It’s been a miserable December .The Orient Express on its way to London has come to a sudden halt in the night, thanks to snowdrifts blocking the tracks somewhere in the Balkans. Everything is deathly silent. The next morning, detective Hercule Poirot is called upon, for, on that eerily quiet night, a murder was committed on the train. The killer is still on the train, and it’s Poirot’s job to find him. Fast forward to 2016. The Deccan Odyssey, a train not unlike the Orient Express, is thundering along on its eight-day Maharashtra Splendour journey across Maharashtra and Goa, with me aboard it. Poirot, however, is nowhere in sight, and neither is a murder mystery.
There’s just me, biting my nails as I read my copy of Murder on the Orient Express, trying to figure out how the moustachioed detective will pick the murderer out from among the passengers. Although these two events are taking place nearly a century apart, one thing remains the same. Once you’re on board, it’s almost like you’ve cast away the vagaries of real life and stepped into a fantasy world of self-indulgence. It was American industrialist George Mortimer Pullman who introduced the world to the hotel on wheels, in 1867. It didn’t take long for his idea to catch everyone’s fancy, and, before long, the era of luxury trains dawned. The first of its kind was the Orient Express, which began its maiden journey from Paris and travelled across Europe. In fact, it was aboard this grande dame of train travel that mystery novelist Agatha Christie was inspired her to write her most famous work.
India only caught on in 1984, with the introduction of the Palace on Wheels. However, today, the country boasts a fleet of luxury trains, each more opulent than the other, and all promising to take their guests back to the golden age of royalty. Although much younger than the Palace on Wheels, the Deccan Odyssey offers an experience that is equally quaint. Everything about my journey on the Deccan Odyssey, from the very start, breathes history. We’re at Mumbai’s imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), where a red carpet has been laid out for us. It was the British who brought the railways to India, with the country’s first train running along a 34km stretch from Mumbai to Thane in 1853.
CST itself, a glorious Victoria Gothic Revival structure, was completed more than three decades later, and continues to look as magnificent as it did a century ago. As soon as the train starts pulling into the station, a group of dancers assembles on the platform and perform the lezim, a Maharashtrian folk dance, to welcome us. Immediately, the cameras come out, eager to document the beginning of what we all know will be an epic journey. We’re spending eight days aboard the train, disembarking each day to experience a new place, beginning with Nashik, moving on to the stunning Ajanta and Ellora temples, then Kolhapur, followed by Goa and, finally, Ratnagiri, before heading back to Mumbai. The Deccan Odyssey is unlike anything else that runs on the tracks that exit Mumbai’s stations every day. With its polished metal and fresh purple-and-gold paintwork, this train turns heads —it’s the beauty pageant winner in a sea of plain Janes. Even on the inside, she’s a beauty—end-to-end carpeting, and , comfortable cabins, each equipped with a personal butler.
A walk down an seemingly unending narrow corridor running through several coaches takes me to my cabin, which, although a tad tiny, has all the creature comforts I could possibly desire. The wood-panelled room has soft ambient lighting and a bed I want to sink into. But before I do that, I peek into my en suite bathroom (on a train, can you believe it?), where I find fresh towels that smell like the morning sun. I’ve now been permanently ruined for regular train travel.