Sahib ! It is my duty ! (The Bikaner Mail)

The early morning train left Old Delhi station soon after six in the morning, thankfully containing myself and all of my bleary-eyed charges, writes Bob Cranwell. Alarm call, then after a brisk coffee and bus ride, there followed the inevitable crocodile of rolling suitcases and imploring porters through the tumult of the station, heaving like a fractured termites nest.

Podcast version here


Gasping a sigh of relief as we settled onto the green vinyl seats in a carriage made up of a side walkway and 6-seater or 4 sleeper compartments, the train grumbled and squeaked its way through the urban landscape. Once seated, several punters cried in unison at one of the most memorable but indelicate sights of India, that of thousands of brown bums, blithely bared along the trackside and in thorny scrubland, a small can of water in one hand for the morning ablutions.

Women, more sensitive and careful, have already dumped their steaming cargo in the dark, and pariah dog teams along with bristly piebald pigs scutter through the daily melee.


Trainspotter's wet dream riding the footplate on one of Rajasthan's last steam train
Trainspotter’s wet dream riding the footplate on one of Rajasthan’s last steam train


This is my first trip out into Rajasthan, on the train to the desert town of Bikaner 11 hours to the West. My group are all excited and a little nervous about entering the immersive experience that is India, but have blind faith in my expertise, which consists of a thick trip manual from HQ, my own experiences of travel in Pakistan and elsewhere, and I hope, a resourcefulness and manner that like Bo Peep, will pull me through, dragging my flock behind.

Our destination, Bikaner, is a fortress and garrison town on the northern fringe of the Thar desert is a wealthy centre of a poor region. Historically, the rulers and merchants of the area grew fat on taxes and trade in spices, gemstones, from camel trains traversing the harsh landscape from the Rann of Kutchh in Gujarat up to Delhi. Other, much older trade routes snaked across from the Northwest, linking various traces of the central Asian Silk Routes.

Fortified rest stops, castles and safe oases dot the rather bare map of the area, crisscrossed by rather few roads. We will be staying at a Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation rest house, which I know will be a significant step down from where we stayed – for a soft landing – in Delhi.

Tonight will be cheap foam mattresses on metal frame beds, indifferent staff, dust covering last week’s dust, fat dog-eared ledgers replacing yesterday’s computer check in, every single item daubed underneath with inventory codes, cock-eyed curtains hung with less than half the required hooks, a collection of hotel cleaners in the shape of the resident dog pack, wholly accustomed to a diet of chillies, peelings and chapattis. I have to make sure the punters are braced for this downturn in their fortunes, without alarming them.

I think the train is called the Bikaner Mail, and assume it is an express. Wrong. A Mail train stops everywhere and progress in between one camel stations is glacially slow. Temperatures rise quickly after 8am and we are still on the outskirts of Delhi swathed in a brownish grey haze. One hopeful punter fiddles around with switches in the compartment, discovering that one will set the wire-caged fans off, swirling yet more dust over the occupants.

Leaky door and window seals ensure there is a steady influx of desert molecules to which we stoically accustom ourselves. Much rustling around in rucksacks for spare ziplock bags to put their cameras, and gizmos inside to protect them. A number of pax (passengers) have brought odds and ends from their baggage, mock cereal bars from the hotel shop and bananas from stalls already briskly selling snacks on the station platform. I watch keenly, aware of the impending gasps for water when railway station pakora are chomped on.

This, I hope, will be the only consequence of an adventurous purchase by newly arrived customers. (But it says in the Lonely Planet that it’s ok to eat freshly cooked food from stalls – I can hear the protests now, in concert with the stomach cramps).

Many of the punters subside into a torpid doze, encouraged by a hectic early morning and the growing warmth; others, perhaps early risers by habit, are the keen ones prowling the corridor, hoping to catch the eye of some good looking fellow traveller, or hopefully peering through the grime-streaked windows for the perfect India portrait. Tumbles of rucksacks, bright clothing and duty-free bags litter the upper berths in the compartments. No-one now makes any move to disturb the shutters, windows or fans, fully versed in their dysfunction.

We stay forever, slowly braising in a large railway yard with wagons loaded with coal and stony ballast, steam engines and diesels, track layers, the odd camel drawing a rickety cart laden with bare branches and few people moving around. This is Rohat, I think, with few pointers from the map I have. A major junction on the metre-gauge lines running out of Delhi; Ah ! Now I understand why the progress is so slow, narrow gauge trains are easy to derail on badly laid tracks, or tracks undercut by winds, or by swindling contractors who backfill with sand under the sleepers instead of rocks.


