Indian Train Journeys – An experience like none other

Sleeper Class

In the past few years I have traveled a lot by trains in different countries, while nothing beats the punctuality of the Swiss Railways (SBB), or the speed of Deutsche Bahn & TrainItalia, none of these travel systems have the true experience like the Indian Railways.

During my college days I’d used to travel regularly on the Sleeper class from Noida/Pune to Lucknow. Like everyone else, I have been a witness to the unapologetic delays,the festival rush when having a reservation meant little when fellow travelers had to get home to be with their families on Diwali.While I upgraded to the AC IIIrd, it just wouldn’t give me the same experience as the Sleeper Class travels or General class travels between Lucknow & Kanpur.

I have been always amazed at the uncanny ability, of passengers, to analyse delays in the local MEMU type trains stopping in between stations in the middle of nowhere. A typical conversation in this situation would go like this:

‘Bhaisaab, ye train kyun ruk gayi? (Brother, why did the train stop?)’

With an air of authority of such matters the reply would be, ‘Passenger hai, Shatabdi cross ho rahi hai, dekhna abhi crossing ke baad chal padegi (ours is a passenger train, giving way to a more important train, you’ll see it pass)’

And if by chance, the above mentioned logic fails, the second response would be, ‘Lucknow station pe platform khali nahi hoga, aajkal bahut train late hai isliye rukna hai. (No free platforms in the destination, we’d get in once it frees up)’

These conversations happen everyday between strangers, nobody knows how true they might be or who created them to begin with, but there would always be someone to ask and answer.

Then, there would be instances when you’d have reserved a lower level seat and there would always be a gentleman requesting you to shift to the upper levels because ‘ladies hai (women passengers with them)’. If you were a guy like me, most of the times you’d grudgingly oblige, even when the upper berth was your last preference.

But the most fun was to be had to be a part of wedding parties, when at each station some new members of your extended family would join you with fresh supplies of snacks, cold water and family gossip. The singing & gossip sessions would last late into the night, but who’d care about other passengers. Of course, there would always be that elder uncle or cousin who’d be snoring like a siren, feeling completely at home in the wobbling train.

Talking of these train journeys, how can one forget to mention the support economy of chaiwallahs and naashta (breakfast) sellers who’d chirp in at each station offering you wafer thin omelettes, & cutlets from unverified sources. Many train stations have their own special offerings which lure the foodies to step out at the stops and attempt to pick the sweetmeat or savory offered. The chaiwallahs (tea sellers) deserve a special mention with their trademark calls for tea, which is always promised to be enriched with cardamon and tulsi (basil) with a money back guarantee on quality! Lets not forget, he’d be off the train much before you’d be done with your tea, but the promise meant something to everyone.

Finally, there would be the ticket collector in his black coat moving with the air as if he were the king of the train, followed by hapless passengers on the wait list requesting the lord’s mercy be bestowed upon them with a berth to sleep for the night.

But while all this excited me, everyone would often knowingly ignore young lecherous men leering lustily at young women making them uncomfortable, exposing the undercurrents of gender issues in India, or parents beating the hell out of their kids in public as a punishment for their hyperactivity.

Weddiction?

Hmm…so in just about 9 days from now, I shall be locked in the chains of matrimony.

Its been more than 6 months since the day was decided upon with due consultation from the holy men, November being the wedding season in India, my D-day is on the 20.11.2011

For the past few weeks, with an increasing frequency (and thanks to Mr Zuckerberg’s facebook) I have been a party to these questions, the thing is, for most of them nobody believes my answers or they just drown my answers in their own way (of course with all good and sweet intentions). So here’s a primer,

