Bombay-New Delhi by Luxury Train Is Way to Go

<i> Brunhouse is a San Francisco free-lance writer. </i>

The driveway to the main station is jammed by other Leyland-Ashoka taxis, motor rickshaws and even bicycle rickshaws dropping off passengers. Cows, dogs and crowds of men dawdle in the road.

Your driver pulls up short and curses in Hindi. He looks for a bearer. He hollers, “Coolie!” A skinny man wearing a wretched red smock runs from the crowd and pops your suitcases atop the red wrap around his head.

You tell him, “Rajdhani Express . . . Bombay.” Off you go like a shot--not through the main entrance. You chase after him through the side entrance marked “Bombay--Madras.”

It is a maze. You climb stairs to an overpass, standing aside to let a cow descend. A man on a stool checks your blue-and-red Indrail pass. You ask and he tells you, “Platform 6,” which is wasted breath when you see the fire-red train marked “Air-Condition” (sic) pulling in.

When you get to Platform 6 your train is standing there, the Rajdhani Express.

The Pamper Train

The Rajdhani (meaning “Capital City”) is the Indian Railroads’ pamper train. Extra-luxury Rajdhani Expresses run between New Delhi and Bombay and between New Delhi and Calcutta on wide-gauge (5 1/2-foot) tracks, the widest in the world.

The Bombay Rajdhani runs five days a week and costs 856 rupees (about $70), air-conditioned class, $1 more than flying.

Air India’s planes take exactly two hours to fly between Delhi and Bombay; the Rajdhani Express takes 18 hours. Even so, the train races at breakneck speed by Indian Railroads standards. It covers 860 miles at 48 m.p.h. including stops. For seeing the countryside and the peoples of India, it is the way to go.

“What car?” the bearer asks.

“I don’t know. I have a pass.” You show him your Indrail pass. He nods.

The bearer goes off into the crowds and comes back with a man wearing a white Gandhi cap with initials “N.R.” (Northern Railroads). He tells you that the lists matching names with spaces will be posted at 3:30 p.m. for your 4:20 p.m. departure.

Your bearer indicates that you should remain where you are. He will be back. He goes off, holding up his skirt--his dhoti--and untwisting the grimy cloth from around his head.

A Waiting Crowd

The crowds grow thicker. Every departing passenger brings along a circle of friends.

At a snack bar, vendors sell cold drinks, cookies and hot tea. There are magazine stands, a “cold water” booth. It is crowded but orderly. Guards wear khaki, with khaki berets, and carry bamboo swagger sticks.

You hear the air conditioning on the train start. Someone asks if your name is “Thompson.” It’s past 4 p.m. You begin to get edgy.

Ten minutes before departure time, the train supervisor appears on the platform. He is wearing a brown uniform, identification badge (“T.S.”) and a red daub of pigment on his forehead. He points out your carriage. They are numbered with red metal flags, 1 through 10.

Your bearer knows somehow to reappear. He loads your suitcases into compartment B. Both overhead fans are whirling. Piped-in Indian Musak is yowling. You see you have three traveling companions: one camouflaging her rotund figure with a flamboyant blue designer sari, and two distinguished-looking men in beige safari suits (no ties).

Compartment B has two lower seats and two berths folded away overhead. The seats are brown Leatherette, longer and wider than those in other trains. The corridor has Western-style and Eastern-style (holes in the floor) toilets at opposite ends.

Two porters wearing white Ghandi caps introduce themselves. They make good first impressions by offering a tray of hard candies and copies of the English-language Evening News and Hindustan Times.

Minutes later they also bring you a tall glass of water and take your order for tea (or coffee), which is free on the Rajdhani.

The Journey Begins

The electric locomotive draws the train away only a few minutes late.

You pass the tree-lined periphery of New Delhi station and then run past houses made of rocks and mud, a busti , or shantytown, thrown up on the space between the tracks and the government two- and three-story housing projects.

By contrast with the poverty outside, your porters pour you tea on silver service and give you fresh hand towels and plumped pillows.

Comfortable air conditioning takes command. The double-sealed windows exclude dust and heat. Red and yellow roses in a pewter vase add notes of color.

The makeshift slum outside continues, off and on, for miles. People live in rows of adobe hutches with thatched roofs, bricks anchoring the thatching against the wind. Squatters are driven off periodically by the police.

Shortly after 5 p.m. your No. 1 porter presents a menu and takes your order; a choice between vegetarian (“veg”) or “non-veg,” which is chicken.

The sun’s red fireball dips to the horizon over saucer-like fields, some already harvested, some with wheat, some with peas. No one seems to live there. Only birds move.

The men in the Gandhi caps serve meals on collapsible stands like TV trays. Soup, deep-fried fish, and then the main course: chicken and vegetables, moderately spiced. For dessert you receive ice cream in paper cups.

The instant you finish dinner a squatting sweeper creeps in to clean up the crumbs. His whisk already is in motion as he enters the doorway.

Early to Bed

It’s early to bed. The porters make up the berths with fresh bedding. There is no reason not to sleep soundly on comfortable, wide, extra-long berths with the door doubly locked.

At 6:30 a.m. you receive tea--again on silver service--and the Indian Express morning newspaper.

Settling down to watch the countryside roll past, you encounter Surat by the River Tapti. Surat was the first settlement of the British in India.

Next you see lotus flowers of commercial farms, pretty on a sheet of water. These white water lilies are a dining delicacy when highly spiced.

There is an immediate change in scenery when you pass from the state of Gujurat into Maharashtra (Bombay is its capital). Green, billowing coconut palms, bananas and date palms suddenly appear.

You pass white salt flats. Everything else is green. Hills are covered with green shrubs. It is November. “Soon everything will be all brown,” the lady in the sari, a physician, tells you.

Your train arrives in Bombay’s Central Station at 10:25 a.m., just on time. The Rajdhani’s reputation for punctuality is safe.

Comparable Cities

Visitors compare New Delhi (5 million people) to Washington for its city planning, wide boulevards and its legislative and administrative buildings.

Bombay (7 million) seems like New York City. The mini-Manhattan lies on a long, narrow island. It is India’s busiest port, financial center and site of its tallest buildings.

“Tour groups and business travelers with no time to spare should fly. But if you have only one day, you can pamper yourself,” says the doctor in the extravagant sari.

The Rajdhani Express is an adventure. To compare it to flying is an insult.

Indrail passes are good for unlimited travel on all trains throughout India, with no surcharges. Available in air-conditioned class, first-class and second-class for 7 to 90 days, they must be paid for in U.S. dollars.

For more information contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010. Ask for the free “Tourist Railway Time Table.”