Travel: I searched India for the meaning of life, and then I discovered first class

COP A load of this: I am writing from a moving Indian train. Even as I type this sentence,the baking, dusty plains of central India are shuddering past my window. The tea-wallah has scarcely raised an eyebrow. How the world has changed in the last 15 years.

Because 15 years ago was when I last travelled on India's railways. During the long monsoon of 1983 I managed a series of train journeys across the Sub-continent and I confess that I did not then think to pack my portable type-writer. The only concession to civilisation I had made with regards to packing was a bow-tie that I could wear on the off-chance of being picked up by a Maharashtra movie princess. It didn't happen.

As for the trains, they were exercises in self-torture. Although I did my best to make reservations (in second class) it was remarkable how often I ended up double-booked with some wide-eyed local who could not possibly have been the type to forge a reservation stub. Even on the occasions when I found myself with the luxury of a whole sleeper to myself, the benches were made of hard wooden slats designed to break ribs, and sleep was periodically interrupted by scaley insects clattering through the window bars, not to mention mosquitoes the size of buffaloes. The worst journeys were the ones without reservation - when my best hope was that obliging Indian army thugs would plough into the carriage on my behalf and vacate a seat or two by kicking out the original occupants, who invariably turned out to be pregnant women. Not that I could refuse. A vacant seat in an unreserved carriage was far more valuable than the life of an unborn foetus. My punishment was that I would then spend the next 24 hours melting into my seat while trying to avoid the reproachful gaze of the pregnant women, who - along with a couple of dozen friends - would silently occupy the space between my knees and the seat opposite.

Anyway, those journeys led to a lot of soul-searching regarding the Indian scenery.What, for example, was the purpose of a lone palm tree by the Ganges, which I glimpsed for no more than a single second as the train passed it by? Come to think of it, man, what was the sense of anything?

Which brings me back to the subject of what has changed in the last 15 years. Let's look at the carriage I'm currently in. It is air-conditioned. I am not being pummelled by a desiccating heat for hour after hour. Incredibly my shirt is clean and dry. What's more, there are only four berths in my compartment, one of which is empty. There is no queue of people squeezing up on the edge of my bench. There is nobody hanging on the luggage rack, nobody staring out blankly from between my shoes, nobody balanced along the top edge of the seat. There is only a carriage-attendant who proposes coffee or tea, and biryani with eggs or meat. I can even open my lap-top without risk of collapsing under a scrum of mind-boggled onlookers.

You might say that the only difference between now and then is that I have graduated to a higher class of carriage. Because yes, the vast majority of Indians do still travel in second class. But actually I've realised something else: that people in air-conditioned carriages are far too comfortable to ask deep questions about the meaning of lone palm trees glimpsed by the Ganges. Coffee or tea? That's about my limit now.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn