This blog post is about my trip on the Kalka – Howrah Mail, running almost 1800 km from Kalka in the north west to Howrah station in Kolkata on the east coast. Many people I spoke to in Shimla and on the toy train had asked where I was going next. When I told them I has going to Howrah on “The Mail” the reaction was almost always the same; they would say “Ahh, the Mail” and nod their head approvingly, as if I had made a wise, but unexpected choice.
After arriving in Kalka from Shimla, I avoided the porters, and set off to find the cloakroom, which was in the parcels office. In the parcels office was a thin, middle aged man wearing a spotless uniform sitting behind a large desk. He had a thin moustache, and looked very self important. I began to speak and his desk phone rang. He held an index finger in a signal that the phone call was much more important that I was, and picked up the receiver. After a quick call in rapid-fire Hindi, he turned back to me expectantly. I told him that I wanted to store my two bags in the cloak room, and without looking away from me, he gestured to a pile of bags in the corner. “Put them there” he said in flawless English “and fill your details into this book”. I did as he instructed, and noticed a sign painted on to the concrete wall said that the parcels office closed at 22:30. I asked what time the cloakroom would close, and he looked at me as if I was an idiot; “we are here 24 hours, we never close”. I decided not to mention the sign behind him and exited onto the platform.
I still had 3 hours until my train was due to depart, so I went for a walk into the centre of Kalka. What an eye opener; no footpaths, cars, trucks, motorbikes and rickshaws driving in every direction from every direction! The dust, the sounds and the smells – it was wonderful; an insight into the real, everyday India. After walking for about 45 minutes, I found a Punjabi restaurant, and picked at random from the vegetarian menu. After a delicious veggie curry with naan, I walked back to the station.
I sat on the narrow gauge platform and watched the last 2 arrivals from Shimla arrive. There was quite a stir when the last arrival came in and the men unloading the luggage van managed to get a motorcycle that had been transported from Shimla wedged in the doorway. No matter how much they rocked it and pushed it, it wouldn’t move. The guard came up, and it was clear from his body language that the gist of his comments was “get this bloody thing out of here, I want to go home”! More labourers were called on, and 6 scruffy men appeared out of nowhere to help. The motorcycle was still stuck fast, until someone had the bright idea of removing one of the luggage racks. This took about 30 seconds, and finally after about 25 minutes of struggling, the motorcycle was free of the van.
Shortly after the motorcycle had been unloaded, a railway official approached me. He asked where I was going, and I told him I was catching the Howrah Mail. He informed me that he was manager for catering, and asked if I would like to order a meal. I thought he meant for the train journey, so I thanked him and ordered a vegetarian meal. He told me he would return (I presumed after placing my order). Instead, he returned with a vegetable biryani! It turned out that he was the catering manager for the station, not the train. He had seen what he thought was a hungry traveller, and come to my aid with an after hours dish. I couldn’t refuse after all of the trouble he’d gone to, so I paid the 55 rupees and ate my second dinner.
It was about an hour before departure time when I collected my bags from the cloak room, and the Howrah Mail was already standing in the platform. Passengers were already starting to crowd into the unreserved second class coaches. I was told by a man waiting on the platform that we would be departing 1 hour late. I asked why and he said “everything is running an hour late”. I chatted with the man until about 00:45 (50 minutes after departure time) when he decided it was time for bed.
I stood walking around the platform for another half hour, before retiring to my compartment. My carriage was a composite 1AC/2AC carriage, with 3 berths (2x 4 berth compartments and 1x 2 berth compartment). I was the only passenger in a 4 berth compartment.
The Howrah Mail finally departed Kalka at 01:46; 2 hours and 51 minutes late.
I awoke at around 08:00, as we were arriving in Delhi (now about 2 hours late). I stepped out onto the platform and watched the peak hour chaos of Delhi station, trains and people were everywhere, with labourers trying to unload luggage from my train, as commuter trains pulled in to other platforms. After watching the chaos for a few minutes, I bought some bananas from a platform vendor, before rejoining the train. Just after departure, a young man (probably around 18 – 21) with a sulky expression was led by the car attendant into my compartment. He couldn’t (or didn’t want to) speak English and as soon as he had sat down, he put his headphones on and actively ignored me for the whole journey.
I had been concerned about what sort of food would be available on the train. I needn’t have worried, as soon after we departed Delhi, a railway man came up and asked if I would like breakfast. I said yes, and he disappeared for about 20 minutes and returned with 2 veggie patties and 2 slices of bread in a foil tray from the pantry car. The same man delivered a food tray for each meal for the remainder of the journey, and my bill was totalled up at the end of the trip (160 rupees for 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch and 1 dinner). There were also vendors who regularly roamed the sleeping cars, announcing their wares (things like samosas, yoghurt, fruit and the ubiquitous chai tea).
Between Delhi and Kanpur, we had somehow managed to lose another hour and were now running 3 hours late. I stepped out onto the busy platform to stretch my legs, and the carriage attendant kept a nervous eye on me, probably worried I’d be left behind. I bought some more water from a platform vendor, before taking some photos and climbing back aboard, much to the relief of the carriage attendant.
We arrived in Allahabad in the early evening and 2 soldiers burst into the compartment. At first I was alarmed, but then I noticed they were carrying parcels. They stacked the parcels neatly under the opposite bunk, and an older man (not in uniform) entered. The older man gave the soldiers a small tip each, they saluted and silently left the room. The older man was pleasant enough, but carried an air about him that said “I’m far too important to talk to you, so please don’t try to engage me in conversation”. He spoke English, but only when spoken to, only answering just enough to be polite.
The journey entered a timeless phase, where it felt like I had been travelling forever, but that the destination was further away than it had been at the start. The train rattled on through endless lush, green countryside and small villages. Afternoon turned into evening and into night, and it was time to sleep for my second night on this train.
I awoke at around 8am (about 5 minutes after our scheduled arrival into Howrah) and found that we were at Dhanbad. I looked at the timetable, and found that we were now 6 hours late! We had somehow lost another 3 hours during the night. The train raced on through the day, managing to make up almost an hour, arriving into Howrah station in Kolkata 13:12, 5 hours and 17 minutes late. My total journey time on the Howrah Mail was 35 hours and 34 minutes.