Train 22824 to Bhupaneswar, the state capital of Odisha, leaves precisely on time at 5.10pm, and not a moment too soon for my nostrils. Luckily the experience of inhaling the various dubious aromas of New Delhi station proves to be the least pleasant experience of the trip. A little boy relieves himself off the edge of the platform while a stray dog on the track – well, never mind about what the stray dog does on the track. Nothing unusual in India of course, where the world is the toilet of everyone and his or her dog. In any case, the Rajdhani is supposed to be a cut above the average long distance train, and although my 3AC compartment isn’t exactly luxury it turns out to be comfortable enough.
3AC means you get a berth in an air conditioned coach with two sets of three tiers of bunks in each compartment. A double tier of berths also runs on the other side of the corridor along the length of the coach, and I find myself in one of those on the top bunk. It is a tight fit, and there is no window, but I can pull the curtain and have total privacy. The bunk below is occupied by an unsmiling fellow with slicked-back hair that has just a hint of henna and who has the air of a slightly impatient schoolteacher.
The first thing I notice is the number of people with really bad coughs. Delhi’s air quality is notoriously dreadful, and it manifests itself noisily throughout the 23-hour, 1,800-km journey to the town of Balasore, my destination. On the plus side, Finnish State Railways take note: orders are taken early on for dinner, breakfast and lunch, all included in the modest fare of around 23 euros. The hole-in-the-floor toilet is kept clean throughout the trip, and the staff are happy to make my trip just that little bit more dangerous by letting me open the doors to let the air hit my face.
A constant procession along the corridor of train staff bearing trays of foil-wrapped meals precedes dinner. This comprises chicken curry, rice, dal, yogurt and roti bread. Perfectly edible if a little bland, and better than the breakfast of omelette and plain white bread with a few rubbery potato chips. This follows a relaxing sleep, disturbed by a tiger growl which I eventually realise is the ‘teacher’ starting to snore in the bunk below. I am also woken up by own call of nature – but cannot bring myself to haul myself down to ground level and make for the hole-in-the-floor facilities. So I resort to a little gadget presented to me by my wife, who sometimes brings home samples of such things from her work, called a Travel John. I have forgotten to take this little solution to sanitary emergencies with me before, but now I determine to put this ingenious convenience to the test. It passes. So do I, behind my drawn curtain, quickly and quietly, before heading back to the land of railway nod.
In my dreams, I am on a train from Helsinki to Lahti, which in actuality is an hour north of the Finnish capital. It’s a freebie press trip of some kind, but it all goes wrong when the train heads back to Helsinki instead of letting the passengers alight at Lahti, which is where we have left our shoes. So we arrive shoeless in Helsinki. What can this mean?
In the morning I venture to the hole-in-the-floor, having no more Travel Johns at my immediate disposal. When I return I find that the unsmiling teacher has picked up my notebook and is surveying my (thankfully) illegible scribbles. This strikes me as incredibly cheeky, and I wag my finger at him, suddenly looking more like a teacher than he does. I am confident he cannot read my entry describing him as grumpy and snoring like a tiger. He’s smiling now as I gently retrieve my notes. “Story?” he says. “Yes,” I confirm. “Story.”
The train chugs through the states of Bihar and West Bengal, passing the monstrous Tata steel works at Tata Nagar, the land scarred and pitted, the chimneys spouting thick grey smoke. I think of the number of times I’ve been jammed in endless unmoving lines of Tata trucks on various Indian highways.
As we enter Odisha and my destination approaches, one hour and twenty minutes later than scheduled, a camaraderie starts to develop among the remaining passengers. People start asking me friendly questions. Where am I from? Why am I going to Balasore? A portly man gets out a microphone and speakers and starts to croon.
And of course no trip in India would be complete without being exposed, as it were, to advertisements for the very latest “inner wear”:
A friend was on the platform to greet me and take me to my hotel, the oasis in Balasore’s desert known as the Hari Plaza. Looks like they’re warming up for a wedding later in the week. To be continued…