British Train: First Class Journey

Things that you didn’t see or experience while growing up often generate curiosity in you whenever you come across them. The level of curiosity increases if such things are not yet part of your daily routine. They invoke a desire in you. The desire to own, control or use them. Rail network is one such thing that we don’t have in Nepal. Many in Nepal want to see a functioning railway network in their country. They want to travel in trains.

Many of us get our first rail experience in India because of the country’s geographical proximity and other socio-economic reasons. My first real train journey (not counting the metro rail commutes in DC and NYC) was in India in 2008 when I traveled to Trivendram in south from Gorakhpur. It was a long and tiring journey that also gave me a story to write for my paper at the time. More than anything else, that particular journey provided me an important glimpse of the wonder that the Indian railway network is.

During my two-year stay in India, I went to many places in many trains with distinct personalities, features, names and the ‘worlds’ that they carry with them and connect: Rapti Sagar Express (first journey), Garibrath, Rajdhani and Duranto to name a few. They had different ‘classes’ of coaches- 1st to 3rd and beyond. I hadn’t traveled in the first class compartment of any Indian rail. But I wanted to.

And here I am this evening, in Great Britain that introduced and built many of the existing rail networks in India, traveling in the first class coach of a train that is taking me away from Edinburgh at the speed of 99 mph, 112 mph, 126 mph (202 kmph). As this train arrives at a place called Newcastle, I reassess the environment of the coach I am in. The compartment is about 70 per cent occupied. I can easily conclude that this dibba is not a multi-cultural or multi-ethnic one. I find myself surrounded by six white men and a white woman- all looking too serious to smile at a joke and all engrossed in their books or phones or computers (like I am at the moment).

As a sample, I can reveal that the young guy sitting next to me, on my left, is reading a book on China- Ma Jian’s “Red Dust: A Path Through China”. His Samsung phone distracts him. Not he is receiving any calls but he is just fiddling with the phone. He seems to be reading an email or something. This man looks tired.

The overweight and bespectacled gentleman on my right, on the other side of the aisle drinking coke and chewing sandwiches (ham and egg with mayonnaise) that they provided for free to us a while ago (I went for a vegetarian one) is busy with Ian Rankin’s “The Flood”. He looks tired too. And utterly bored as well. I wonder what phrases would any of these people use if they were to describe me in a blog post like this.

The big lady behind this overweight gentleman keeps moving a lot. Her face and body and hands- they all move quite frequently. She is trying to strike a conversation with fellow passengers across the aisle on her right. They are an elderly couple. One of them is reading a book. This lady is clearly an impatient person. She looks happy.

I am in the 5:32 pm train heading for London. I’ll be getting off somewhere in the middle. It’s already dark outside. I can’t see a thing from the windows. Therefore I am compelled to observe these interesting men and women. I am trying to read their faces. I am really curious. And I am feeling slightly privileged. I don’t get to travel every Friday evening in a train where the only non-white person in the compartment is me.

Again, I wonder what these people could be thinking (about me). I am sure they are but don’t know exactly what. These two middle-aged men who are seated directly in front of me have been looking at me as often as I am looking at them. With equal curiosity, I believe. Our eyes have come together several times. They must be thinking something about me when they see me right in front of them- separate by a small table. This table has four empty coffee cups and a few pieces of tissue papers. “I thought they would serve some hot food,” I just overheard the man on the left talking to the man on the right.

Usually I try to initiate conversation with strangers but this evening I am not in a mood to do so. I almost asked this man on my left why he was reading a book on China. It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say. But I didn’t. I just wanted to write this as if a painter was trying to capture the moment on a canvas.

A Tunisian attendant just poured red wine in my glass for the second time in past 30 minutes. The big lady had asked the attendant where he was from after incorrectly guessing his nationality twice. I overheard his reply. This should provide a glimpse of the labor market scenario in the UK which is a different story altogether. In the London hotel where I was stayed for a week, I saw two Nepalis working as a waiter (a boy who said he was in a ‘dependent visa’ in the UK) and a receptionist (a woman).

I can see only two differences between this first class coach and the standard compartment in which I traveled two days ago to Edinburgh. No need to pay for the WiFi connection. Plus, free food and wine. Like many other trains here in the UK, this one is run by a private company under pressure from shareholders. By Nepali standard, these tickets cost me a small fortune. I could have traveled all over India, in an Indian rail, for a few days. But today I am not complaining.

(Friday, 1 March 2013)