If you were a Hollywood actress, life in Los Angeles might sometimes get boring. You might be surrounded by people who all looked as beautiful as each other, all whined in an identical, annoying lilt, went to the same Botox clinics for a lunchtime lip job. All the roads might look similar and sterile after a while, the smell in the air sanitised, the weather predictable, the language familiar. You might wake up one morning fed up with the sameness of it all and decide adventurously to trade it for the ultimate experience in contrast: taking a long-distance luxury train on India’s humble railway system.
I paused my romantic reverie to sip deeply from my wine glass, realising that I might have been scrutinising my fellow passengers Drew Barrymore (one of Charlie’s Angels), Ellen Page (star of American indie hit Juno) and Alia Shawkat (who plays Maeby Fünke in the American cult classic TV show Arrested Development) a little less discreetly than I thought. We were in the midst of our trip-briefing soon after having boarded the luxury Indian Maharaja-Deccan Odyssey train at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and I was eager to explore the rest of the train and meet fellow passengers, or at least get my glass refilled.
I’d been on plenty of trains before — the backbone of our country, transport for the masses, poetry in motion, havens of sweet chai and hot vada-pav sold through windows by cacophonous vendors — but never on a luxury train. Diti and I had arrived at the station bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, greeted by a large welcome sign and whisked away by a courteous manager past sleeping dogs, weeping babies and blaspheming weight-and-fortune machines to an air-conditioned waiting room away from the sweaty throngs. The first of many teeka-and-garland welcomes completed, we’d glanced cursorily at our elaborate welcome packages (itinerary, primer on Indian culture, tipping guide, book of Indian short stories, all mysteriously bundled into a bulky, ornate wooden box I didn’t have room to carry) and spent the rest of the time speculating about the other people in the room, with whom we’d be spending most of the next seven days.
The briefing concluded and my briefer starry-eyed Hollywood encounter complete, I turned my attention to the gleaming bar. It was pre-dinner cocktail hour and the train’s steep price tag only included on-the-house booze on the first and last days of the journey; so as the train rattled and hummed its way out of Mumbai, I joined others in making the most of the free social lube. Our gracious barman Debraj made us feel welcome, and the idea of spending the next week in the lap of luxury finally sank in.
Regular third-class sleeper trains hold some 72 people per compartment; each sleeper compartment of the Indian Maharaja accommodated eight people in four twin cabins, each a cosy, luxurious affair by train standards: two single beds separated by a nightstand, a heavily tinted, non-opening window that gave onto the rural landscape and bustling platforms outside (so close, yet so far away from our ivory capsule), a compact writing desk, a small wardrobe, combination safe, shoe shine and, our favourite, a fully kitted-out bathroom. Sink, toilet, bathrobes, fluffy slippers, his-and-her toiletries, and, sigh, a shower. Sure, the water pressure was mild and hot water turned lukewarm pretty fast, but we were on a train, after all. “Many guests expect everything on board to be exactly like an on-ground luxury hotel,” a worried train manager had told me earlier. “We do everything we can to look after our guests’ comfort but there are still certain limitations outside our control.” I was just happy to be able to have a shower on board a moving train, even as the railway tracks clattered below me.
Each time we returned to our compartment, the ‘Sindhudurg’ (each named after a Deccan province), we were greeted in the common lounge area (two sofas, flatscreen TV, three-tiered fruit dish) by our impeccable butler Harish, whose English was as polished as the smart brass buttons on his uniform. Harish made sure our luggage reached our rooms (no hauling it yourself or haggling with porters on this train, thank you very much), kept cabins impeccably neat and clean, gave us our crack-of-dawn wake-up calls (and there were many of those, owing to the ambitious daily sightseeing schedule) and greeted us with cold rolled towels and a sweet sharbat when we re-boarded the train after a gruelling day. Harish turned down our beds each night, leaving Maharaja-branded gifts — Ganesha statue, silk-screen print, carved marble box — along with a single orchid and a good-night proverb printed on a Maharaja-branded card. (The choice of proverb was odd, actually; taken from the Bible, it read: “Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep.” A sweet thought, out of context; the oddity was that this proverb came from the chapter on sloth — one of the seven deadly sins — and in its full version went on to say, “…and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”) I could have read deep into the management’s choice of maxim, but chose instead to believe that their intentions were good. Denial is bliss and I slept peacefully every night on the train. After all, we had Harish to watch our backs.