  • Now that its just xyz days left. How do you feel? Honestly, I haven’t been feeling any different, am so far away from home that I don’t feel anything different than I normally do! But then, most people either feel something is wrong with me or am just not speaking the truth!
  • Aren’t you excited or nervous (or maybe scared)? To this the standard response is neutral, but people feel you are just denying the excitement…umm…but why would I do that?
    The fun part of this question is, most of my European colleagues refer to a phenomena called the cold-feet and they believe that we have a choice left till the last day to say I do. But I have explained them the dynamics of a few gazillion guests visiting you in an Indian wedding, and thus making your escape impossible. Hey, I don’t even know if you can successfully get a loo break in the process without being a victim of some humor. But honestly, am NOT over the top, neither am i scared to death. I have been trying hard to scare my fiance a bit, but she doesn’t seem to fall for my pranks yet!
  • Then there’s the classic, the statement that wedding resembles an sweet which those who don’t eat they regret, and those who do eat regret eating it! Hmm…surely they are referring to an obese person on a diet…who could not resist a donut…and then regrets eating it later. Anyways…am bored of this one, I was never regretting my not eating the sweet, was trying to defend it (click here), and I still don’t and I hope not to regret the next phase either. Afterall, I remained single by choice (or by other peoples’ choice?) and now I’ll be married by my choice. 
  • You don’t know what you are getting into! Hmm…well that holds true for anything we do in our own personal and professional lives. We step in with an assumption, give it our best and wish it turns out well.
But these are all questions from people who wish me well, and I respect that. Am thankful to them for being concerned, am not trying to mock them but cynical as I am, i cannot help commenting on it. Besides, when everyone else is going to be having some fun at my expense (literally) I do deserve to throw in a few jibes.
Below is the next set of top things which I’d expect to face on the wedding evening from various guests and well wishers(and the answers which I shall never speak).
  • Beta, how are you feeling? Umm…make a guess…there are a couple of hundred folks all at my wedding eating away all the food while I look at them…i have been smiling constantly for hours, haven’t slept in 3 days…there is no part of my body which isn’t in a state of rebellion. And yes, am dressed like a magician who is just going to pull up a bunny from his hat!
  • When did you arrive from Zurich? You are so lucky to be there, Switzerland is a very beautiful place. Yes indeed its a wonderful country, sadly I work there unlike most people who go there for fun…everyday i struggle to meet deadlines, attend meetings, cook food, communicate like an ape-like sign language to the kind Swiss folk who speak German, and yes…watch no TV as nothing is in English. And yes, I DO NOT see snow covered Alps out of my window (thanks a lot Yashraj Chopra)
  • Where are you going for honeymoon, oh wait…isn’t Switzerland a honeymoon destination? Umm…yes…but do you realize what month this is? Its November…do you know how cold it is in November? Sigh….
  • And the event called Jaimal(or the garland exchange)so here you are tired as hell…and the girl arrives and now you are supposed to exchange the garlands. But…and this is a big massive BUT…everyone now wants you to stand up and wait for the other person to do it first…and then there are a few overzealous cousins who want to lift you up so that the girl cannot reach out…Guys, do you realize, it hurts my bottom and the magician outfit doesn’t help either! Moreover, if you get tired of the joke and try to get over with this exchange of garlands, you are also labeled as a joru-ka-gulam (umm…means something like a slavish husband?). Honestly, guys I don’t care…you want to do the garland exchange after a few hours, fine by me, just allow me to sit down and chill!
  • Photographers and the likes, Oh don’t get me started on these creeps, they blow up a super warm light on your face to blind you, so that you don’t even realize whats happening behind their back! They charge you by the number of pictures they take, and then they fill it up with pictures of people gobbling up all the food you paid for and of young teenage female guests, who you probably don’t even know.
  • Cousins and the aunties and the uncles and the people who-you-are-meeting-the-first-time-yet-they-expect you to remember their name, Well…they are there to support you, or is it? They are there to make sure that no opportunity of pulling up a prank, joke or a snide remark is missed. Hmm…engineering college ragging was better? Maybe, but this has its own special charm (thats what I have been told)…ah well…once I get married, i can pull them up for the rest of my life… 🙂
  • Vidaai (the time when you take the bride with you after the wedding), this is an emotional moment, suddenly the bride starts weeping, all that extra layers of make up starts to wash away. But what about the groom? He stands there alone, feeling utterly guilty of taking the bride away. Its as if he is taking her away forcibly without her consent, and he is the villian of this story. Well..sweetie if you are feeling so bad, maybe you can stay for another day…I can take you home the next morning…just don’t cry okay!
I know many of my guests who may read this blog may not approve of it, don’t worry am thrilled to be married and I am glad that you all will be there to pull my leg and make sure that I don’t run away 🙂

Zurich Notes – Pursuing Indian Food

Its been 26 days since I arrived here, the biggest city of Switzerland. As I am supposed to be here for a while, the need to find Indian food ingredients and Indian food places was critical! Here’s a primer of my search for Indian cuisine, and stores till now….hopefully someday this post will help tourists and residents find options for desi-food in Zurich.

Indian Stores

For some strange reason, I notice a lot lesser Indian stores here than I did in Geneva, maybe its just because I have not explored properly yet..

