This morning the papers were screaming of the maoist attack on the Tata-Bilaspur passenger train.
Segue to 1986 or 1987. I was in a small town in Orissa called Rajgangpur bravely holding up the tail end of an audit team that was trying to unravel the financial goings-on at a cement factory. When I suddenly had the idea of visiting my uncle in Jhumri-Tilayya in what is now Jharkhand (for those ancients among you brought up on Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala, here is a piece of news – yup, there is actually a place called Jhumri Tilayya and it is now in Jharkhand).
My return journey from JT back to Rajgangpur involved the very same train on the last leg from Tatanagar (or more pithily, ‘Tata’ as Jamshedpur is known in those parts – on a different note, what an incredible franchise the name Tata is!).
I remember it as the absolute worst train journey of my life (and having managed to get around a reasonable amount of the ‘heart’ of India during my misspent youth, I can assure you that this is quite a record).
The train actually passes through some pretty scenic country. The green, wooded country side of southern Jharkhand melds nicely into the gradually urbanising parts of northern Orissa. But that is where the good part stops.
The train itself was rolling stock left behind from the the first world war, probably imported from the Burma theatre. And god, the smell! On a very hot day, travelling inside a rustic iron dibba with mounds of over-ripe guavas being methodically chewed on (and large parts spat out on the floor) by cheroot smoking little women leads one to question one’s motives in undertaking the journey.
That year I spent on the Orissa-Jharkhand border going back and forth from Delhi was one of the most memorable of my life. And when I recollect the many instances that I came across of the appalling human condition in that land, I can now recognise with the 20/20 of hindsight, a certain inevitability to where we have landed up – the Red Corridor.
Ever wondered about the story behind the food they serve to you on trains? I have, often. And, I had my aha moment a few days ago, while idly surfing the net early one Sunday morning. (Yes, that is a dead give away, isn’t it. That I read commercial circulars of the Indian Railways before breakfast on Sundays clearly shows I have no life whatsoever).
I stumbled upon an old IR circular (2003) from the Railway Board to all General managers, that set out detailed instructions for serving food to Passengers.
The most obvious strand running through the circular was the fine balance between wholesomeness and parsimony expected from purveyors of food on trains. Or as Commercial Circular No 33 of 2003 says, “vegetables supplied along with the meals should be seasonal to make it affordable and also to ensure good quality and freshness.”
I have always believed that the Indian Railways is the only commercial government entity in India that thinks it has anything resembling responsibility to its customer. (Air India marks the other end of the spectrum). And I was glad to find out that the attitude comes from the top. As the Circular says in point (vi) of its Other Recommendations, “menu should definitely have variety and the same menu on lunch and dinner for the day should never be the same’ (bad grammar, good intent. which is the kind of priority I like.)
However, the mysterious workings of bureaucracy are never far in Indian life. And so it is here too. “The existing Janata Khana and Economy Meal have been merged into one category and is called Janata Meal with increased quantity”
If like me, you too have no life, read the full circular here.
So, I am off again. The idea is to get to Mangalore and work my way up to Goa and then from there to explore the beaches of Sindhudurg in South Maharashtra. It is a non-plan, plan. I have a train ticket from Bangalore to Mangalore. I have a ‘second sitting’ booked from Mangalore to Madgaon. (I think www.IRCTC.co.in is a blazing wonder – I just booked, very effortlessly, a 71 buck ticket for the MAQ – MAO journey and even have a window seat allotted to me; need to see whether seat allotments hold on passenger trains on the Konkan railway). I also have a return ticket to fly back from Goa to Bangalore. Hopefully, serendipity will help me fill the rest.