A lot of things have changed in India since I first visited 35 years ago, but many haven’t. Trust the trains to remind me of “timeless India.”
My first encounter with the railroad system this trip was a surprise. Seeking to book a ticket to Benares (now known as Varanasi) I was directed to the foreign tourist office at New Delhi station, found it only marginally dilapidated, took a ticket number from a machine, waited five minutes, explained my needs to a clerk, and was issued with a sleeper ticket right away.
The actual journey, though, was a different matter. Platform 12 at New Delhi station on Saturday evening was packed with travelers squatting or sitting on the ground in groups surrounded by their baggage. They were lucky to find dry patches: rainwater gushed from broken gutters as a thunderous storm broke overhead.
Porters with cloths wrapped around their head wove their way through the crowd, pulling precariously loaded trolleys; a wild-haired holy man in a saffron sarong wandered from coach to coach; more smartly dressed passengers checked a list taped to the door of the sleeper compartment to check that their reservations had been honored.
My bunk in one such sleeper was comfortable enough, but I found it occupied by three large men with ancient carbines. They turned out to be policemen, off duty so out of uniform, on their way to security duty at voting booths in Benares, where the last round of elections will be held on Monday.
They were happy to move, but since they were traveling without a booking they had nowhere to sleep. One of them unrolled a straw mat on the floor beside my bunk and snored raucously all night. The “chai wallah," dispensing sweet milky tea from a large thermos, cried his wares most of the night too, as he moved up and down the train.
I slept fitfully and awoke at seven o’clock, 25 minutes before we were due to arrive in Benares, to find the train stopped in Allahabad station. Allahabad is two and a half hours from Benares, and that’s when the train is moving.
In the end, I reached Benares at 11.30, four hours late. A fellow traveler looked at his watch as we pulled in and shrugged.
“India time,” he said, with a laugh.