India’s national rail system, Indian Railways, is the 3rd largest in the entire world – over forty thousand miles of track that reach into even the most remote areas of the country. But these train cars are so much more than just people movers.
On this episode of Passport, we go across India by train to find a melting pot of culture sitting within the carriages. From history, literature, Bollywood and real love, you never know what’s round the corner when you hand the conductor your ticket and take your seat.
Why have trains inspired poems, films and writing throughout India? What makes them the perfect protagonist and why they are a great place to start a story? Especially love stories. This week, tales from inside the trains and a microcosm of Indian life – one that only exists on the railway.
MORE TO EXPLORE
5 can’t miss stops along India’s iconic railway.
- THE DARJEELING HIMALYA RAILWAY
Forget the film, head to the hills of the Himalayas to experience the real thing – including a visit to India’s highest railway station.
- THE VIVEK EXPRESS
Hop on at Dibrugarh station to experience 4234 km of passing scenery – from snowy mountains to sandy beaches, deserts, tea gardens, coconut plantations and more.
- THE TEA ESTATES OF ASSAM
Explore India’s tea estates where you can pick tea leaves straight from the hills themselves.
- THE TEMPLES OF BHUBANESWAR
Take a break from the rails with a stop in Bhubaneswar – AKA the Temple City – and explore the remarkable temples that give it its nickname.
Stretch your legs at the end of the Vivek Express line with a visit to the famous Vivekananda Memorial – the site where Swami Vivekananda decided to take his message beyond India in 1892.
This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Harriet Davies and edited by Harriet and Neil Innes.
Huge thanks to Savritha Rahmohan, Imtaiz Ali and The Love Guru.
Music in this show, and our theme tune, is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Aurcle, Music Box, Sun Cuts, Mondo Jermo, On the Barby, ye olde data plan and Thirst Follow.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are meditating right now, on the third plane… They also executive produce the show…
Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a spicey man that you can eat as much of as you want and never gets sick, Andrés Barots.
See you in the next place!
EPISODE 32 – TRANSCRIPT
ANDRÉS: Let’s get in the mood. Neil, lead us in a stretching
NEIL: Welcome to India.
ANDRÉS: I like the one leg thing you got going on.
NEIL: It’s to pressure your hamstring on your other leg
ANDRÉS: So it’s a real thing you’re doing?
NEIL: Yeah. Feel that stretch, feel that burn.
ANDRÉS: I don’t feel it.
HARRIET: I’m not feeling anything.
NEIL: That’s because none of you are as unfit as I am.
HARRIET: Where is this bend supposed to be?
NEIL: Any movement is basically exercise for me at this point
ANDRÉS: See this is nice.
NEIL: This is good.
ANDRÉS: Oh yeah. Have you ever done yoga Neil?
ANDRÉS: Did you wear like yoga clothes?
NEIL: I didn’t wear anything.
ANDRÉS: You were just nude?
NEIL: I was told that’s how you were supposed to do it.
ANDRÉS: Are you sure it was yoga?
NEIL: Oh, no.
[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.
I’m Neil Innes
ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.
NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.
ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.
[END MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: When we look at traveling today, we tend to plan the quickest route. We try to figure out the best shortcuts, the fastest connections… in these modern times, seeing the world has become so much about speed and convenience.
NEIL: But today on Passport, we’re taking the longest and most scenic route… through India by train.
ANDRÉS: People have once again begun to fall in love with slow travel.
Maybe it all comes from that classic line by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
NEIL: As the cities and the people of India have begun to speed up and modernize, life has become much more hectic. But the one thing that is best done slowly and with patience in India is travel. In fact it’s often the only way.
ANDRÉS: Train travel has been imperative to the cultural and historical structure of India.
It crisscrosses the entire country from small hill stations to large cities. It has one of the longest railways in the world. 7,500 stations, 14,000 trains, 40,000 miles of track and 14 million passengers per day.
NEIL: What you get here, riding the trains is a setting like no other. A condensed cross section of the whole country where anything is possible. Incredible food, new friends, songs, even romance.
ANDRÉS: But in a country as diverse and complicated as India, with over 22 official and more than 400 living languages, thousands and thousands of dialects, numerous religions and backgrounds and a staunch tradition of arranged marriage, what happens when two star crossed lovers meet on a train?
NEIL: This week on Passport, producer Harriet Davies takes a trip on the Indian railway to discover the complex relationship the country has to love, life, movies and more because it’s all there on the crowded magical trains of one of the most mind blowing countries on earth.
[Train moving on tracks]
ANDRÉS: In this room, I’m the only one who’s never been to India.
NEIL: I’ve, I’ve only been once.
ANDRÉS: But you did a crazy trip to India.
