The Ultimate Guide to Indian Train Travel
Why am I writing this? Because of the hordes of western tourists who decide to travel by choice by unreserved Second Class in an Indian train in spite of seven more comfortable classes available, then go home and write blogs criticizing "how pathetic and dirty all Indian trains are". The next person doing this shall be dragged back to India and locked inside a dirty toilet in a similar unreserved Second Class coach of Kurla-Gorakhpur Express in peak summer. If you ever need to travel by an Indian train, the following guidance will be more than sufficient to have a pleasant trip. Or maybe not.
In spite of economic progress and India Shining and low cost airlines and multi-axle Volvo buses with leather seats and in-seat TV screens and six lane expressways and swanky cars, chances are if you are in India, at some point your travels will involve taking the Indian Railways. And although the AC coaches are more comfortable and delicate-traveler-friendly, there is no better way to enjoy India and enjoy a journey than the humble Sleeper class coach of an Indian Railways train. The typical Sleeper class journey experience involves the following stages-
1. The Reservation
In the pre-internet days, getting a confirmed sleeper class reservation on any train required an elaborate ritual of heading to the Reservation counter at the local railway station, filling up a detailed form, waiting in a serpentine queue for hours in heat or cold or rain, encountering either a totally disinterested or an overly enthusiastic clerk and praying to your deity of choice to receive a rectangular blue and white dot-matrix printed ticket. When the internet age came along, Indian Railways thought this experience should be recreated online and with this sole purpose in mind was created the great IRCTC website. At 8am every morning, thousands of frustrated Indians religiously use some selective words against imaginary mother and sister of IRCTC website, but after an hour of drama, you will eventually get a confirmed reservation. Except when you don't- in which case you will be pulled into a complicated system of Waitlist and RAC and Tatkal and agents. For the moment lets assume you were spared that experience and you have a confirmed sleeper ticket. On to the next step.
2. The Hope
On the day of travel, once you have negotiated your way through the maze of passengers and their relatives and reached your coach, every male passenger stops outside the door and goes into a dream sequence imagining romance blooming on the train with a pretty female co-passenger like it happened in a couple of Bollywood movies, then opens his eyes, carefully goes through the Reservation chart pasted outside the coach, expecting some F21, F19 passengers but rather finds all middle aged uncles or families assigned seats around him and makes a slow walk to his berth. If you are traveling by an Indian train for the first time, do not forget this step. It is an essential one.
3. The Adjustment
If you are boarding from the starting station of a train the first thirty minutes after boarding will be spent in The Great Indian Adjustment Game. If boarding from an intermediate station, you have lost the game before having a chance to make your move. Irrespective of what berth you have been assigned, there will always be some passenger who would want you to exchange it with his/her berth. A six year old brat kid will invariably start Occupy Window Seat movement forcing himself onto your lap or squeezing himself in between you and the window. Families of four with two reserved berths and twelve pieces of luggage will make themselves comfortable on a part of your berth after shovelling their bags in every inch of available space below the seats. Do not get scared by this experience. This is the best ice-breaker ever. Once you have successfully adjusted yourself to everyone's satisfaction, you will reap the benefits of it in the next step.
4. The Food
Depending on your luck, your train may or may not have a Pantry Car. If it has one, you will get to see the ultimate example of standardization in the world- every single meal item sold on every train will look and taste exactly the same. One one journey from Mumbai to Jammu, I was served exact same gravy, but called Aloo Mutter at lunch, Chana Masala at dinner and Chhole at the second day's lunch. This is the time to reap benefits of the previous step. Tha families around you will always have enough food to feed a small African country for a week and they will happily share it with you. Try everything. It is the most fun part of a train journey, but do not overeat, because then you will have to use the toilet, which takes us to the next step.
5. La Loo
Sleeper class coaches on Indian trains have Western and Indian style toilets but there is no guarantee that there will be posterior-cleaning supplies available, neither western nor Indian. The trick is to observe around the coach carefully to see if people walking up and down the aisle are carrying empty water bottles or not. If they are, you should also carry one to the loo. Trust me, you will not regret this. Once inside, you will experience cool breeze hitting your posterior. Look down and you will witness a facility unique to Indian Railways- a loo with a view. You have not experienced a train journey unless you have seen the tracks below while answering nature's call!
6. The Sleeper
A majority of passengers take the term "Sleeper Class" too literally. They will want to sleep as soon as the sun goes down, and sometimes even when the sun is high up in the sky. Invariably the person having the middle berth will have the maximum enthusiasm to get the berth down and sleep, thereby forcing the lower berth occupying passenger to crouch and Upper Berth passenger to climb up to his little abode. Try to delay the inevitable and they will argue- "But I paid for my Sleeper reservation. I don't want to waste it!". You have no option but to give in, but here comes the next, and best step.
7. The Door
This is something you cannot do on a plane or a luxury bus but can do in an Indian Railways Sleeper coach. Stand at the open door and enjoy the breeze! When you think you have had enough of conversations with co-passengers on everything from current affairs to sports to origin of universe and that your body has made sufficient use of the berth to get above the threshold of "wasting sleeper reservation", head out to the door and stand or sit at the footstep enjoying the view outside. Some like to have music in their ears while doing this, but if you ask me, the rythmic sound of metal wheels against the metal rail is the best melody ever.