Trips to Poona are always looked forward to. And ever since the Mumbai-Poona expressway was thrown open to public, an endless supply of seats on the buses and taxis are hawked 24/7 at Dadar. But my favourite way to go to Poona has always been- and will always be- by train. Nothing compares to the excitement of the age-old (but still looks fresh) drill: to reach the station in time, locating your train standing pretty on one of the numerous platform, then locating your compartment, checking your name on the reservation chart (even though you know you're dead sure it's there because naturally you have reserved tickets and that too in your hand), and then finally entering it amidst countless stares from co-passengers who are already smugly seated inside as if to say "hah, we beat you to it!".
Earlier I used to take the Indrayani Express that leaves Mumbai VT at 5.45 am. That was a time when waking up at 4.30 am at home was acceptable. Today, with my work life taking up all my time and a good eight-hour sleep a rarity, I don't feel like waking up so early. And in any case, I have never been a morning person. I am more than okay to sleep late, but it's a pain to get up so early. Besides, the time I reach my home in Poona, take a bath, have something to eat and get fresh, it's already post lunch time and I feel half my day has gone to waste. But mind you, going to Poona during sunrise also has it charm, especially as you enter Khandala and Lonavala, the twin hill stations on the way.
In the past few years though, I've been smitten by Deccan Queen, the superfast Mumbai-Poona train. It leaves Mumbai VT at just about the right time; 5.10 pm. I can comfortably finish work, say on a Friday evening and leave a bit early. Like all Mumbai-Poona train,this one is punctual too. No unreserved passengers even in the II class compartments, unlike packed sardine compartments in Western Railway trains, except perhaps Deccan Express and the other slow trains on the corridor. Also, for some reason that I can't really explain and might sound illogical, the crowd here seems more civilised.
No sooner than the Deccan Queen breezes past Dadar where it does not stop, the catering staff enters your compartment with supply of tea, coffee and water. Soon, he comes to takes your order. Deccan Queen is supposed to have one of the last surviving non AC dining cars; a pantry car compartment that comes along with a small sit-out restaurant with tables and chairs for passengers to enjoy their cup of tea and eatables. I have never been there but it is quite a novel experience I am told. Cheese toast sandwich, plain cheese sandwich, omelette, chicken sandwich, vej cutlet and some 1-2 other items I don't remember, are on the menu. After Karjat station, kanda-bhajia is also served, piping hot and then towards the end of the journey; Parsi Dairy Farm kulfi, though this time the kulfi wasn't on the menu, I wonder why.
At about 6.35 pm, the train arrives at Karjat, its first halt, where every train going to Poona is fitted with two engines at the rear to give it an extra push to go up the ghat section. This climb is particularly enjoyable during the monsoon- and from a second-class compartment minus those tinted glasses of the AC ones- where many waterfalls temporarily formed by flowing rain water can be seen in mountains through which the train passes. Sometimes, the drops of the gushing water can touch you. Both Karjat and Lonavala stations belong to another era; unpopulated and gives you an old-age British feel that is not touched by modernisation. Karjat is famous for its Vadas, but I don't much care for them. However, you do feel like getting off and breathing the air around the stations atleast, even for a few minutes while the twin rear engines are joined and detached, respectively. Because once the train reaches Poona and you step out of the station, it's the same hustle-bustle city life and you're brought back to reality.
picture courtesy: The Indian Express