Karni Mata temple near Bikaner, Rajasthan known as the rat temple
Karni Mata temple near Bikaner, Rajasthan known as the rat temple


I become conscious of the need in an hour or so for some sustenance for the pax, so wander down the train until I come across the Inspector, to ask about the restaurant car mentioned in the manual. Yes, yes, he tells me, there is a restaurant car on this train; pause; normally. Eh ? Well, he offers apologetically, the festival of Diwali has just finished, (which brings much of India to a grinding, traffic filled stutter); it is a celebration of prosperity and hope for the future, a portentous time for marriages, and is overloaded with garish presents and overindulgence. Seemingly in the heedless enjoyment, someone forgot to attach the restaurant car to our train.

Rudimentary though they are, the train’s kitchen at least provided a punctuation in the long a tedious journey, and something to keep folk going. My inspector assures me that this will not present an insurmountable problem to his cargo of welcome guests in his country. I will arrange ! He declares, and I hope he is sincere.

There follows a conversation I was to encounter on a number of occasions during my time in India. This revolves around when times were better; he tells me that twenty years ago he could save half his salary, living in Railway houses, eating on trains, rarely paying for anything – now he is almost indebted at the end of every month, neatly overlooking his wife and four children.

There is worse, apparently, he remembers as a child that there were none of the present multitude of beggars around his small home town; the local magistrate simply had them flogged to the town boundary. He has a view on corruption, too. In the days of the British there was none, but everyone is cheating and stealing these days. An only slightly tongue in cheek plea passes his lips to my astonishment, asking “Please come back and rule us”

An hour later, the Inspector seeks me out and explains there is a small station nearby to a village where he is confident we will be able to get around the food issue without difficulty. We arrive next to a half-camel station, with a scattering of mud-walled and concrete structures arranged roughly around a dusty square that is strewn with scrap metal and bones. He and I exit on the blind side of the train, skipping over rails to the settlement.

Almost immediately we spy a workshop, a man welding with a small piece of painted plastic held to protect his eyesight, the usual dogs and a bevy of besmirched urchins, the apprentices, I guess. On enquiry, the man tells of a canteen of some sort nearby where we can get food. This turns out to be true, a watery dal splutters in a gargantuan pot, while cookie tries to scrape the pan base to prevent scorching the lentils over the fierce flames. Ok, that’s a good start.

Then, we need something to serve this in and the cookie points across the square to a small structure of branches and palm weave on which a man perches with a primus stove, a blackened kettle and a collection of brown cups. I haven’t seen these before but they are everywhere in India. They are also found in mounds in the ancient Indus valley civilisations, now in Pakistan, indicating the single use of a drinking cup before smashing it. Ideas of ritual pollution by lower castes were already prevalent 3 thousand years ago.

So, the single use cups are made of clayey soil, formed into a beaker shape, quickly sealed in hot woodsmoke and left to dry in the sun. They are flimsy, but will hold liquids for long enough before disintegrating. They give a distinctive and very ‘authentic’ taste of dirt and woodsmoke.

The cookie has produced a small stack of gritty rough chapattis, some of which have small pieces of straw embedded, about a foot high, and we have another stack of mud cups. How the hell do we get this lot across to the train, and will the train stay where it is, I worry ? The inspector winks at me and shows the green and red flags tucked into a narrow pocket in his uniform, like a chippies ruler or rolled up copy of the paper.

Of course, the train will not move without his say so. We revisit the workshop desperately hunting for some sort of container, and cast about for ideas. One urchin with gleaming smile produces a 5 litre GTX motor oil can, at which I look, aghast. He snips the top off with tin shears and takes it over to the workshop sink, which looks like a Neolithic hearth, and starts washing it out in cold water, using unspeakable rags and a large bar of pink soap. I cannot do this, I cannot. Oh my career ! Oh, the lawsuits, the compensation for poisoning. The inspector, however, is satisfied by the oil-less-ness of the can, and by the absence of a soapy whiff and prods me to action, chivvying me to get the can to the canteen where it is filled with dal.


Sahib it is my duty ! Indian Rail employee
Sahib it is my duty ! Indian Rail employee


We carry the provender carefully, trying to stay out of the gaze of any train witnesses, not trip up and we reach the train successfully. The inspector leans out and blows a whistle, rousing the driver from his reverie and then waves the flag. A toot from the driver follows and a slow creaking movement hauls us out of the midday torpor. Between us, the inspector and I pour out the dal into the cups, making sure there is sufficient for all, along with a chapatti or two apiece.

He then helps me distribute the earthy gritty lunch to each compartment, where it is received with amazement and thanks from the punters. I decide to charge them two rupees each for the delicacy, giving the meal a semblance of legitimacy. They adore the authenticity of the food and presentation, tasty, filling, and – where on earth did you get this from, Bob ?

The inspector, beaming with pride at the obvious appreciation, turns to me as I thank him effusively for his assistance and he declares “Sahib ! It is my duty !”

Catch yer later !

Bob Cranwell Amateur Emigrant

  • reply Jeff Hubbard ,

    Love this, Bob! I, too will remember these lines…

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