On board the Vivek Express, India's longest train journey, covering 9 states in 5 days

Rashi Arora

The longest train journey in India (and the ninth longest in the world) begins from Dibrugarh in Assam, and ends at Kanyakumari, the country's southernmost tip. That's 4,273 km, covered in approximately five days, spanning nine Indian states.

On a July night in 2016, I boarded the train for the first of my two trips as a solo traveller on the Vivek Express. The entrance to Dibrugarh railway station has colourful light that would be home in a discotheque; its interiors, however, were a different story. The sporadic, dim light from a few high tubelights contributed little to the visibility. I walked through the deserted station towards platform no. 2, where Train 15906 was to arrive.

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Gripping my Canon 5D Mark II, hanging from my neck, as tightly as my luggage, I found my anxiety lessening somewhat at the sight of a few well-dressed army men, also waiting on the platform. At 11.45 pm, an hour later than its stated time of departure, the Vivek Express took off, with me aboard.

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My ticket read, "RAC A-1, Class 2A, PNR 6657427842". Around me, strangers spoke of the difficult of obtaining reservations. My compartment had two friendly attendants, Raju and Bappan Das. The ticket examiner TT Shyamak too was helpful, promising to get back to me in the morning with a confirmation for my ticket.

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The plan was to complete a round-trip on the Vivek Express, 10 days in all, living on the train like a regular passenger. In my not-so-comfortable space with an unconfirmed ticket, senses assaulted by rancid smells, and transient faces staring at me, I settled in for the night €" and the 4,273 km to come.

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The Indian Railways carries 20 million people across the country every day €" a swathe of humanity sweeping through villages, myriad landscapes and regions, by rivers and along the coast.

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It was this cross-section of people that I woke up with on the Vivek Express. The sunrise brought with it several conversations, and breakfast orders. A visit to the pantry €" where the catering was carried out by a company called "Meals on Wheels" €" proved quite a pleasant surprise, considering the appalling conditions that existed through the rest of the train. The happy respite continued as the train pulled up at the New Jalpaiguri station. I found breathing space at an open door.

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The day wasn't as lucky for one of my fellow passengers €" a college student whose luggage was stolen. She didn't even realise her possessions were gone until the train had left the station. New Jalpaiguri was forgotten as we moved past Mariani Junction, then Diphu, Kokrajhar and Alipur. A little past 11 pm, the train halted at Kishanganj. Far from sleepy, I spotted a pensive stray dog seated under a bench. We looked at each other, communicating through our glances, until I realised we had a spectator in the form of a man perched atop a pile of suitcases. Porters hurried with heavy loads across the platforms, hopping over the prone forms of sleeping travellers. Over my journey in the Vivek Express, the spectacle that greeted me at every station was unchanging. Some of the stations were better lit than others, but the scene was always the same.

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Some hours after the Kishanganj halt, the train reached Durgapur. Mr Sharma from the pantry scribbled down my breakfast order on a tiny, aged notepad. As I sipped on a cup of unimpressive, dull brown chai, another morning unfolded aboard the Vivek Express.

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In the general and sleeper-class compartments of the train were squeezed in about 400 travellers with unconfirmed tickets. The cacophony and chaos were more suited for a marketplace than the innards of a train.

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Hammocks had been creatively strung up; every berth was occupied by six or seven passengers. They huddled together like conjoined babies. Nobody cared about comfort, everyone just desperately wanted a small space to rest. Those lying down had to sleep head to toe.

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Vendors loudly hawked everything from paan and chips to tobacco, tea and coffee. Men played cards in the aisles, watched movies on their phones, and listened to music to pass the time. Surprisingly enough, there was always a place to stand, a place to sit, a place to sleep and a place to play their favourite card game.

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As I snatched a few quiet minutes once again by the door, a train whooshed past, and I had to hang tight to a handle to prevent falling off. Heartbeat returning to normal, I saw cities, towns, industries, ponds, fields, rivers, more ponds, people, more people, blue skies and clouds whizzing by. Within the train, the cabins themselves were self-contained cities, carrying the passengers and their dreams.

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At Jolarpettai, the Vivek Express' five-minute scheduled halt turned into a 20 minute wait: I had mistakenly pulled the chain, an action considered a criminal offense if undertaken without a viable reason. My reason was the unbearable, unhygienic condition of the train. After a battle of wills with the cleaning staff, they reluctantly took charge and cleaned the train.

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And then, we were at our destination: Kanyakumari. I had been the only passenger to travel all five days, from Dibrugarh. The train suddenly wore a vacant look, as though it had been evacuated peremptorily.

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A month after that first journey, I was back on the Vivek Express €" this time, to travel from Kanyakumari to the north. This trip was better than the first: there weren't as many people on board, and I had a confirmed ticket.

A group of men, lunching on an assortment of delicacies €" appams, poppadum, rice, sambar €" served on a banana leaf, also gave me a pro tip: Skip the pantry and order meals via phone, to be delivered to your respective seats at the next station instead.

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Disembarking at journey's end, I thought of Ray Bradbury's words, from Fahrenheit 451 €"

"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in 10 seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."

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€" All photos courtesy Rashi Arora

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