The Deccan Queen

ON SATURDAY, 2nd June,2007,  I took the Deccan Queen to Bombay (it will be never be Mumbai for me as I was born and brought up in Bombay, and Bombay it shall remain). This was my first trip by DQ, proclaimed to be one of the best loved trains. I just had to relive some of its history, that I had read with deep fascination.

The standards of comfort it maintained  “was distinctly colonial in keeping with the upmarket image of the train, and the commuting gentry”. So, a journey by the DQ, unquestionably would be remembered for its luxury, long after the journey was made. The DQ had made its maiden journey on June 1st, 1930. So I knew that the day I was going to travel by the DQ, she would be 77 years and a day old. She was 16 years older than me. Well! Well!

I had gone limp with excitement, having been lead up to believe of its exclusivity. This was a train I thought meant for those who chose style over expenses, who could experience the elation of traveling royally in compartments done up in silver oak with panels decorated in exotic wood.

Wood paneled interiors always carried an aura of class, warmth and elegance. So when I read that the DQ interiors had been done up exquisitely in maple, Brazilian zebra wood, silver wood and walnut, I was swept away. Brazilian zebra wood for instance, was something I had never heard of, much less seen. So my curiosity was raised to levels of delirious expectations.

Framed photographs of the DQ over the years had graced the interiors of this fabled train.  It must have added the kind of romantic atmosphere associated with the saloon cars, that one glimpses only in Western movies! Unfortunately a tragic fire had taken away some priceless pieces. But the die-hard romantic that I am, I obstinately believed that some brilliant soul in the Indian railways had painstakingly carried out a great deal of aesthetic restoration on the DQ.

Years back, the DQ had a restaurant car attached to the second class. Inside it 16 diners could take in the birds- eye panels and walnut moldings. Just imagine the other details which spelt class. . . .  It had tip up seats, and the seat ends were paneled walnut. I have no idea what quartered veneer is, but that was what the tables were made of, in addition to each table being glass topped. And for those who always chose style over expenses, there was the first class restaurant car for the 18 lucky ones, who could experience the elation of being pampered royally What more?

When the DQ arrived on platform No. 1,  I wondered if it was “THE DQ” at all. Then before I knew what was happening, I found that there was no sedate boarding. If I did not want to miss the train, the only way in, I understood, was to be shoved roughly along (in the scuffling traditions of the Indian Railway passenger) with the pav bhaji, vada pav, aaaah! chai, garam doodh-wallahs, beggars, newspaper/ mobile phone cover/ plastic hairclips/ vendors, and of course the rear being brought up by the passengers, all being pushed around every which way.

In an uncoordinated way, I bumbled my way to my seat, and surveyed the DQ interior . . . . there was nothing of the glamorous Dakhkhini chi Rani, or ' the husband's special' as it was known, in the '30's No framed photographs , or walnut inlays, or Brazilian zebra trim. Of course I did not expect to step into the glamorous world of  ‘The Orient Express’. Nor was I prepared for the insipid repetition of dull blue and white laminate from Coach 1 to the last one, that you can find in any local electric train.

I got a window side seat, but never got down to writing anything, because a plump woman seated beside me, found it tough to handle her pesky 3-year old and her fancy head scarf at the same time. So, she took out all her frustration on me, by digging her elbows into my ribs every 3 seconds.

There was the stale smell of the vendors, and of course the signature odour of the Indian Railways, drifting from the unclean toilets, without which Indian Railways would never claim to be Indian Railways. How could one eat food packed in tissue and stacked in greasy plastic trays, which had never been scrubbed for years? Of course a Pepsi is a Pepsi is a Pepsi. But when it happens to be dug out from under bottles of Bisleri, and assorted tetra pack juices, all carted around in a galvanized steel bucket, it heavily introduced the bathroom atmosphere, instead of adding to the drama of a great train journey.

The DQ catering staff, who edged around the vendors were a sorry looking lot. Uniformed as they were in dull grey, they reduced the DQ’s standing as a classy train by several notches. I must hand it to the railways for their imaginative choice of a safe grey. Dirt, grime, stains, and even the greasy palms wiped surreptitiously by the attendant, would comfortably disappear in its grey dullness.

There were any number of free loaders in the reserved compartment from the passengers squatting by the door side, and the brush wielding boot polishers, who were unmindful that the brushes they flourished over someone’s breakfast paper plate could well leave a generous dusting of shoe polish residue. It could mean business for them. But the poor diner would have second thoughts about finishing his/her breakfast. Ticket inspectors turned a blind eye on this procession of petty trades folk, droning on and on for a living! I lost all interest in chai and kaaafee, for the endless nuisance they caused. What a let down from the catering services it was so grandly famous for.

However my spirits lifted once we crossed Lonavala. We passed through 18 magnificent tunnels, emerging every now and then to see spectacular ravines covered with dense tropical forests. Khandala appeared lush after the pre monsoon rains. Monkeys from the bushes near the track bounded down, as the train slackened speed. They took their time over the bananas and slices of bread tossed to them by the passengers. Once we crossed Karjat we left behind all the open spaces and the lovely countryside, whose enduring appeal lay in its innocence, untouched by civilization.

Deccan Queen brought me on time to Dadar station. That was the only truth about all the stories linked with this once royal train. That was the only promise the Deccan Queen kept with its royal past. But that alone is to be appreciated, living as we are in lackadaisical days.

I do not blame the Railways entirely for the woeful conditions of travel one has to put up with. Fifty years down the line after Independence, the Indian culture as it exists today, shows a marked disrespect for the traditional values the previous generation nurtured, such as consideration, politeness, and the absolute need to observe hygienic conditions.

Disposable income we may have. But we don’t have the corresponding courtesies to match it. In the DQ, the raucous atmosphere in all the coaches underlined the fact that most passengers considered the DQ as an extension of their living rooms minus the drawing room manners. Part of this kind of uncouthness, has rubbed off at all levels of human interaction. So if the DQ is now a far cry of its former regal self, the 21st century passengers have to squarely take the blame for it, for the way they misuse public property.
First published in Intelligent Pune / July 26 - August 1, 2007 issue.
Radha Nair
Freelance Writer