For those commuting daily between Pune and Mumbai, the Deccan Queen is still the most favoured train.
There’s a silver lining to a daily commute that takes three hours and 15 minutes—each way—for the Pune denizens who use the Deccan Queen to get to work in Mumbai. They travel in civilised comfort and through pristine landscapes that would be the envy of straphangers from local suburbs heading to the metropolis on an overloaded wheel and a desperate prayer.
Shortly before 7am, the Deccan Queen pulls her blue-and-cream- striped length into Pune Central station to begin the 192km journey. No frenzied stampede for a seat erupts, no enterprising young man clambers with foolhardy bravado onto the rooftop. The remarkably peaceable behaviour owes to the strictly enforced rule that passengers hold a monthly pass for Rs 475 or reserved ticket for Rs 83—or make do with the two ‘general’ coaches. So most commuters amble to their seats, and proceed to unfurl newspapers or even sit crosslegged with a sleeping infant across their lap.
In less than half an hour, scenes from a pastoral idyll unfold. Horse farms, pearly in the morning mist, are girded by stone walls as well as the Sahyadri mountain range. The hills, which partner the Deccan Queen almost all through her route, loom close and retreat. The fantastic shapes of their pinnacles and spurs are silhouetted by an overcast monsoon sky. The first rains of this monsoon season have rejuvenated the trees—soapnut, bamboo, pine, flame of the forest—so that they glow like young rice fields.
Vasant Sharma, a 59-year-old passenger, sniffs the air. “Abhi baarish gira tha, mitti ka khushboo aata hai (The rain has just fallen, I can smell the wet earth),” he says. Sharma has been a daily commuter on the Deccan Queen for the past 20 years. A small, wiry man with a vast, enviable knowledge of the train and the towns it passes through, Sharma insists that the black cliffs glistening with rainwater don’t as yet possess anything akin to the glory they will display in another month or two.
In July and August, when the rains are at their peak, waterfalls bedeck the cliffs so that they turn “white, like sugar”.At Monkey Hill station, peacocks, monkeys and rabbits appear so close to the tracks that the passengers practically feed them by hand. “Koi roti dalta hai, koi finger chips dalta hai (Someone gives bread, someone gives finger chips),” he says.
A courier by occupation, Sharma does door-to-door delivery of “letters and small packages” between Pune and Mumbai. For him, the end of this rail journey means more travel—by bus, local trains and autos to the bowels of Bhendi Bazar, Zaveri Bazar and Crawford Market in the south of the city, and then as far north as Borivali. But he avers the physically demanding commute doesn’t faze him. “Rush rahta nahin, comfortable seat hai (There’s no rush, the seats are comfortable),” he says contentedly.
Like Sharma, scores of passengers travel to work every day between Pune and Mumbai on the Deccan Queen. One of the Indian Railways’ best-loved trains, she was named after the city of Pune, popularly known as the Queen of the Deccan because of her salubrious climate and cultural wealth.
She has engendered a close-knit group of commuters, who celebrate birthdays, festivals, anniversaries and promotions on board, and reportedly even finagle marriages. They include those eking out a living, like Sharma, as well as bank officials, railway workers, and employees of insurance companies and the municipal corporation.
Interestingly, given its passenger diversity, the Deccan Queen was originally designed as an exclusive, weekend special for the gora sahibs of the British Raj. It was only around 1943, after Indians were allowed on board, that traffic increased enough to justify a daily service. In appearance and standard of comfort, it was distinctly colonial. The rakes were silver with scarlet mouldings and royal blue with golden trim, the bogies had teak frames with steel panel plates, the interior panelling and mouldings were made of maple and walnut wood, and the windows had gauze and Venetian shutters.
At the time of its inception, the train was reportedly the country’s first superfast train and the first long-distance electric train. It was among the first to feature a Ladies Only car and a dining car. The state-of-the-art pantry was fitted with grills, a steam oven, fish fryers, boilers and an electric refrigerator.
The Deccan Queen’s culinary repertoire continues to be among its strongest attractions. Minutes into the journey, a navy-clad railway worker strolls down the aisle with a steel can of tamatar soup. The banquet never stops. Besides the regulation ‘omelette-cutlet-cheese-toast’, the train offers local specialities such as sabudaana vadas with perfectly crispened shells and kaanda bhajjias that almost crackle when torn.
