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Memories Of A Lost World

Parmar on the Orient The charm is unparalleled, the romance never dies. There is a mysterious splendour about an Indian train ride. With different landscapes, contrasting lifestyles, quaint stations, garam chais and a host of interesting people, the journey unravels endearing vignettes of the Indian way of life. It is earthy and real. And perhaps the only way to experience the colour, richness and texture of India.

The Royal Orient Express. Just one of those great journeys...

TEXT: Archana Masih. PHOTOGRAPHS: Jewella C Miranda.

Professor Oleg D Sherby is crazy about swords. "Do you think I can buy a sword here...perhaps a Damascus steel sword?" The guides didn't know that particular one, well neither did we. But somewhere down the week-long trip aboard The Royal Orient Express, all of us were craning at the sight, sound, haze and whisper of a sword. Such was our collective enthusiasm that even drab blacksmiths seemed interesting. As a matter of fact, Ollie, that's what we called him, even visited one in an obscure lane in Diu.

He finally bought a dagger. From one of those shops in Jaipur for Rs 21,000. Our weary eyes popped. The shopkeeper had first quoted Rs 45,000. The closest anyone got to that was Chandra. She bought a huge ring, covering three-fourths of her finger for Rs 7,000.

"The guide must have made a fat commission. That's why he separated him from the rest of us." The IAS officer from the Uttar Pradesh tourism department was certain. With fourteen months behind him in the industry, we believed he knew the tricks-of-the-guide-trade. But Ollie wasn't bothered, his partner's bout of diarrhoea was a more pressing situation.

Welcoming the passengers Memories of a lost world. That's what the train promised. Blue, cream and gold. Oval panes. Brocade curtains. Saffron turbaned staff. Steam engines. Red carpetted, marigold garland reception. It sure was an archaic beginning to a journey that would take us through the dust and colour of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The winter afternoon bore whiffs of a serene old world charm. A few tracks away stood the 140-year-old Fairy Queen, probably the oldest working engine in the world. Being prepared for that one last journey before going back to the Rail Museum, where she had sat for 25 years, the small engine was a vintage point within the humdrum of the New Delhi cantt railway station.

The Royal Orient engineBut our engine was no less impressive. In fact, we had two, with a huge emblem. What was more impressive was the qualification of our driver. Dr. That's what the abbreviation on the board outside the engine read. We seemed to like him, more so because he allowed Jewella and me to travel in the engine. The deafening chugging sound, frequently made worse by piercing whistles, coupled with the shovelling of coal and the exercise of collecting tokens by the firemen made conversation impossible.

Inside the engineForty-five minutes later, ears shot and showered with coal confetti, we hopped off. Much as we wanted, we couldn't find the opportunity of pursuing the subject of our driver's qualifications. It was only much later, a day before the trip finished, I finally got the extension of that abbreviation - Driver.

"Are you Gujarati?" was Chauhan's first query. "Would you like to see what I've shot in my video camera?" At our first meeting at the reception area in Delhi, Chauhan showed us shots of the Fairy Queen on his handycam. From Vancouver, the Chauhans were on their annual holiday and the the quietest couple on board. We found out later that his 65-year-old wife Narmada neither understood Hindi or English, only Gujarati.

Rewari in Haryana brought the end of our brief flirtation with the steam locomotive. From there began a seven day long association with the diesel engine. It was the first of the several small, quiet stations we halted at during the trip. Stragglers on the platforms looked on curiously. Something, we grew accustomed with as we went along. Some just stood and stared, some passed disconcerted glances and some were a cluster of flattened noses on the window pane. There was violence too. By day five the train had six or seven cracked window panes.

Aboard the Royal OrientYellow mustard fields rushed past, small clusters of habitation and huge expanses of the Indian countryside. The train chugged on. References to Vikram Seth's 1, 456 page The Suitable Boy kept the British and the Indian couple on board busy. Their discussion rising above the strains of the music of Kenny G's music. The other end extended into a small library with V S Naipaul's A Million Mutinies,the most conspicuous book in the shelf. On a closer look, it even looked like the most thumbed tome on board.

The Chauhans moved from Navsari in Gujarat to Canada in 1971 where they own a jewellery store on Main street. "Oh, Sony and sons. It's a big store. I've been there." Chandra, the vivacious civil servant from Tamil Nadu, was excited about the association. "I didn't buy anything the last time, but now when I go I'll make it a point to buy something," she added.