Some guests did have trouble sleeping on board for the first couple of nights, due to their being unaccustomed to the sudden starts, stops and whistles that were second nature to the seasoned desi train-traveller. We found, though, that navigating the narrow passageways of the compartments while the train was moving caused a few bruised elbows (the weaving and swaying easily attributed to having had one too many at the bar) and some mildly embarrassing moments attempting to squeeze past another passenger or engaging in an elaborate ritual deciding who backtracks to let the other through. I also amused myself watching water and wine levels angle dizzyingly in their glasses when the train turned a bend at a clip.
There is great joy in looking out the window of a moving train; unfortunately, most of our train’s movement took place during the night. The week-long route from Mumbai included day-stops at the Ajanta and Ellora caves, Udaipur, Ranthambhore National Park, Jaipur, the Taj Mahal and a final stop in Delhi, visiting predictable sights that were touristy but essential to many first-timers. Each day we alighted hurriedly to be greeted on the platform by a ‘local performance’ that involved more teekas and flower garlands, plus red carpets, dancers, drummers, painted children, decorated horses, elephants or camels, aartis by pretty local girls and a large crowd of passers-by for whom we were the day’s entertainment. Thus deified, we’d be shunted into a large air-conditioned bus (was fresh air really that toxic?) and driven from monument to museum, palace to pricey emporium, while our Tour Leader delivered soporific monologues of historical facts, figures and fictions in saccharine English (punctuated by explosive Hindi abuses at the bus driver and roadside hawkers, which we’d eagerly translate for our foreign friends). Free time was negligible — even luxury trains are at the mercy of Indian Railways’ rigid schedule—so our chaperones were keen for us not to wander off on our own lest we got lost and missed the train.
The upside of sharing most of your waking hours and living space with a bunch of strangers for a week is that, very quickly, they’re not strangers anymore. Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page mysteriously left the trip to return to LA after two days; their companion Alia chose to stay on, becoming a good buddy and our third musketeer. We befriended the extended Hegde family (all of whom, spouses included, were first in line when the drop-dead-gorgeous gene was handed out), reuniting from different parts of the world to spend the Christmas holiday together on board the train. Our cabin eventually became the default hangout for the younger members, where we exchanged music with college-going Sean and teased cousin Pavun about his US secret agent job application, while Alia mastered the mouth-harp I’d brought along. Vishal, a South African-Indian aspiring DJ-producer, joined in the fun as well. Together we discovered that the group photo of us in front of the Taj Mahal— thoughtful prints of which had been left on each guest’s pillow — was, in fact, doctored: the light and shadows were totally wrong; our group had been hastily Photoshopped out and pasted in front of a pre-existing stock shot of the Taj. We laughed about it until the end of the trip.
Semi-retired Eric and Catherine from Ireland became our drinking buddies, with Eric’s strawberry nose, shock of white hair and expressive hands making him a perfect Santa, and Catherine his sprightly, animated elf. They kindly bought us drinks, and we shared many a good laugh even as they complained about not being able to smoke a cigarette with their many beers. Witty, well-travelled Heinrich and his lovely wife Simone, a youthfully aged couple from Germany, regaled us with stories of mountain-climbing, photo-taking and Mumbai-traffic-dodging. The Australian family Lubotsky’s uninhibited, energetic chatterbox daughter provided endless amusement in the way only kids can; sweet, shy NRI Nami, studying to be a professional opera singer, shared our obsession with felines; we hitched a ride in the hired car of young Russian honeymooners and their Rajasthani interpreter; and by the end of the week were bowing politely to the elderly Japanese couple who also spoke negligible English but were all smiles. We also got to know our service staff better, learning about their hometowns, how they enjoyed changing out of their uniforms and turbans into street clothes and going out on the town while we were sightseeing, or playing a game of mock-cricket in the dining car before we returned.
The time we spent on board the train was my favourite part. The facilities left me wanting for naught—a bar car, two dining cars, an entertainment room with books, games and movies, a business centre and a spa car. A spa! On a train! The Plumeria Spa had two treatment rooms, a beauty salon and a eucalyptus steam room. Eager to experience a deluxe massage on a deluxe train, I skipped the morning safari at Ranthambhore and surrendered myself to the able hands of Rashmi and Annu. The train was parked at the platform, so after my very steamy, aromatic sauna, I opted for no music during my excellent 45-minute massage, listening instead, entranced, to the steady drone of the platform announcer’s updates on arrivals, departures and delays. Relaxed, refreshed and with time to spare before the group returned on board for lunch, Diti and I ran up and down the train and platform, making the most of the morning light with our cameras. I even snuck in a snack of spicy poori-bhaji from a platform vendor, and struck up a conversation with a wildlife photographer from Pune who’d been waiting for his return train since 3am. I guess luxury has its benefits, even though I had to get back on board to be served my coffee (taking it onto the platform was Against The Rules).
