Hopping around India for two weeks from Delhi to Trivandrum and back has not been a bucket and spade holiday. Not with at least two public meetings a day. But interesting it certainly has been, and the train journey in particular.
The express from Trivandrum was due to call at Trichur seven and a half hours later. Delhi was all of two and a half days away, so the Trichur bit hardly counted to most passengers. My only equipment was a litre bottle of water and a 7/6d 1955 Bartholomew's map of the entire Indian subcontinent. I was also under the unfortunate misunderstanding that I was supposed to be going to 'Trippur', wherever that was.
Express was a generous term. At its best the train, which must have been one of Attenborough's extras, reached about 50mph. On embankments and trestle bridges we couldn't have managed more than 10mph.
Fields, ponds, laundry lines, bicycles and buffalo drifted by outside in
stunning sunshine. Inside there were, of course, problems, heat included. Not knowing the word for it, or which way to head for it, or what I would find when I got there, or if my seat would be taken when I got back, I managed to avoid the loo. Only at the very end was I beginning to feel a certain discomfort.
Then there was food. On a previous trip to India I fell ill and something seized my bowels in a relentless grip. So, though endless people went up and down the train with things in paper, bags of nuts and large leaves with dollops of rice, I decided to fast.
Anyway, there was little time to think about food. Bottom-class carriages are quite functional: wooden benches and no extras.
We started with four in the compartment and ended up with 15 adults and two babies. Admiring other people's babies does not demand many words, and I did quite well. The mothers were amazing. Out of their bags came rolls of cloth, cans, bottles, towels and food. Those mothers were heading for Delhi on a thousand-mile journey, but they might have been out for an afternoon picnic.
Every time we arrived at a station it looked as though the entire platform intended to travel. Everyone stepped on to the train. This, I learnt, was just part of the send-off ritual. Nine out of 10 got off again at the last minute, having waved and hugged and cried their farewells. Moving out of the station was a slow process. More than once as the train started someone would leap off, dash up to the platform tap, fill a water-bottle and leap back on again
before the train disappeared. That is not so improbable. On one curve I realised that this was the longest train I'd ever been on.
After seven hours I was one of the family. I had shared my water, held one baby, been offered some nuts and had come to understand that it was Trichur that I was really after. When I finally got off, I, too, was feeling a bit sad. Trivandrum to Trichur beats Finsbury Park to Moorgate any day.