What makes a train ride a train ride? I regularly travel between Bangalore and Chennai, using the morning Shatabdi every time. These train rides are not easy to love even the Shatabdi’s coaches have giant glass-panelled windows that offer beautiful views at sunrise and sunset.
But the train’s features significantly dent the experience. The seats make the passenger feel like she’s on a flight: they’re arranged two and four to each side with armrests separating each one of them. The tube-lights glow flaccid white and the clientele contains a lot of the corporate class, often combining to give the impression that you’re travelling in a mobile co-working space (the only exception to this rule, from what I’ve seen, is the overnight mail).
Although quite a few families also use the train, its single-day-journey offering often means that you’ve got people travelling light, likely taking the Shatabdi back the next day or the day after, people who – in the Shatabdi’s absence – would likely have flown instead of taking a different train. The tickets aren’t cheap: between 800 and 1,100 rupees for the common class (including catering), so you’re rubbing shoulders with the relatively better off.
I don’t mean here to romanticise the often-poorer conditions in which many of India’s middle- and lower-classes travel as much as to suggest that the Shatabdi, through the Indian Railways’ efforts to offer a sanitised and expedited experience, simply ends up being clinical in its rendition. Even the Double-decker Express between Bangalore and Chennai, with a travel time only a couple hours more than that of the Shatabdi, is more germane. You’ve got tiffin-, snack- and beverage-vendors passing through the aisles every 10 minutes, the train stopping and staring every hour or so, and simply that many more people per coach that it’s compelling to pass the time in conversation with the person sitting next to you. On the Shatabdi, all you want to do is look out the window.
I really miss the trains where you sit by the window on the lower berth, looking out through the powder-blue grills at a blue sky; share food with the people around you (if you’re also carrying Imodium, i.e.); go to bed grumbling about the berths not being long or wide enough; be careful that your belongings aren’t nicked while you’re dozing; wake up at an ungodly hour to pee, finding your way through the aisle under a dark blue nightlight; and get off at whatever station amid a sea of people instead of at one relatively unpopulated end leading straight to the gate.
Travelling – even in the form of a short journey between two nearby cities – can, and ought to, be a journey of integration, whether with yourself or the world around. The Shatabdi, though a very useful service, can be potentially isolating to the frequent user. Its utilitarian nature is hard to separate from its form itself, and as a vehicle it is the perfect metaphor for all the things we find undesirable – yet necessary – in our own lives.