NEIL: Yeah, I did the 11 weeks.
ANDRÉS: What about you Harriet?
HARRIET: I went after university and I just always wanted to go experience it. I do like trains. I didn’t specifically go for the train.
ANDRÉS: All right. So you had an idea in your mind of where you were headed?
HARRIET: No, we had no idea. We wanted to go north into the Himalayas and even wanted to try and cross into Nepal. And instead we ended up in the south in Kerala and took a complete U-turn because we got stuck in a, in a bus station in Delhi and we didn’t know where else to go apart from the airport.
ANDRÉS: The one place you want to go when you go to India.
NEIL: So I did the opposite. I knew where I was going to stop, but I didn’t know where I was going to end.
ANDRÉS: But did you have India in your mind? Like, you know India?
NEIL: I only know Indian film and Indian food.
HARRIET: Actually, to be fair, in my third year of university, I studied Indian history.
ANDRÉS: Oh really?
HARRIET: Yeah. So that also might have played a role in why I wanted to go.
ANDRÉS: That’s a big one.
HARRIET: That’s a good point actually. I had just read about it for six months.
NEIL: Sounds kind of important.
ANDRÉS: Okay. So here’s, here’s another question. Trains
NEIL: 11 weeks in India and I did the whole thing driving or
ANDRÉS: On purpose or just because?
NEIL: On purpose.
NEIL: It’s the best way to travel, anywhere where you’ve got the option where you don’t have to leave the ground.
But then when I did get on the trains, I was like, oh my god, okay.
HARRIET: It’s quite intense.
ANDRÉS: But what does that mean?
HARRIET: Well, the first one that I got on in India, it was a sleeper carriage. So it was restricted in how many people could be in your sleeper. There was three and three, which is normal in a sleeper carriage.
It’s normal in Europe, whatever. And so we were like sleeping on these bunks, but then it got to six in the morning and the carriage turned into just like a normal carriage and a normal carriage is just like basically, just like hundreds of people just flooding on and just like sitting wherever they can.
So I was up on the top bunk and honestly, I think I must’ve had like seven people sharing my seat with me. Um, with basically my butt not touching the ground anymore. I’m, I’m pretty sure I was just like sat on a knee and then everyone else was just kind of cramped in around you. It’s an intense experience.
NEIL: Yeah. And it’s hours and hours and hours. And I remember going, I remember going to like a, the part between the carriages.
NEIL: And on a slow train, and there was a guy there, like looking out,
ANDRÉS: just leaning on the railing.
NEIL: Just leaning on the railing. He had like a, a piece of elastic and he was like strap, he was like tied, he tied himself to the door and he was asleep.
NEIL: and I looked at his feet and they were just like hanging like, like a dead man’s feet.
HARRIET: In India, their train system is good, right?
NEIL: It’s good.
HARRIET: It’s meant like, it’s meant to do what it does, even though
ANDRÉS: Yeah, it’s for transport.
HARRIET: It might take you awhile, but it does get you to really, really quiet areas of the whole of India. And that’s quite, that’s quite nice because to be honest, a lot of countries have stopped with their trains.
And now all of a sudden they’re trying to bring them back in, but they’ve already, like the UK, for example, I mean, obviously like every country flights became cheap and people stop taking the train. But there is still the connectivity, which many countries haven’t got anymore, which is really nice.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. This conversation has made me want to go to India. So let’s go.
SAVRITHA: I think the railway, uh, tells a lot about, uh, India, uh, because even if you were to travel and visit different parts of India, you would never get the kind of understanding that you do when you travel on the Indian trains.
HARRIET: This is Savrirtha Ramohan. She’s an urban planner. Her travels on the Indian trains inspired her to write a book of collected stories. Stories of the passengers she’s met while traveling the railways of this immense country.
SAVRITHA: India is a very diverse country with multiple cultures and multiple subcultures. It has a variety of food, languages, fades, and people from different economic strata as well. So when one travels on trains in India and the trains become like a melting pot, uh, one gets the true sense of what, uh, uh, India is.
HARRIET: Trains are a microcosm of Indian life. Each station specializes in different foods, different routes have their own characters, scenery, people, life. Savritha wanted to show the differences and similarities in Indian life through her stories. With me, she started with food.
SAVRITHA: The trains offer this amazing chance to experience different foods.
HARRIET: Each station along any given route has its own speciality. Some dishes are only available at the stations. You won’t even find them in the city you’re passing. From Varanasi Junction, Uttar Pradesh you can find Rabri, a northern delicacy, a creamy nutsy infusion of spices. Crossing over to Mathura Junction, you can find a delicacy called Mathura Peda, a little bowl loaded with ghee and khoya straight from the hearts of Uttar Pradesh.