Dining was an absolute pleasure. The service staff was attentive and friendly, catering to our gastronomic whims and indulging our gluttony. Our cheerful servers, Nasir and Aladad, quickly pinned us as foodies, letting us have both instead of either, each time there was a tough menu decision to be made. Head chef Nitish was added to the club, and soon we were feasting on delicate salmon rolls, exquisitely grilled racks of lamb, curries, koftas, custards, inspired salads and innovative soups, including a died-and-gone-to-heaven mushroom cappuccino. Since the trip was over Christmas, we even had a special Yuletide dinner, complete with roast turkey, Christmas pudding, brandy sauce, party hats, twinkly lights and a staff Santa distributing bonbons.
Breakfast time was the most surreal. As Nasir grilled toast and poured coffee, I’d peel my perfectly done soft-boiled eggs, looking out the window at the life ordinary: a non-luxe train sardine-packed with people singing songs and brushing teeth, villagers defecating in track-side shrubbery, a mongrel foraging for scraps, a heap of fresh-fried green chillies on a cart, shawl-clad women with bundled babies dozing on a platform bench in the morning light. Sometimes, curious folk would press their faces against the darkened glass of our train windows to try and see what was inside; others merely used the reflection to adjust their hairdo. I’d wave across the glass just inches away from their faces, but they remained unseeing and impassive. I somehow felt guilty, even though this wasn’t much different than rolling up the window in an air-conditioned city car to keep the heat and riff-raff out.
We once encountered a bunch of enthusiastic schoolchildren outside, eager for their photo to be taken. We spent a pleasant few minutes indulging them, after which they were shooed away by our Tour Leader in his eagerness to preserve our image of the India of palaces, princesses and dreams.
Perhaps the stark contrasts had been too much for Drew Barrymore, or maybe she’d expected to interact more with the Other Side; as we disembarked and said fond farewells to our new friends, it struck me that the key was to enjoy the irony of the contrast, to choose experience over expectation; to thrive, literally, on the journey itself and not the destinations.
Route & Sightseeing: Mumbai to Delhi Day 1: Aurangabad Day 2: Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Udaipur Day 3: City Palace, Sahelion ki Bari, cruise on Lake Pichola, Jag Mandir Palace; Sawai Madhopur Day 4: jungle safari in Ranthambhore National Park; Jaipur Day 5: Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Jantar Mantar; Agra Day 6: Fatehpur Sikri, Taj Mahal, Agra Fort; Delhi Day 7: Old Delhi, Raj Ghat, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Qutub Minar, India Gate, Parliament, Rashtrapati Bhavan
Delhi to Mumbai This journey follows the same itinerary in reverse, with the addition of Ahmedabad on Day 6, after Udaipur. This leg includes a visit to Teen Darwaza, Jama Masjid, Shaking Minarets, Jain Temple.
Schedule October through April, for 7N/8D. 2010 dates: March 10, April 7 (from Mumbai) and March 3, March 17, April 14 (from Delhi)
Tariff & Booking Silver Class costs $670 (single)/$1,050 (double) per night; includes a deluxe cabin, group transfers and all group sightseeing and excursions. Gold Class costs $825/$1,300 per night; includes a deluxe cabin, individual transfers in a private car and individual sightseeing and excursions with a personal guide. Platinum Class costs $1,120/$1,900; includes everything the Gold Class does as well as upgrades you to a presidential suite.
Indian Maharaja accepts bookings only for all seven nights. The tariff includes all scheduled on-board and on-ground meals, ground transfers to and from sights, guided sightseeing and entrance fees to sights, cultural programmes and rides. Excluded from the fare are drinks (except coffee, tea, juice and bottled water), tips (the tipping guide suggests $150 for the whole trip), telephone calls, spa facilities, camera and video fees at sights, and other personal specifications. The tariff is set in US dollars, so the rate of conversion current at the time of booking will apply. For bookings, contact 011-42866600 or visit www.theindianmaharaja.com.