The Tiny Sheopur Train
This is a throwback from when Conrad planned a truly Indian experience; travelling on top of an Indian train. Not only any train, the Gwalior Light Train is a narrow gauge slow train going through the rural plains of Madhya Pradesh. Conrad enjoys writing, read here his travelogue from October 2014.
At 6.30 every morning from platform 6 at Gwalior main line station, a toy, narrow gauge train leaves the station for a 12 hour, 200km journey across the central plains of India to a small town, still without internet, called Sheopur. This narrow gauge railway is the only train line to Sheopur.
Iconic pictures of India include trains covered by a mass of ugly humanity. They look like bees covering a nest or flies on dung.
To a small degree this is still true with the slow commuter trains of Mumbai and Calcutta. With the Sheopur train this is certainly true and the last train in India to travel long distance at such a slow speed, even encouraging her pitiable passengers to travel on her roof.
Some years ago I was in Gwalior, for reasons I cannot remember, and told by a good friend about a small train which crossed the city tight up against the slums, making its way along the city’s roads, as if a toy tram, to pass under the walls of Gwalior fort before reaching open country to be free of a city’s restraints, gone into the bland hot plains of central India.
On this advice I travelled the train for 5 short kilometres across town in 2011. The memory of the train, or the memories of the travelling people who made the train, left an impression and the memory has stayed with me. I came back again last week and rode the full distance to Sheopur.
After the Trans Mongolian I have become a trainaholic.
In May I travelled to Barcelona to ride the newest railway in the world to Paris. Wonderful; it has everything man needs to reach a destination.
The train has comfortable reclining armchairs, air-conditioning, a table for your books and a plug for your computer; even a dining carriage with fresh coffee and croissants; vast windows to watch the countryside as if it’s a film on cocaine. 6hr – Barcelona to Paris.
I was bored and disappointed with the train. It was a train journey without emotion, without atmosphere, without personality, without ambiance and furthermost without passion. And without passion there is no depth to the soul.
And so I went back to Gwalior to ride a train with no comforts. And it was a magical journey.
In was in fear of arriving and the train being sold out, how foolish I am. I had arranged for an agent to buy my ticket and so have a reserved seat. I know India reasonably well and I was still being naïve, for the reserved seat meant someone sitting on one of the carriages wooded bench for a few hours before I arrived, saved especially for me. This was fine, and I had thanked and paid my bench wallah.
However I soon became restless and wanted to meander; so I lost the bench even before the tiny train had left Gwalior station.
By 6.30 the interior was full, the outside filling up and no space except to stand on the steps and grab the two rails one each side of the opening inwards door. The train’s horn blew, renewed panic for us all to be on board, and very soon we were heading into the filth of the Gwalior slums.
At this stage the roof was surprisingly clear. A few had made their way to enjoy open space. This was all going to change very suddenly.
The space between the train and the passing walls of the slums is the width of one man. No more. Billy Bunter would be caught and be rolled between the slum walls and the train and pop out onto the tracks behind.
However, there are obstacles waiting to catch out even a slim Indian. Cow’s become stuck between the walls and the passing train. Children just stand casually looking up at the passengers, trusting them to pull in their feet.
At road crossings the train canters over, the steel wheels clicking and clacking on the tarmac gap, until back into the maze of grimy slum dwellings. Occasionally the small train passes down the main streets, mixing with the slow bullock carts and the trolley pullers, who casually pull back their hand trollies and frantically wave away the trains dust and fumes from their fruit and vegetables, their goods of dresses and sandals. The punters do not look twice at this imposing snake weaving towards them straight out of the slums; except I saw a graceful lady in a pink sari look up disapprovingly.
After 20 minutes of this hectic ride across this rough harsh town the train stops at Bamdurgaon station. I suddenly realised until this station the train had been travelling relatively light.
Bamdurgaon is the last station in Gwalior. It is delightfully shaded by the large green canopies of mature banyan trees. In this shade I stood and watched men becoming frustrated, pushing and shovelling their women and children, their sacks and household goods, all desperate to be inside a carriage.
By observing this hustle I lost any chance of a seat inside the train. If I had taken any longer watching this madness, the insanity of people assertively pushing their luck to be on this train, including me, the chance of a roof space would have gone.
Out of necessity and entertainment I joined in the fight between the carriages to reach the roof. I followed the others and climbed on to the hanging hydraulic pipes connecting the carriages, resting one foot into a carriage vent to pull myself up, my other foot onto a small protruding bolt to just enable myself to be pushed by a helpful Indian, and pulled by a helpful Indian, onto the roof.