If you ever get to travel across the sandy deserts of Rajasthan through Jodhpuri, you’ll find a dish called Mirchi Bajji, green fried chili peppers, stuffed with a spicy masala potato filling and deep fried. Every aspect of traveling by train in India is an experience. The food is just one small part.
It’s by far the best way to see a country and to meet the people. It’s cheap too, to a point, depending on how decadent you want to get.
HARRIET: But if you want the real India, the common travel third class, it is real loud, crowded, filled with aromas, colors, conversations, and opportunity.
HARRIET: In the 1840s, one of the first lines of the Indian railway was built from Bombay, which is now Mumbai to Thane. It’s eventual success led to the establishment of the East Indian Railway Company. But the construction of the country system was controversial. Exploitation of labor and passengers, many locals protested against the railway.
And by the late 1800s, it sprawled to even the most remote areas of India. So remote that at some stations there were reports of tiger attacks and of elephants destroying the tracks.
This was at a time when the British ruled India and of course they had managed to implement a class system within the train carriages.
In a letter written by George B. Bruce, a British civil engineer, on the 24th of December, 1853
NEIL: First-class carriages, in addition to venetians should have glass windows, strong leather purdahs to keep off the glare of the sun. Third-class carriages will only be used by natives, regardless of heat. A carriage with a simple roof supported by iron standards protected by strong leather or cloth curtains will be sufficient.
HARRIET: Even the nonviolent pro-independence figurehead, Mahatma Gandhi hated the railways for what it represented. He even wrote a book about it. It’s called Third Class in Indian Railways. Gandhi began traveling India in third class in protest to highlight the poor conditions across India as a result of British rule.
To him, they stood as a symbol of exploitation of the people of India. He also saw it as an opportunity to reconnect to India after leaving for so long.
[Archival footage about Gandhi and exchanging power.]
HARRIET: India gained independence on the 15th of August, 1947 and has maintained their railway system and brought it to a new level. The culture of train travel has thrived in books, poems, and films as a meeting space and the beginning of great stories.
One element that has always been sparked through stories on trains… romance. Savritha tells me about a woman from Kerala who met her husband on a train years before and fallen in love.
SAVRITHA: Uh, love marriages are still, uh, in many communities, not accepted.
HARRIET: A love marriage in India is a non-arranged marriage.
They are rare, but are slowly becoming more common. Figures are hard to get, but it’s thought that even today, arranged marriages makeup more or less 90% of the weddings in the country.
SAVRITHA: I mean, what is it there about the Indian trains that people start opening up and they feel totally comfortable with a random stranger, and then they start sharing every important or moments of their life. And they’re, I think something happens once they board and they get into this deep state of relaxation and, you know.
HARRIET: Savritha explained trains kind of have a freedom and lightness to them.
SAVRITHA: There are a lot of such funny moments aboard the train. So definitely not a place where people are serious and, you know, they tend to make a fool of you. There’ll be joint singing sessions, you know, random strangers getting on the train and they all start singing and dancing and all of that.
HARRIET: Savritha is in love with train travel, the people, the whole journey, and so am I.
I traveled in India a few years ago and I think trains are a beautiful place. Unlike a plane, there’s a freer sense to them. The whole thing is more communal and open. I remember the vibrant blue colors inside the carriages, the smell of spices from shared food, almost being able to touch nature through the windows.
Also, you really remember the people you meet along the way. I met a man called Dean in Kerala. He helped us get some train reservations across to Chennai on the east coast of the country. But first he invited us to his home for dinner and shared some stories of people who he’d met and helped. We had exchanged numbers back then, and he still works for the Indian railway.
So I decided to give him a call.
HARRIET: Hello, Dean.
DEAN: Hi, yes, Dean here.
HARRIET: Hi Dean. It’s been so long,
DEAN: Yes, yes, so long.
HARRIET: I just want a quick chat with you because one of the main people that I actually remember and remember meeting and talking to, was you. The most memorable thing was the book that you had with you.
DEAN: Yes, I have this tiny book, you know, that’s, uh, with a lot of information I used to have, that’s my regular habit.
HARRIET: And I distinctly remember you asking different people.
DEAN: Yes. Different people and different questions about each and every country. I have a great curiosity to know every country. Uh, I could speak, uh, 76 languages, few words.
HARRIET: And what, what made you want to learn those languages?
DEAN: I remember one beautiful phrase of Nelson Mandela.
He said, if you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.
HARRIET: What was your role in the railway?
DEAN: My profession is I’m working as a chief of the train reservations. And in India we have four big cities, four biggest cities.
One is Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, and my city, Chennai. Therefore I could win very wonderful friends around. Many good friends, just like you.
