It soon becomes clear that there’s a mismatch between the majesty of the Deccan Odyssey and the rickety tracks of the Indian Railways. Most of these rails were laid back in the days of the British Raj, and it appears that maintenance has been somewhat lacking in the years since. Throw in the fact that the train’s shell is an old one too, and, by day two, we’re all waddling like ducks to avoid being flung from one side to the other as it chugs along, rather enthusiastically, along the ancient tracks. Although we’re covering a distance of 2,484km, it’s still a relatively short route, which means the halts are long. Krishna, the photographer accompanying me on this trip, isn’t too happy about being trapped on what he calls a “luxury prison.” He’s been wanting to get out at the station— any station where the train halts — so he can take pictures of its shiny exterior, but the staff won’t let him for “security reasons.” To add to it, he also suffers from what I call Restless lndian Man Syndrome. I’ll explain. My memories of long train journeys taken as a child involve bustling stations, with every stop bringing into the train a swarm of food vendors. While one would urge us (very loudly) to buy some kaapi, another would come in hawking piping-hot vada pao. What I also remember clearly is my dad alighting from the train at these stations, in an attempt to break the monotony of the trip. He wasn’t alone — pretty much all the other men in our coach would rush out, hurrying back i n just as the train was given the green light, and not a minute sooner.
Given this very same habit, our poor Krishna isn’t used to being held captive on a train. However, he might be alone in his (short-lived) misery. I, for one, am more than content to stay aboard this hotel on wheels and soak in all the indulgence. Content to sit in the lounge car and stare out the window at the grey hills and streams of water. To watch farmers go about their work and cows start in surprise as the train rushes past them. To watch the sky shed its orange robes for sparkling inky blacks instead. To focus on nothing but the comforting rhythm and clatter of the train as it trundles along the tracks.
The primary activity on board is just that — cup of tea (or something stiffer) in hand as you sit at the bar and look out the panoramic squares of fast-fading light.
But it has taken me about two days to get used to doing nothing. On a normal day, you’ll find me flying out the house to get to work, racing against time to get that work done, then running back home to do chores, all without as much as stopping to breathe. We city-slickers, after all, aren’t used to the slow life. Aboard the Deccan Odyssey, I find myself growing extremely fidgety — I’ve finished reading my book, I’ve watched a movie, I’ve walked the entire length of the train. Now what? How am I supposed to survive for eight whole days? But survive I do. Once I force myself to relax and ease into the atmosphere, it’s a cinch. I could deal with not lifting a finger for the rest of my journey. And, just like that, time seems to slow down, a leisurely pace dominating everything. I’ve allowed myself to be yanked back in time to an era when people dressed up for dinner, and when being serenaded by a string quartet was not so out of place. Some nights, like the first one, we spend with the Deccan Odyssey stationary.
I’m a little disappointed, but it’s not for nothing that they say “Be careful what you wish for.” Nights when the train is moving are far from the romantic, nostalgia-filled experience I had in mind. The ambience in my cabin is certainly sleep-inducing, the lights have been dimmed and my bed has been made for the night by elves (or it could have been my amazing butler, Manoj). However, the swishing of the train from side to side makes it feel like I’m on a ship out at sea, treading choppy waters in the middle of a storm. The next morning, we’re all a little worse for wear, but the grogginess is quickly forgot ten thanks to the feast that awaits us in the dining car, aptly named Utsav.
There is no finer example of a time warp than in the two dining cars. The waiters, dressed in their smartest, bring you the baker’s basket as they hand you the day’s menu, which features eggs, more eggs, as well as a more ethnic option like poha or parathas. There is something magical about sitting down to eat in a restaurant while watching the landscape change. The low thrum of the train is a constant companion, adding a staccato beat to our conversations. Occasionally, this thrum is interjected by the tinkle of cutlery clinking on china. Once or twice, muffled sounds escape from the kitchen. Seeing the tiny stainless steel galley in which the head chef and his team cook, I am amazed that he can turn out lunch for eight, let alone 80.
I peek into the kitchen — it’s runs like well-oiled machinery. Nothing is left to chance. The team sits down together and decides what the next day’s menu will include, depending on the region the train will be stopping in. The food is all prepared on the train, with the freshest of ingredients picked up at every major stop the train makes. Each meal is a revelation.
Some of the finest meals I’ve ever had have been aboard the Deccan Odyssey. Take, for example, the Caesar salad, which, since its invention nearly a century ago, is among the default salad options at every restaurant serving Continental cuisine. While most do a decent job of combining the creamy, tangy, savoury and crunchy ingredients, the version served to us on the train would — I believe — make even its creator, Caesar Cardini, lick his plate clean (well, were he alive). I could wax lyrical about every single dish placed before us, from the lobster thermidor to the roast duck, and even the ever-present than featuring changing elements daily, based on the region we’re visiting that day.
Meanwhile, the train continues to trundle along according to erratic schedules, halting in the middle of the night, sometimes charging ahead at break-neck speed, sending the contents of our stomachs churning. While seine of us are handling it not too shabbily, the sweet old English couple travelling with us hasn’t been able to catch a wink.
When the train stops, I peer outside my window, hoping to see the India they show us on postcards. Instead, I’m greeted by a string of dilapidated houses, or a raggedy child asleep on a bench at the station, or, worse, millions of staring eyes, all of which belong to those who’d never be able to afford such luxury. It makes me feel guilty, the fact that I’m cocooned in all this decadence while there are those with not even a square meal a day. The windows separating us from them are the perfect metaphor for the way western visitors experience India.
A small chat with a French CEO travelling with us confirms this.
“We wanted to explore India but without going through the trouble of making separate hotel bookings. Besides, have you seen how they chive on Indian roads? We’d be dead by now!” I want to say something in the country’s defence, but I’m inclined to agree.
Sure, India has many things going for it, but smooth-as-butter flight connections and fantastic roads don’t necessarily feature on that list. The passengers on the train had figured out that exploring this part of the country by train was their best bet. After all, the country’s railway network is its arteries and veins, with over one lakh physical kilometres of track and over 12,000 daily trains connecting every imaginable corner of the geographically diverse nation.
Moreover, not only do these passengers not have to worry about airport transfers and accommodation, they also don’t have to play Need for Speed with other cars on pothole-filled roads. Moreover, security is paramount, and the train’s staff is always around.
After so many shared meals and excursions – and, thanks to the general lack of interaction with the outside world most of us onboard are now well acquainted with each other. The British couple is on their seventh visit to India and, apart from a couple of sleepless nights, are loving the journey. They’ve been married a solid 45 years, and are train nuts, even having travelled along the never-ending Trans Siberian route. We also have a boisterous philatelist and his wife in the Presidential Suite, and the French CEO and his wife, who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary aboard the Deccan Odyssey, and are looking for a cowbell to take home as a souvenir. I have to gently remind them we’re not in Switzerland. Befriending eccentric co-passengers aside, this journey has revealed to me a slice of India -Maharashtra – that is oft ignored.
I’ve seen the duality of Nashik — the old, where ancient rituals are performed on the ghats and stony grey temples stand resolute, and the new, where people sit around a long mahogany table in a dimly-lit room and quaff some of the country’s best wine. I’ve seen the crumbling temples of Ajanta and El Lora, which seek, nay, demand reverence and tell stories that we have long forgotten. I’ve seen the warrior spirit of the people of Kolhapur. I’ve also seen the Colonial heritage that Goa continues to cling on to hard, a past that is as much part of its history textbooks as its daily life.
And, just like that, my eight days are up.