At 7am it was warm, by 9 it was hot, by midday it was only mad dogs and one Englishmen, who had given up his seat, a hobo and those who were to slow to get a seat, sat courageously on the roof exposed to the heat of India’s summer sun.
By midday the sun punched all its heat, and any roof space not already taken was too hot, even for a resting hand. I tried to moisten by lips with my tongue.
Far too hot to move an aching buttock. At 50 degrees the metal of the roof could fry an egg – easy – We all day-dreamed of the pending rains.
Even with a hat the sun burned fierce. I was one of the only punters to be exposing flesh to the sun, even under a hat. At a quick station stop I purchased a watermelon seller’s turban. It was a bizarre conversation as he tried to sell me a water melon and I to purchase his turban. He could not work out this sale until, with the trains horn blasting I stuffed a wad of notes into his hand and took his turban as he wiped clean the melons. I don’t think he understood, he shrugged his shoulders and presumed I had sunstroke.
The roof was a friendly place. The views decent of the rolling, post-harvest fields waiting for the rains and the plough. My companions wanted the odd passing animals translated into English. They asked about my wife, my children, and “which country”? I found out the older men, mostly dress in white lungi, were farmers, the younger men, all dress in trousers and shirts, aspired to be teachers and software programmers. Mobiles rang all around me. I chatted, they chatted, they laughed at me and I laughed with them.
Springing along the roof an entertainer found all the odd available roof patches for his dancing feet. This hawker shouted what he sold; bundles of nuts, bundles of biddies, water bottles and cut melons. At every step the hawker looked like falling. He was more secure with bounding confidence and energy on two feet than I felt sitting inactive, hot and still.
By noon I was cooked and how every much I drank, four litres by noon, was not quenching my thirst. It was clear my roof journey must stop.
To make any claim over my seat would have been poor form and futile. So I started the slow progress from a train “hanger” to a seat. It is a very simple process; a long process. I started back as I had done in the Gwalior slums, standing on the train steps and hanging on to the door rails; using my body and both arms outstretched to stop myself falling.
At the next station there would be a struggle to exit the train enabling those, like me, to move forward, up one step and become the man at the door. Each station this procedure would be repeated and after a few stops I could celebrate, for I was suddenly in a carriage, out of the heat and away from the dangers of being a “hanger”.
Soon I could rest my weary legs and sit on a four sack, take a drink and eye up enviously one of the benches. After ten hours I finally got back part of a wooded bench, close to the one I had reserved, to sit and rest and take in the this carriage of sufferers.
In a way the inside is no different to the roof, except the unwritten rule is the carriage is for women, children, the old along and the frail. This Englishman claimed a carriage spot as I was defiantly frail and becoming more so as the journey progressed. Still the locals wanted to chat, interested in my wife, my children and “my country”. There is nothing particular about this conversation. It is simple and forms a common bond between us. A casual acquaintance. A unity in our discomfort.
Along with the women in the carriage are the farm crops the agricultural implements and household goods of new fan’s and new pots and pans. Without the roofs daft, and with the heat beating down on the roof the crops all cooking the heat; the carriage becomes a smelly place. Don’t get me wrong it is a good place shared with the people who are the rural population of India; this country’s heartbeat.
Remarkably, at 6.30 as the time table predicted the tiny train rattled into Sheopur’s small and old fashioned station. Exactly 12 hours after leaving Gwalior.
Gwalior is not one of the fast changing westernising cities the Indian chattering classes are so proud of. Sheopur is a step back in time to an unhurried gentle world, a long way away from the bustle of Gwalior. It is the type town that specks the map of India. It is of no importance, except as a rural Indian town of no consequence, ordinarily forgettable, it is ordinarily delightful.
This train brings you to Sheopur; this train is the reason for travel to Sheopur. Thank the train for the journey to Sheopur, for once there you see an India undiluted by modern progress, even without internet, Indian life being lived without a great monument, or a palace hotel, or even a temple to a great guru. Sheopur is shoddy in the style of so many Indian towns and without a legacy.
Leaving the station I stopped for a chai, rearranged by backpack, and proceeded to stretch my legs by walking down the centre of the dusty little road, devoid of cars, between the cows at peace and the sleepy wooded trollies wallahs, into town to find Sheopur’s only known hotel.