HARRIET: Dean told me about the people he’d met and the things he had written. I remember in his book, there were hundreds of notes from strangers in different languages. He reminds me of how large India really is and just how many people you can pass by in one single station.
Take Chennai for example. The east coast city which was once my Madras is one of the busiest, oldest and largest stations in the whole of India.
The station was once an old fort and it hosts about 150,000 people per day. A hectic crossing, but a great place to make friends quickly. A huge, heavy mass of people who want to connect. And with 40,000 miles of tracks, 12 million passengers per day, and 7,400 stations in the country, your options for adventures are endless.
ANDRÉS: Trains are definitely my favorite mode of travel because you don’t have to deal with a bus ass as I call it. Long-term bus travel will mess you up, like change your spinal…
NEIL: Yeah. Cause what are you going to do, walk from the middle toilet to the driver and back?
ANDRÉS: That’s about it. And they’ll definitely put on a Kung Fu movie that you don’t want to watch.
Anyway, the train has that like steady, dolly shot across landscapes and where you really get to see how the country changes, where you go. And that’s just amazing.
NEIL: It’s better than bus ass.
HARRIET: Maybe it’s because we’re in a place with no windows.
ANDRÉS: That’s something I just realized right now, as I was in front of his mic, the concept of bus ass.
NEIL: Bus ass sucks.
HARRIET: That does suck. That’s why I do love trains to be fair. I’m completely with you on that one.
NEIL: And if you’re like super, super brave in India, you can go up onto the roof.
ANDRÉS: Oh, did you do that?
NEIL: I did, yeah.
ANDRÉS: You became a different person in India.
HARRIET: Who are you?
NEIL: Yeah, I did it, but then I, uh, like everybody on top of the train, they’re all like kind of like, those who can speak English or the, the other travelers who are on the train, all just telling stories of people who got decapitated at like any given moment.
And so everyone’s like kind of lying down and kind of looking into, it’s like, is there a tunnel coming up?
NEIL: We’ll be right back after the break with more from Bollywood and an anonymous Indian radio love guru. We’ll see in a bit.
HARRIET: As times have changed, so has the world of travel. Cheap flights and hectic times have taken away from the classic romance of trains. Trains are now just a convenience or an inconvenience for many commuters, not for joy. However, there is one industry that never let go of its infatuation with train travel: Bollywood.
HARRIET: The golden era of Bollywood began in the 1940s. It’s known worldwide for its elaborate songs, dance sequences, melodramatic romance, and insane, eye popping set design. India is the largest producer of films across the world. The majority of that is Bollywood. It’s based out of Mumbai and today it’s thriving.
HARRIET: Imtiaz Ali is a film director who has continued a fascination with trains.
IMTIAZ: Well, I do feel that Bollywood has really influenced people towards train travel in the past and in the present, it has given a picture of great romance and, uh, kind of a social happiness.
HARRIET: Train journeys have been a beloved catalyst in Bollywood to spark action and romance.
The train is a character of its own, but the most common theme is a flat out over the top, hip wiggling, wild and unabashed romance.
IMTIAZ: Indians are obsessed with romance, and that’s why we are the second largest populated country in the world I think
HARRIET: Imtiaz has grown up in a small town. He went to university, traveled as a director and fell in love with train travel.
So much so, he set up his own production company called Window Seat Films. He has encapsulated his love for trains and shared the experience he’s had in every single one of his films. They all contain train travel in some way and romance, lots of romance.
IMTIAZ: I feel that we have developed our own methods of how to do romantic films.
Traditional stories also have, have a lot of romance. They’re Indian love legends.
HARRIET: Love legends come from Puranas, ancient or old stories. Imtiaz told me a love legend, one that is retold throughout Bollywood cinema history. It’s called Heer Ranja.
IMTIAZ: It’s about a guy who is real full and young, and he has heard about the legendary beauty of this girl who’s called Heer who lives on the other side of the river. And when he is teased, uh, by his, um, sisters in law, he actually says to them that I am going to meet her and marry her.
HARRIET: He crosses the river and begins working on Heer family’s farm, where they eventually fall in love.
IMTIAZ: And all hell broke loose, because this seemed like a big conspiracy.
HARRIET: Heer leaves the village and she’s forced into an arranged marriage by her parents. But one day Heer returns
IMTIAZ: And these two people are on the run now and the village goes after them to look for them and to catch them. And finally, they managed to catch them. Unnatural things start to happen in that area. It’s almost as though their bond is so strong that even when they were trying to separate them, there was some natural signs like, you know, the lightning would strike and the thunder would sound, etc.
The King decided that love is supreme and they should be together.