Picturesque View The ominous 13. Sitting in the plush reception area at Delhi cantt station, none of us knew that that was the sum total of all the passengers aboard the Royal Orient. 13. Out of which, some got off the very next day, some joined us midway, some did not complete the trip. Eventually, after two tummy upsets, one sprained ankle, a brief brawl, ten cities and a week of living on a train, only nine survived to tell this tale.

Chittorgarh. The morning rays were still struggling to break the shroud of darkness when we reached this historic town in southern Rajasthan. Laced with tales of unbelievable chivalry, of Rajput honour, of hair raising accounts of mass immolation, of the beautiful Padmini and of the cruel exploits of Allauddin Khilji, there lay a melancholic charm about this town. It took you to those lessons in Indian history learnt way back in primary school and those rousing, thumping patriotic songs on national holidays.

Chittorgarh Fort "My name is Ran Vijay Singh." The reverie broken by our black suit-clad, earringed guide. "Ran for war; Vijay for victory; Singh for lion." Thus with a clinical dissection of his name we reached the Chittorgarh fort . The sun was now a glowing orange ball above the ruins of the thrice sacked fort, which witnessed, each time a poignant and heroic defeat of its Rajput warriors.

A bunch of monkeys welcomed us at the beautifully sculpted Vijay Stambh. The American couple, Ollie and Marilyn, were completely taken in by the 400-year-old structure. "We were Vijay Stambh probably still head hunting then," said Marilyn, emerging out of the tower. The low lintels bruised Ollie's head, but he didn't care. Ranakumbha's tower towered over such paltry physical discomfort.

"Madam, please buy...only 300 rupees. See, I'm student...please take..." "Yes, they're pretty...but no thank you," said Marilyn to the necklace which I could have sworn was available on Bombay's Colaba Causeway for Rs 60.

Service on the Royal Orient Breakfast every morning was in the small electric blue lounge in our carriage. Except for the penultimate morning when the conference room, to be used in a few weeks for an on-board Mahindra & Mahindra conference, was spread into our first and final collective meal. The staple fare of eggs, toast, cutlets, juice, fruits, tea or coffee served with wilful hospitality by two attendants manning every carriage.

Parmar, the attendant on our carriage, was a pleasant, friendly chap from Sasangir, Gujarat. Every time we returned to the train, he would wait to help us with our knapsacks, ever willing to serve chalu chai the moment we reached the coach. He recounted experiences with earlier guests, gave us handy tips of getting rid of shoe bites and spoke about Ramila, whom he would marry next February. Such was his enthusiasm that ten days after the trip I still miss his ready service.

Kenny G's saxophone was to remain the only music we listened to on board. This did not, of course, include the relentless singing of the IAS officer from UP in the carriage corridors. "Chod aye hum woh galiyan..." from Gulzar's Maachis remained Amit Prasad's week-long favourite. In tribute to the ditty, he and his wife Rani even found time to watch the film on the video in the carriage lounge during the hectic trip.

Lake Pichola "Raj has used his influence to get me a corner room at the Lake Palace hotel at such a short notice," said Peter looking across at the beautiful hotel in the centre of lake Pichola in Udaipur. Raj Singh said he organised designer holidays for a select clientele.

A later conversation with Sanjay Gupte, the train's onboard manager, revealed that Singh's agency sent at least 20 passengers on the Palace on Wheels every week. A prospective business arrangement with Peter, the Californian, had prompted an exploratory trip aboard the Royal Orient. They broke the journey at Udaipur the next day to board the Palace on Wheels.

City Palace "This banquet hall was used for one of the preliminary rounds of the Miss India contest," said our guide, pointing at the section of the City Palace, , now converted into a hotel. But the group wasn't really listening. Swords. There City Palace were scores of them on the wall and Ollie had already taken over. He excitedly explained the contours, the details of every weapon and the guide forgotten, we found ourselves eagerly following him. Shilpgram

The maharaja's antique Rolls Royce and the judicious use of the solitary loo delayed us in getting to Shilpgram, the crafts village.No, rest assured that was not our transport to the village, we just lingered over it a wee bit longer and reached our bus late.