Rolling across the plains of northern India in the regal style of the British Raj

For anyone traveling on the ``Rajdhani Express'' -- which connects New Delhi with Calcutta -- or any of India's other high-speed luxury trains, a ``do not disturb'' sign is indispensable. Or else you will be thoroughly looked after for 20 hours until journey's end.

We boarded the ``Rajdhani Express'' in New Delhi amid a cacophony of hawkers and bearers precariously balancing suitcases on their heads. The scene was reminiscent of the television series, ``The Jewel in the Crown.''

``Mum, this is really boring,'' said the six-year-old son of my traveling companion, Denise. ``I think I'm going to leave.''

So, Mum and I received big hugs and kisses, and the children left for home, leaving us behind in a swirl of chaos carrying suitcases, an unending assortment of plastic bags, and a battered picnic basket filled with water and ice.

We were about to embark on a 1,000-mile journey across northern India by train.

The train is a symbol of India, one of the most unifying factors in this complex, diverse land. For 130 years it has linked the country together. The scenes from the windows and many of passing trains were almost as ancient as India itself.

In an era when planes are taken for granted, India offers one of the great transportation miracles of the present day -- the Indian railroad. The second largest nationally owned railway system in the world, it employs some 1.7 million people.

It works. It runs on time. And, it makes money -- a net revenue of $76 million in 1982-83. Its success makes it the antithesis of many Indian public sector concerns.

Ten million Indians ride their railroad each day, skirting along an epic system of 38,000 miles, with 6,000 trains and 7,000 stations. To many, it is one of the greatest achievements bequeathed by the British Raj.

So dependable is the system that the late literary critic, D. D. Kossmbi, a frequent commuter on the ``Deccan Queen'' -- the Bombay-Poona express -- used the wonderfully old steam locomotive as his postal address. He claimed that he never lost a letter in more than 50 years.

For us, however, there was confusion when we entered the first-class carriage. No one was quite certain where we belonged. The sleeping coup'es for two people only were reserved for ``couples.'' But we were a ``couple,'' we tried to explain.

``But, you're not married,'' said a bewildered conductor.

Finally, a Bengali lawyer helped sort things out. From that moment on, we were looked after -- almost to a fault.

No sooner had we arranged our motley assortment of luggage than our compartment door swung open, revealing a beaming bearer serving afternoon tea. He explained in halting English that he would be our tea-server on the trip. Did we want bedside tea at 5:30 or 6 a.m., he asked.

``No, no,'' we protested, ``9 in the morning would be fine.''

``But,'' he explained, bewildered, ``that's impossible. Breakfast is served at 8, and you must first have tea, then breakfast. The schedule cannot be reversed.''

Outside, we passed through the harsh monotony of the plains of Uttar Pradesh. The scene was the same for hours -- women bent over, threshing the fallen wheat. Then we skirted the holy Ganges River, where women were washing clothes along the banks. We were passing through the heartland of the country's pulsating Hindi belt.

We had already been served dinner. The soup and dessert were excellent -- but it is recommended that you bring the other courses yourself.

A fellow passenger explained that the poor quality of the food was the result of an unresolved ``north-south'' feud. Southerners complained that the north Indian cuisine was too hot and drenched in oil. Northerners argued that they couldn't even get a proper ``chapatti'' (unleavened bread) aboard an Indian train.

The two camps carried their quarrels into the ``letters'' columns of the Indian press. The Indian Railways responded rather indignantly: on the ``Rajdhani Express,'' everyone got plain, boiled chicken and vegetables, with a few cold, greasy samosas (savory pastries) on the side.

It was nearly midnight when we passed through the ravines of Madhya Pradesh -- notorious for ``dacoits'' or robbers, who, like sea pirates, have been known to swoop aboard trains in remote regions and loot passengers of their belongings.

As though in anticipation, the train came to a screeching stop. We all waited, expecting a drama worthy of Cecil B. De Mille.

It was only the evening papers, and a cargo stop.

At sunrise, we passed one of the most astonishing sights I have seen in all of India. After 16 hours of harsh, impoverished plains, and endless rice paddies, the hills of Gaya, Bihar, sprang from the landscape, surrealistic with their pyramids of dark red clay. A barren, yet magnificent, wasteland. T. S. Eliot came to mind.

Then Calcutta's Howrah station loomed before us. It was built in 1906 and heralded as the best railroad station east of London. Its enormous, cathedral-like Gothic structure dwarfs everything for miles around.

Yes, the Raj lives on.

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