HARRIET: Just before the wedding takes place, her uncle asks her for forgiveness and offers a gift. He tells her,
IMTIAZ: I have brought you this sweet lemonade.
HARRIET: But of course, the lemonade is poisoned. She passes away before Rajah’s wedding procession even reaches the village and the wedding and the funeral cross paths.
He realizes she’s died.
IMTIAZ: And he goes to places where he is being buried and after he is buried, he hits his head on the tombstone and he passes away.
HARRIET: The love legends dictated a lot of the early Bollywood movies with the notion of a Romeo and Juliet effect. Every country has a Romeo and Juliet. This isn’t unique, but what seems to be more prevalent is that it has echoes of the Indian society throughout, the barriers of this classic love marriage story.
IMTIAZ: What happens on the Indian train, Harriet, is that people that are of different types get an opportunity to be in the same space for an elongated period of time and get to know each other. People that could never, ever be in each other’s spaces because of cultural differences, social differences, differences of status, et cetera, differences of education and class.
All those people are thrown in together. People from all different types get to know each other in an Indian train. And then this happens in reality as well. And of course, this is shown in cinema.
HARRIET: This notion of barriers and love stories is universal, but is almost its own genre in India.
IMTIAZ: Young guys and young girls could not hang together and be friends and there was always a rule to be broken, to be together. Very often in most of the stories, the guy and the girls were allowed to hang, then nothing would have perhaps happened.
ANDRÉS: I got a little swept up. I got a little swept up there
NEIL: in the romance.
ANDRÉS: Like the problem with romcoms is that it doesn’t have somebody killing themselves by slamming their head against the tombstone.
You know what I’m saying?
NEIL: Yeah, on purpose.
ANDRÉS: Like a good love story has to have end
NEIL: The further you go back in any culture you get to tragedy and chaos and all that sort of stuff. And then on top of that, you’ve got this still existing Hindi idea of you marry this person.
ANDRÉS: Right, 90%. And yet, what was it like, the, the divorce rate is.
NEIL: It’s not even 2%.
ANDRÉS: And I find that really interesting because it’s like when you take away romanticism from marriage and it seems to works better
NEIL: It just becomes a job that you can never leave.
HARRIET: I guess what’s interesting about love stories in India is that… okay, in the puranas they’re devastating, like they are in any culture. I mean, everyone always dies at the end of them and it’s tragic, that’s normal.
But the fact is in Bollywood, it continues to be the idea of the romance and the love at first meeting, even through like the forties, I mean, not so much today because there is more kind of love marriages, but in the forties, when there wasn’t as many, the idea that all of the cinemas were showing films of love.
ANDRÉS: That’s where you experienced the love, but not in real life,
HARRIET: Yeah, they barely existed in the moment.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, romantic love is a musical. Whereas the reality is a different thing.
HARRIET: The sheer size of both the Indian rail network and the time spent on these journeys is huge. India’s longest route is called the Vivek Express, a 4,200 kilometer route starting in the Northeast, Dibrugarh in the state of Assam, where the hills are covered in green tea plantations, plains and river valleys. The route touches nine states and 15 major cities.
Here is Imtiaz again.
IMTIAZ: Constantly changing scenery, there is constant breeze that is blowing. Um, you know, because mostly in Indian trains when you travel the windows are open. You’re, you’re actually in touch with nature.
HARRIET: The journey snakes all the way down to Kanyakumari’s lush beaches in the state of Tamil, home to a 3000 year old temple on the Bay of Bengal.
It’s a long journey. You’re with the same people for 48 hours or more. And you’re always looking for something to do, some conversation.
IMTIAZ: You somehow find yourself, you, you, you, you are already pre-marinated in a state that you could be very romantic with each other. That’s the beginning of a romance.
HARRIET: As a director, Imtiaz can’t resist the types of moments you can catch it on a carriage.
Like a scene from his film, Jab We Met, as a woman jumps onto a moving train. From goodbyes at a platform, dinner cart meetings, to looking out at a moving train. It’s the perfect scene for romance and a space for freedom and opportunities.
Imtiaz took from these experiences and in one way or another, they influenced his filmmaking.
IMTIAZ: There was this young girl who was trying to emulate her mother by serving the food in the same way that her mother was serving her father and couldn’t believe it. And it was something that even the parents kind of could see this little girl trying to do. And there was that newness with which she did things.
She put the food in the plate and she put a little curry on the side and she put some letters on the side and she put the plate as though she is my wife or something. I’ve never forgotten that. Decades and decades afterwards that incident, that girl, that family is still with me.
HARRIET: He explained he had acted like part of the family. Running out, getting the parents tea and water sitting, chatting, and eating with them. What I got from his reaction was the pure surprise that the parents had been so open to him. Almost allowed him to be part of that family for that tiny section of time.
