Kanyakumari… India’s ironic point, where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. A distended dust-bowl of a town. Its inhabitants are to a kind broken, deformed and desiccated by the weight of the subcontinent’s woes – the gravity of depravity – and a pitiless sun unrelenting in its equatorial bias. Even the pilgrims, ever-present in their ragged black vestments, have a sombre air to them; they trudge solemnly southwards, templewards, to the Devi’s siren call. In amongst the hordes, round ruddy-faced women ply seashell souvenirs, feral children scour rubbish heaps for nothing in particular, and blind blistered dogs with udders and underbites skulk timidly in latrinous lanes.
As a point of departure, it is happily unglamorous. The Himsagar Express is no Trans-Siberian after all. But in terms of distance (3734km) and duration (72 hours), the weekly service to Jammu Tiwa, India’s northern-most railway station, comes a respectable second. Before boarding one is advised to stock-up on essentials. Unsure exactly what constitutes ‘essential’ on such a voyage, and with little in the way of experiential precedent, I settle for a sack of Bombay mix, eighteen overripe bananas, some crackers claiming to be ‘magic’, which could come in handy, and a kilo of peanut brittle – in short, enough energy to power the train should we encounter difficulties. After a brief 45-minute Q&A session with some curious pilgrims on Platform 2, it’s time to board.
The journey itself is fairly uneventful by Indian standards. For the first few hours the carriage is relatively empty, and the time flies by. I read, write, eat peanut brittle. Around dinner time, though, the train starts to fill up. As the depressive magnetism of Kanya starts to wane, so more prosperous urban centres crop up, overflowing with the new Indian bourgeoisie. Much of this surplus seems to board my carriage. Beside me, a mother-two-toddler combo settles in.
Toddlers on trains can go one of two ways. If one’s lucky, the toddler du jour will be so transfixed by the scenes unfolding beyond the window frame that any anti-social behaviour – and that’s exactly what it is – will be out of the question. Toddler type two, however, is an altogether more nihilistic creature. He will scream and squawk and squeal all journey without so much as an apology upon alighting. The parents, seemingly immune or else resigned to this onslaught, indulge the little schizophrenic with smiles, strokes and sugary treats, ‘lest, God forbid, he winds-down for a second.
My toddlic co-travellers on the Himsagar Express are of this second kind. The smaller, male one is particularly obnoxious. Among his many charms are kicking, biting, snotting and ‘tugging’, the name I give to his exquisitely irritating habit of yanking at loose, dangly things – clothes, straps, hair and so on. On top of this, the little cherub has a shiny plastic push bike, the kind that zooms off by itself once you’ve set its motor twirling. For hours on end, the north end of Carriage S2 is treated to an inane concert of scratching and whirring from the boy and his bike. He never sets it going of its own accord, preferring instead to vent the coiled fury in another passenger’s face. Mother purrs proudly.
By and by I get used to the children. They seem sedated slightly by the changing landscapes, as the bristling palm forests of Kerala give way to Karnataka’s boulder-strewn hillsides, and then the contours and colours of the south are scrubbed clean amidst the profound uniformity of the Deccan plateau. Hours turn to days. Dialects change. Then languages change. Then whole language families change. Samosas and other deceptively impractical snacks are bought, eaten and spilt. Gallons of tea are drunk. At some point, I’m not sure when, half-rupee sweets become legal tender. This is presumably because everyone’s small change was relinquished on the first afternoon, and the little half-rupee candies are the only thing of sufficient quantity and insufficient value to stabilise the train’s economy for the remainder of the journey. On the final morning I buy a cup of coffee for one rupee, five sweets and half a pack of magic crackers. So it goes.
We reach Jammu late on the Monday, exactly 75 hours after leaving Kanya. Cold, dark, serious: Jammu in January probably doesn’t feature in many tourists’ Top Tens, though it seems like a good place to pick up a weapon. My hotel is at the intersection of the gun and fashion districts; looks like the AK is this season’s must have. After a night wondering why I’m not vibrating violently and covered in shards of peanut brittle, I continue, onwards and upwards, to Srinagar. One might question the logic of visiting “The City of Gardens” in the middle of winter. Rest assured, there is no logic to question. The 300km road north is not for the faint-hearted, many of whom, judging by the number of accidents we witness, are driving 8-wheeler trucks. Accustomed as I am to precarious mountain roads, there is something uniquely terrifying about this one. Maybe it’s the multi-pronged threat posed by rock-falls, avalanches, blind-corner overtaking and road surfaces the texture of frozen ploughland, or maybe it’s just the sheer number of overturned vehicles that we pass. Whatever it is, it’s thrilling in a “I-wonder-how-the-insurance-would-work-if” kind of way.
Kashmir. India’s long-disputed crown; her fertile beauty, as in some ancient epic, a prize worth fighting for. Now the valley sleeps in snow. Rice terraces score zebric strata down the hillsides, like the inside of a giant Vienetta. Below the snow-line, the whole landscape – the barren orchards, the scattered haywanes, the squat slate cottages – seems hewn from the same rusty loam. A thin, ubiquitous veil of powdered mud, or perhaps the sepia sunlight, it’s difficult to say which, lends the appearance of some antiquated autochrome print. For a moment, the gentle timelessness of the scene distracts its viewer from the onsetting frostbite.