It's dark outside, although for not much longer. My eyelids open, my head peeks out from under the blanket, and adjusts to the dim light coming in from the giant window right beside me. I begin to make out the dark outline of trees and bushes whizzing past me, interrupted every second by a dark line that is one of the gantries that hold up the electric catenary. The cold air from the air conditioning hits my bare forehead, and I open my eyes fully. My mind is strangely tranquil; I have not a care in the world.
It is not often that I wake up at a hundred and thirty kilometres per hour. It is, in fact, two mornings roughly every two months, that I begin my day halfway towards enlightenment.
The Linke-Hoffman-Busch coaches rumble along, gently, very gently, rocking from side to side on the continuously welded rails as it thunders east towards the rising sun. Every now and then, it goes over a set of track switches that remind the riders that they are indeed travelling at great speeds, for the coaches suddenly oscillate wildly, and then almost as suddenly subside as it returns to a stable track.
The sky outside is now bright violet. The outlines turn into distinct trees with leaves and trunks, the fields outside are full of rice and paddy, the tracks are lined with bushes. Inside, it is still dark, the rumble interrupted occasionally by snores from a few of the other seventy-one occupants of the coach. There are bags hanging from hooks above window opposite mine, and there are two half-full bottles of water on the table. The water inside is barely moving.
I prop my pillow up, raise myself and lower the blanket, and stare outside. Daylight is upon us, the brightness rapidly increasing. The farmers are out with their tractors. Out in the distance, a forlorn little scarecrow. Further away, cellphone towers dot the skyline. I am suddenly reminded to look at the time. I take my phone out and look. It is almost six.
The train slows down. A station, which it will not stop at. Ah, it is Dehri-On-Sone. In a minute, the train will climb on top of the Upper Sone Bridge, the country's longest railway bridge over a river. It is so long that in the middle I will lose my cellphone signal.
As the train trundles along, I see that the river beneath has very little water. Wherever there is water though, the early morning sun makes the ripples glisten with golden light. I wonder if the farmer on the tractor has ever witnessed this sight. Then I wonder if the farmer has any inkling that a boy sitting on a train that passed in front of him a few minutes ago is right now crossing a bridge, looking at the sunlight glistening on the water, wondering if he has ever seen such a sight. The balance of probability suggests he does not.
An attendant comes up, with a carrier full of red cups and red flasks full of hot water. He sees that I am awake and asks me if I would like some tea. I ask if he has any coffee. He hands me a cup, a flask, and sachets of powdered milk, granulated sugar and instant coffee powder, with a small stirrer. He goes away, looking for other passengers who might want some tea. I am left to preparing my coffee.
I savour every sip of the cheap coffee. The scenery outside changes every few minutes, from paddy fields to thick woods, and back again. Birds are flying out in great big flocks, the villagers are sending their children to school in cycle-vans. Two farmers argue, while a mustering of storks drink from the water meant to submerge the rice in. Everyone around me is still asleep, oblivious to the life happening outside. I'm not much better, I realise, for I merely observe from my safe and comfortable cocoon while the people outside toil.
Two hours have since passed and the train is slowly winding along through the hills and the tunnels just beyond Gaya. The sun is still fresh and golden, and as the train curves tightly, the light reflects off the red coaches, offering spectacular sights. A long way ahead, the white locomotive whines along as it pulls its twenty or so fully loaded coaches, as it has been since the previous evening. The drivers have changed twice since.
Dhanbad arrives, and breakfast is served - two slices of bread, two vegetable cutlets with four slivers of fried potato and boiled peas. There's some butter, sauce, and a small carton of mango juice. I spread butter on the bread, put a cutlet and roll the slice around it, and gobble it up. As I'm finishing, the attendant is here with another round of tea.
The train leaves Dhanbad with a new driver, the final change before I reach my destination. The mood has changed drastically. People are awake, and have descended from the upper berths. Some are calling up their families to report on their progress and telling them to be there at the station at such-o'clock. The blankets, pillows and sheets have all been thrown higgledy-piggledy on the top berth.
My coupe-mate engages me in idle chatter, I share a small joke. Then he goes back to reading the morning paper, I go back to looking outside. I report on my progress to my family. As Barddhaman passes by, my father reports that he's already at the station to pick me up. The last hour has begun.
The train nears Kolkata. We overtake local trains heading into the city, chock full of people taking their daily commute into the city to earn their livelihood. We're almost neck-and-neck with one such train. Just as it begins to slow down into the next station, I catch a glimpse of a couple standing at the door, laughing together. I am reminded of my time when I would return from my tutions by the local train, standing at the door, letting the cold wind batter my face into oblivion. Inexpensive happiness, but true happiness.
At noon, the Rajdhani Express from New Delhi has wound into the city and set itself into Platform 9B at Sealdah Railway Station. My father is on the platform, here to pick me up. I am happy to be home. A different happy from that which I was when I woke up this morning, more than six hundred kilometres away. I am sad that the journey is over.
It will happen again, I remind myself. Two weeks later, I will go back. On the train. There will be much to see outside, and even more to see and hear inside. Right now, the city beckons. There is much to enjoy.