IMTIAZ: You know we are so-called conservative as a society. And I’m amazed that they are allowing the girl to do this to a total stranger, who’s not even from their religion and religion is unfortunately a big deal in this country.
Today these people have stayed in my life forever and they have always influenced me. God knows how many stories have been influenced by just this little girl.
HARRIET: Even though he perceived them as incredibly conservative and strict, Imtiaz never thought this kind of situation could happen, but it did on a train and it stayed with him.
IMTIAZ: I loved it. I thought, you know, I thought that I’ve lived a life that I wouldn’t otherwise. And they had no idea who I was, which gave me the ability of being anybody that I wanted to at that point of time.
Always, I’ve been quite shy as I was growing up. So while traveling in trains, I would pretend to be a guy that’s not shy, that can actually reach out and talk to people, you know? And that was interesting for me. I thought I was some other character playing some other life when I was in situations like this.
HARRIET: Bollywood’s fascination with trains has come from the real and constant interactions with people on them.
But unlike India’s love legends, Bollywood films always tend to have a happy ending. Despite the barriers to love, love triumphs. Well, at least in fantasy.
HARRIET: I spoke with Savritha again. She wanted to tell me one last story, not from her book, but one a little more personal.
While studying at university, Savritha traveled on a train with a group of friends
SAVRITHA: From, uh, Chennai to Kerala. And, uh, we had no clue that, you know, two of our friends really liked each other.
And I think some of the train proved itself to be like the ideal place, they kind of, uh, uh, kind of express their love for each other on the train. And then we were all there to celebrate it and, you know, a big bunch of friends.
HARRIET: The two friends have spent a lot of time together on that train and they decided to tell their friends that they were together. Savritha explained that the journey had become their meeting place almost.
Picture an overnight train. Bunks rattling, the crew retired to their dorms while passengers watch across the cages with half closed eyes. The couple sneaking out of the sleeper car together.
SAVRITHA: Obviously some of us didn’t get sleep. So, you know, we were still watching what’s happening. But, uh, then I think the next morning when they woke up, they discovered that, you know, all of us knew about what had happened.
HARRIET: Spending those long journeys, locking eyes across the bunks and waiting for everyone to go to sleep, they found themselves in their very own Romeo and Juliet story.
SAVRITHA: What happened later was quite unfortunate that, uh, this, uh, these two friends actually came from two, uh, different, uh, religions.
HARRIET: The parents stopped this romance pretty quickly.
SAVRITHA: The parents of, uh, the girl did not approve of this whole thing. And, uh, they forcibly got her married to, uh, a boy from the same religion. And, uh, then it became like, you know, uh, the sad ending to, uh, the romantic story that, uh, started on board the train.
SAVRITHA: It is very much like what is shown in the Indian movies that the girl was literally, uh, you know, uh, kept under watch around the clock so that she would not, uh, run away because you know, in India, there are a lot of stories about, uh, girls, uh, the runaway weddings that both the boy and the girl would leave without telling the parents and they go secretly and they have a registered marriage, and then they announce it after three months and the parents are searching. The police is searching.
HARRIET: The secret, the left up runaways, the rebels and the families at odds… these stereotypes are much the stories of Bollywood, but also remains the universal archetype, the star-crossed lovers falling for each other on the train.
It’s a cliche, but in India, it’s a much more important one somehow… because of the reality of falling in love.
NEIL: Trains are built for two things in cinema, murder and love. And that’s it
ANDRÉS: like how often, when you were on trains in India, how often when you were next to the dude strapped to the ceiling, trying to sleep standing up, for example, how romantic was that?
NEIL: I fell in love with him instantly, because I was like this guy is fucking amazing. No, I fell in love once in India with a librarian.
HARRIET: Let’s unpack that.
NEIL: That’s the end of that story.
HARRIET: I think the thing that does happen on trains is that you speak to people. You’re on a long journey with someone, you’re going to have to get to know them pretty quickly.
HARRIET: In many places, love marriages are becoming more and more accepted by families. But the cultural pressure of an arranged marriage is still a big theme. I wanted to get to the heart of true love in India. And with that, I found the love guru.
LOVE GURU: Okay so hi, I’m love guru. I host a very, very popular show.
HARRIET: The love guru is broadcast out of Mumbai every day from a radio station called radio city. It’s available across India in multiple languages.
LOVE GURU: So uh, it’s a completely anonymous identity. The identity is kept hidden.
HARRIET: The love guru has been the love guru for 20 years. But that’s about all the personal information I managed to get out of him.
He is completely anonymous and has been his entire career.