Sharma knows his route so well that he unerringly predicts that the best, the most steaming hot, onion fritters are to be had “before Karjat”. He reveals the best view of the train is to be had at Palashdar, when it curves crescent-shaped around a hill. He points out that the myriad lights twinkling at Khopoli mark the Tata power plant, that the factories at Pimpri belong to Hindustan Antiobiotics, and that Ambarnath houses the Wimco match factory.
He says, without a trace of immodesty, that he can tell which station is coming up by the buildings alongside the track or by a feature of the landscape such as a mountain.
While Sharma speaks, the Deccan Queen begins to climb. As the elevation increases, reaching more than 2,000ft above sea level, the hills crowd in. Soon the train is hurtling through the first tunnel, and others follow in rapid succession. The train slips from shadow to light, offering glimpses of valleys cradling tile-roofed settlements set in emerald fields and thickly forested gorges in which the river at the base can barely be discerned. Occasionally, the scar of a landslide or stone quarry blights the view.
The train barrels between the hill station of Khandala and Karjat, so fast that the 27 tunnels Sharma claims to have once counted seems like a preposterous overestimate. Another passenger is reminded of the fact that the train covered the Pune-Mumbai distance in its initial years in a breakneck two hours and 45 minutes. Its electric engine revolutionised rail travel in India—the journey previously took six hours by steam locomotion. Over the years, the rising popularity of the train—and additional cars—is said to have increased the running time.
The landscape flattens out after Karjat, where the coastal plains of the Konkan begin. Soon canals that are a livid magenta with effluents and a wasteland of tarpaulin shanties announce the arrival of Mumbai’s distant suburbs—Kalyan, Thane, Mulund, Bhandup and Vikhroli.
“Yeh dekho Bambai, gandagi (See, this is Bombay, filth),” Sharma says, thrusting a hand in the direction of mounds of refuse. The only clean areas, he complains, are around Nariman Point and the Gateway of India. No, he would never choose to live in Mumbai, not even if offered a lakh of rupees.
Then billboards for tuition classes and graffiti rants against a capitalistic world order rear up outside the windows. The Deccan Queen shoots past the chawls of Chinchpokli and Byculla, and finally glides under the high silver roof of Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus. It is 10.30am, and Sharma disappears into the crowd which rushes to lift briefcases, parcels and pieces of luggage from the overhead rack.
At 5.10pm, the Queen begins her return to Pune. Inside the coach, the scene is much the same—the Railways’ workers plying soup and vada paav, and the regulars acknowledging each other with smiles and the raising of their palms. But the view from the window is different, more incandescent. The sun, setting behind ghats blotted with monsoon clouds, first turns the sky a pale gold. Then it ignites the fields and hills, so that red fire streaks across surfaces that were brown and black earlier in the day.
A National Defence Academy recruit, returning to Pune from his hometown in Haryana, suspends a conversation about the relative merits of Pune and Mumbai, and presses his face against the grills to absorb the view. The 20-year-old remains in that position long after the sun has set, and it is easy to see why.Even as a fine drizzle starts to spritz his face, the etched outlines of hills soften. The darkness, sieved by the dense lights of the power plants en route, encourages silence and reflection.
At Pune station, the commuters descend and make their way home without fuss or evident weariness. “Roji-roti mil jaata hai (I make enough to survive),” Sharma had said about the income he generates from his line of work. And for that he, and the other daily passengers on the Deccan Queen, can thank Mumbai, the often vilified commercial heartland of the country, and the train with a regal name and illustrious history.
The train: As befits a superfast, the Deccan Queen makes few stops on its 192km journey. The daily train stops at Karjat, Lonavla and Shivajinagar en route to Pune, and at Lonavla and Dadar on the way to Mumbai. It departs at 7.15am from Pune and 5.10pm from Mumbai, completing the journey in a reliable three hours and 15 minutes.
What to see & do: Karjat is home to health resorts, Maratha forts, rock-cut Buddhist caves and the Ulhas river. Adventure seekers go whitewater rafting on the river from July to September. Outbound Adventure (www.outboundadventure.com) organises trips. Lonavla has more to it than chikki, caves and forts. This is India’s Lake District, albeit all artificial. The lakes are at their most splendid just after the monsoon. Many allow fishing. Hurtling between Mumbai and Pune on the Deccan Queen, you may yearn to get off at Neral-Matheran and Kamshet. Alas, the train won’t stop. But other passenger trains such as the Deccan Express (not to be confused with the Deccan Queen Express) and Indrayani Express will get you there. Lovely, quiet Kamshet hosts paragliding events; outfits such as Nirvana Adventures (www.nirvanaadventures.com) and Paragliding Ashram (www.pgashram.com), offer inductions into the gentle sport.