I rely on two places currently for my Masala, pickle, ready to eat food needs from the subcontient:

  • Barkat Cash and Carry : It has two stores in Zurich, the one I visit is on Badenerstrasse 530 8048 Zürich. The way to approach the place is by taking Tram 2 and getting down at Freehofstrasse, the store is next to a Singpore cuisine restaurant. You can get Indian/Asian veggies, masalas, rotis/paranthas, meat and odds and ends there. I feel that price wise Barkat is better than other places.
  • Agarwal Indian Food: Writing this because everyone else recommends it, I have never seen the store open (maybe I was late). Quality of food products is recommended by various people I know. The store is on Langstrasse 62, 8004 Zurich
  • Sher e Punjab: Now this is more of a section to a small eating joint, where one can purchase indian products. Limited things are available but basic spices, atta, maggi noodles, pulses etc… are available. Pricewise its not the best place to be. One nifty addition is the movie section where you can rent Indian films from them. Visit http://punjab.ch/
  • Coop/Migros: One thing to notice, common spices can be found in Coop and Migros, all one should know is the german/french name of the spices.

Indian Food

Being a bachelor who is staying alone, cooking is not the most desirable task for me. Some days I tend to eat out, but then eating out in an Indian restaurant is much more expensive than one thinks. In the last 26 days, I have sampled out 5 different Indian eating joints, and can give a review on those. One disclaimer is that I am a vegetarian, so cannot comment on the food for the non-vegetarian junta.

  • Sher e Punjab: This small eatery is located at Sihlfeldstrasse 45, its a small place, you may even miss it out as there is a tiny board out there. To get there take Tram 2 or 3 and get down at Lochergut. The eatery is run by a sikh gentleman and it also has a store section (mentioned above), the food has a variety of punjabi dishes for both vegetarians and non vegetarians. Average dinner for a single person could cost around 20 CHF (or more), but the flavor and quantity  provided makes up for the price, food is homely and prompt. I would like to return to the place as I like the food and can get home-style phulkas (roti) there. There is little to speak in terms of ambiance, but then its a no nonsense eatery. The link is mentioned above. Note: Its closed on Sundays
  • King’s Kurry Little India: This is a restaurant on the left side of the Bahnhof Weidikon, you can also take Tram 14 to get there. The restaurant has an outside eating area as well in the garden. Unfortunately on the day I went, it was raining, so we had to be seated inside. The ambiance is good, and the place is usually crowded with plenty of locals eating here. Prices are a bit high, the service is prompt, but a dinner for two will cost upwards of 75 CHF. Taste of food is good, however the quantity is not as good as Sher e Punjab, but just adequate. It would be a good idea to make prior bookings before visiting. Visit: http://www.kingskurry.ch/e/india/index.htm
  • King’s Kurry Thali: This is a Thali style eatery just off the Schaffhauserplatz tram stop (next to the Credit Suisse office), it is a recently opened restaurant. Each day there is a different Thali offering, and the same is served to you. One can choose between a vegetarian thali, chicken or lamb. A Thali is provided with two curries, raita, dal and rice (you can order naan/rotis too). Vegetarian thali is for 19 CHF, Chicken thali for 21 CHF and Lamb for 23 CHF. Food was above average, the key advantage is that one cannot find a thali at this price easily in Zurich, the restaurant folks are helpful but new to business. There is a rebate on takeaway and a student lunch box for 10 CHF. Good place to visit specially for lunches.
  • Restaurant Kerala: Restaurant Kerala is not only a south Indian restaurant, it offers Punjabi cuisine as well. In terms of ambience this rates the highest amongst all the places I have visited, just off the Radiostudio tram stop (Tram 11), the restaurant offers a variety of food from appams to chicken tikka. Service is cordial but a bit slow, a dinner for two will cost upwards of 75 CHF, the good part is that the servings are tasty and sufficient. Make a booking before visiting as the place gets crowded in the evenings. Visit: http://www.keralarestaurant.ch/pages/eng/index_e.htm
  • Karachi and Bombay Take away: I just visited the place 2 days ago, its a small takeaway but has some sitting area too. Patrons can select from a combination of three curries and take a thali with rice or roti(phulka). Vegetarian meal was 13 CHF and Non-veg starts from 17 CHF. Flavorwise the food was really impressive, I relished the homely feel of the food, to top it one can take any amount of raita, chutney, pickle and candies with the food. The place plays Bollywood/Pakistani music videos and is a nice change from the regular sophisticated restaurants. Limited ambiance but good food at a very good price make this place a favorite. You can visit the place by getting down at Stampfenbachplatz tram stop (Tram 14) and walk to Stampfenbachstrasse 32, 8006 Zürich.

Hope this mini food guide helps a lot of people in figuring out the places in Zurich