LOVE GURU: So the beauty of this hidden identity is that it’s very relatable for the listeners. They connect very easily and they share things, uh, being in a comfort zone. And that’s the beauty of it.
HARRIET: So talking about love all day, every day, what’s that like?
LOVE GURU: You try to find connection in everything. Even if a random song comes up to you on a radio station, you become an observer. And I constantly keep on observing people, you know, constantly studying their body languages, their expression, you know, to, to understand it more deeply.
Any listener who got connected to me once becomes a part of my family, becomes a part of my life because that person in a way has taught me something.
LOVE GURU: We are still living. We are living in 2020, but still I get a lot of queries around intercaste marriages. So intercaste marriages are still the toughest one in India.
HARRIET: The caste system in India dates back very far, mainly within the Hindu faith. It’s divided depending on your background, separated into a rigid hierarchical group.
For many in India, the idea that an intercaste marriage wouldn’t be accepted is a thing of the past. However, the love guru gets questions from all over the country.
LOVE GURU: If the listener is from a small town or a small city, the parents won’t even allow them to do a love marriage. So they have a kind of a barrier in their mind that you should not do a love marriage.
He or she knows that the parents are not ready to accept. So they’ll ask me that, um, how to convince our parents, how to make them believe that we are not from other planet. If you love someone, if you are standing strongly for that person, it may take some time. Either parents will give up or you’ll have to give up.
HARRIET: So speaking from your experience, what’s the most common form of marriage?
LOVE GURU: Most of us, I think used to do an arranged marriage because that’s how marriages happen in India. Most of them, the majority of them. If you feel comfortable doing an arranged marriage, it’s up to you.
HARRIET: Marriage has obviously changed in India around the ideas of religion, caste and love marriages, but an arranged marriage is still the norm.
90% are arranged marriages, but within the younger generation, only 76 would choose an arranged marriage.
LOVE GURU: Inter-religion and intercaste marriages are still a barrier in India. So when you hear, uh, listeners having that interaction, you will feel that okay. But yes, still there is a barrier. This intercaste and inter-religion is still a barrier.
So the decision, um, the ultimate decision comes from the family. And in India, you don’t, you don’t marry someone, you marry sort of a family.
HARRIET: I wanted to ask the love guru. How about love on trains? Would someone with 20 years of experience in being the country’s love guru have the same romantic view of trains as me?
LOVE GURU: So I got a call in 2015, where I got a call from Sammy. Uh, he said that I travel to work in a local train. I see a girl every day at the same location reboard and deboard the train at the same station. The girl looks at me. She was really pretty, but I never had a courage to speak to her. So what should I do?
So then I just said to him that you guys meet, you guys stare at each other, you know, there’s no harm in simply seeing a hi or hello to that person. After six months and he said that, congratulations, and thank you that, uh, you know, I’m dating the same girl. It was just a matter of saying hello. And, uh, that’s, that’s how our story started.
And every story has its own essence. Every story has a story, a love story. I believe in a lot of coincidences. I believe that, uh, relationships, uh, ultimately is an outcome of a coincidence. There’s no surety that, um, where you meet someone or how will you meet someone. It’s meant to be happened, you meet someone, there’s an interaction that starts. How you take things forward does matter.
HARRIET: Bollywood thrives in romance of love marriages. By enforcing the classic Capulet and Montague barriers. It gives this fantasy extra drama with the ideology that love conquers all. The traditional reality mixed with the fantastical dream. Love marriage versus arranged marriage might seem like a no-brainer to us in the West, but when the whole ethos of your country’s dominant religion is based on that way of thinking.
What does it mean for people who want a choice?
LOVE GURU: Parents have their own experience of life. But, uh, as someone who’s young, as someone who has a different kind of experience, who has different kinds of exposure of the society, of, um, of, of, of other things. I think, yes, it is a conservative way of choosing someone.
It’s hard to say that it’s ever going to change, but I would say it’s about belief. There are people, there are families who believe in arranged marriage. So this is about belief. If you want to spend your whole life with someone, you should be the one to choose that person.
HARRIET: The whole idea of train travel is that people from all walks of life can cross an entire nation. It’s the every man’s transport, but is it romantic and weird of me to think that the railway can cross cultures, religion, and history. Regardless, both India’s beauty and its troubles are highlighted on the Indian railway.
And the reality is coming closer to the fantasy. Shifts in ratios of love marriages and arranged marriages are becoming more apparent. Trains make a great place for romance and friendship, but love has no set path.
ANDRÉS: You need to be marinated in order to fall in love. It’s so true.
ANDRÉS: You have to be pickled properly.
NEIL: Yeah, you have to be pickled from a previous relationship, but you have to be left to sit for a little while after that, until you’re just about ready to be okay with being single. And that’s when you meet someone, you’re like, ah, happens every time.
