delink time from clocks and reconnect it with sunlight and hunger.

How does one prepare for a journey like this? I packed a towel along with a few other essentials,a pullover,a new notebook and two pens. Those only managed to increase the size and weight of my bag,whereas the towel was the hero. It mopped the sweat in the plains and kept me warm when we reached the cold hills; it also served as a mark of identity from the way it was tied around my head.

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It was a journey at once breathtaking in its ambition — miles and miles of an immeasurable diverse country laid out for you to see through a poky window,giving you lofty ideas of “discovering India” — and one full of ennui. Nothing happened for hours,except the chatter of passengers,and the slowing down of time.

But even the view inside was revealing. In between Kanyakumari and Dibrugarh,lay eight states and a hundred cultures,languages and dialects,expressing themselves through food,speech and attire. There were Tamils,Malayalis,and Andhraites,people from Orissa,West Bengal and Bihar,and scores from Assam,Nagaland and other parts of the region.

Each crowd had a language of its own,and spoke among themselves without the fear of being overheard. Something as ubiquitous as dal tasted like sambar in the south,gaining its dal-ness as we climbed up to Orissa; tea was called chaya,chai and then sa,while coffee was kafi,kaapi,and koffee. For a person with limited skills when it comes to learning and understanding new languages,this was my Train of Babel.

But I was clearly in a minority. The train had in it soldiers from the south going back to patrol borders far away from home,and workers from the east going back home on a much-needed break — both serving as the connection between various parts of the country. These were the polyglots,speaking in tongues that had no relation with their own,at times in functional,curt phrases,or with flourish.

Like an officer from Sikkim. Bearing an uncanny resemblance with the great method actor Pete Postlethwaite,he was returning to the frontline after escorting to Kerala the body of a fellow soldier who had died of a heart attack. That explained his solemness. Once stationed in the Cauvery Delta region in Tamil Nadu,he knew enough Tamil to tell me that he would not reveal his name,rank and sector or any other details that might put his team in trouble,real or imagined. He had also served in conflict zones in Africa as part of the UN peacekeeping force in the early ’90s. It would not have been surprising if he spoke one of the indigenous languages there.

On the train,it was soon clear how important this was for those from the south and the Northeast. Every second passenger was a defence personnel,a majority of them belonging to the oldest regiment of Indian Army,the Madras Regiment,and the Assam Rifles. The other half was made up of labourers from the east and further east — the Seven Sisters of the Northeast. The former protects,the latter serves.

The third kind of passengers were those from the north and Northeast,forced to come down thousands of kilometres for quality medical care. P Gupta,the patriarch of a family from Dimapur,Nagaland,had come to the CMC Hospital in Vellore,where he underwent check-ups for his various ailments. Those like him exposed the abject lack of medical facilities in the Northeast,home to over 40 million people — a population almost close to that of England.

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Travelling across a country as vast as India is like playing with a flip book. There are no great variations to the background image,only the foreground changes.

From Kanyakumari to upper Assam,agricultural fields were at various stages of sowing,transplanting,tending and reaping; at some places,it was time to collect the hay. As the train covered mile after mile and state after state,paddy fields gave way to sugarcane and oil palms,and vast tea estates as the elevation increased. As we entered the corridors of the Northeast,we found a countryside dotted with countless fixed fishing nets — on the banks of rivers,small lakes and water bodies on the borders of farmland — popularly known in Kerala as Chinese nets. Only here,they were known simply as fishing nets.

Unlike the train journey on the other part of the peninsula,the Konkan coast,the route on the east side is largely mundane. For the record,the train passes through seemingly interesting parts of the country – but stays a few kilometres away from actual spots of interest. The closest we came to the famous Chilka lake was a signboard that read Chilka.

Vendors are pointers to the change in geography and culture. If it was masala dosa and puri below the Vindhyas,it was roti-sabzi,boiled eggs and lemon tea when we entered the north. It was still surreal to see an outlet selling south Indian food at Guwahati station — experienced travellers informed us the stall was quite popular,having been in existence for several years. On such a long journey,where one otherwise ends up noticing the signboards of the stations only when a fellow traveller has gotten off,what pointed us to the Northeast like a compass were the sale of Chinese-made goods in abundance — toys and binoculars,Swiss knives and pen drives — hinting that we were nearing the border.

For those given to complaining about public transport facilities,and especially Indian Railways,the train was a welcome change — spanking new coaches,clean toilets and fresh sheets. There were no pornographic graffiti or phone numbers offering free sex scribbled inside toilets,nor seats torn by vandals. But as the train chugged back the miles,native Indian chaos took over. All coaches were soon strewn with paper,wrappers,and empty bottles. There was no cleaning staff on board,and it finally took a young beggar woman with a small child to clean the coaches for some coins.

Any journey that is this long should ensure water and food. Vivek Express,though,is yet to settle down to a rhythm. While water,soft drinks and snacks were not hard to find,food was a disappointment. The egg curry-rice combination that the pantry staff served meal after meal was like a bad dream repeated endlessly,with a subtle variation in flavour. By the second day,the pantry staff went on strike,and passengers went hungry. It took the local vendors to give us much needed variety. (While we sat inside a cold compartment at Ranigunta station in Andhra Pradesh — where the train was not scheduled to stop but halted nevertheless for a long time — came vendors selling hot tea,coffee,dal vada and ice cream. India is a land of possibilities,sometimes incongruously so.) But speaking with the pantry staff gave us a different picture. They didn’t cook on board,they only served food collected from designated stations en route. The train is new,so new that all facilities are yet to be streamlined.

The scheduled stoppages for Vivek Express were at offbeat stations,and the unscheduled stops were at even more nondescript places. At one such station,Mirza in Assam,where the train was held for a long time to allow the passage of another “more important” locomotive,the platform was teeming with people — all of whom were our fellow passengers. When the train left the station,there was not a soul in sight. It perhaps was a station where nothing stops but out of necessity.

For desultory passengers like us,Vivek Express was a lesson in forgetting necessity. In letting the restlessness of daily lives lie still,and giving in to the magic chant of little-known rail stations — Duvvada and Eluru,Mariani and Furkating,Bhadrak and Ongole.

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Wednesday 4 am. A coach attendant,like us,one of the rare people to travel the whole distance,woke us up. Our tired,creaky limbs told us the journey had been quite long,long enough for us to stop caring whether the train was running or had stopped for the past five hours. But not caring about the destination had made the experience immensely enjoyable.