ANDRÉS: But it’s not just that, it’s also the fact that you have to have like, had that thing that the train has, go far enough
NEIL: To meet somebody else.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. So, okay, I have to tell you this, because this is my best, my favorite train thing. When I was in this train trip in the States, every night they’d put you in the dining car with random people because they had a certain amount of seats.
And since I was alone, I was put with other people. So every night I was a different person. The first night I was myself. I was like so where are you from? Bolivia and I was in, you know, that America.
NEIL: You quickly realize, oh shit, this is not going to work.
ANDRÉS: The questions and questions like, oh, Bolivia, so is that like in Africa? It was that level of conversation.
So by the second night I just went well, yeah, wherever I could go with it. You know, I didn’t, I make stuff up about the history of Bolivia, say that we spoke different languages, that there’s sections of the country that we lived in tree houses. Just anything I could come up with, it was amazing, but it was, there is something liberating about trains and I’m trying to put my finger on it as I’m talking.
The fact that it’s in motion, you’re in with strangers and there is a romance to that, just that scene.
HARRIET: And I think also it’s not just about the romance as in like love romance. It’s more about the romance of the idea that you’re there and you’re kind of sat in this space and you have to talk to these people and yeah, they have no idea who you are. You can literally be anyone you want to be.
ANDRÉS: It’s crazy because it’s also like you have a place to go and you know, that…
NEIL: Yeah, that’s what I was about to say. There’s an ending to it.
ANDRÉS: I can be,
NEIL: I am an arms dealer from Belgium or whatever.
No, there’s something nice about that. Like that opportunity to go I don’t know any of these people and were getting off and that’s it. And that’s pure opportunity, right?
HARRIET: And sometimes that’s enough.
NEIL: For like narcissistic liars, like us.
NEIL: We’re the rare, like group of three people where I think this is true, that the three of us never know when anybody likes them or is into them ever.
ANDRÉS: Ding, ding, ding. Yeah, until it’s like really like late in the night and you’re like, ohhhh.
NEIL: Or until your friends are going, what, what is wrong with you?
ANDRÉS: Yeah, definitely.
NEIL: This week’s saved pins are along one of India’s most beautiful train routes, the Vivek Express. It’s one of the most Epic journeys I’ve ever taken. So enjoy these.
Number one. Forget the film, if you want the real Darjeeling experience head to the hills of the Himalayas, where the Darjeeling limited steam train still operates. Guiding you to the highest station in the whole of India, Ghum.
ANDRÉS: Number two, coming back down, go to Dibrugarh station where you can jump on the vivek express. With 52 stops and 4234 km of passing scenery, from snow mountains, desert, tea gardens, coconut plantation to sandy covered beaches. You can spend over 80 hours on this train journey, and somehow end up with just one shoe and a t-shirt on your back, like Neil.
NEIL: Number three, just before jumping on the train, head to the outskirts of Dibrugarh in the state of Assam, where you can explore the tea plantations picking each tea leaf straight from the hills themselves. It’s beautiful, I’ve been there.
ANDRÉS: Number four, if you got a little motion sickness, stop off in the city of Bhubaneswar, in the lesser visited state of Orissa, known as The Temple City. With a hangover from the 1970’s hippy trail, you can take the pilgrimage to the temple of sun, it’s not to be missed.
NEIL: Number five, at the end of the Vivek express line, get off and stretch your legs in Kanyakumari, where you can visit the famous Vivekananda Memorial. Just four hundred metres offshore lies this famous rock, where Hindu apostle Swami Vivekananda meditated from 25 to 27 December 1892 and decided to take his moral message beyond India’s shores.
The man who this great train journey is named after.
ANDRÉS: Thanks for listening guys. Next week, we’re going to a place that doesn’t exist, but kind of does: Disney, for the strangest MisInfoNation yet.
NEIL: In the meantime, you can visit us at frequencymachine.com/passport, and you can find us on all social media, just search for passport podcast. We’ll see you next Tuesday.
This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Harriet Davies and edited by Harriet and myself.
Huge thanks to Savritha Rahmohan, Imtaiz Ali and The Love Guru.
We will put appropriate links to all of these people in our show notes.
Music in this show and our theme tune is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Aurcle, Music Box, Sun Cuts, Mondo Jermo, On the Barby, ye olde data plan and Thirst Follow.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijanksy are meditating right now, on the third plane… They also executive produce the show…
Which is hosted by myself and a spicy man that you can eat as much of as you want and never get sick, Andrés Bartos.
He’s actually here.
ANDRÉS: It’s the first time that I actually get to witness this happening in my face.
NEIL: See you in the next place.
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