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Track Talk

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Welcome to the one and only Great Railway Literary Festival. No wine or cheese here. It's bondas and chai all the way, with hair-raising stories about pure veg cuisine and northern timetables. Hurry, or you'll be waitlisted.

In a bid to upgrade the public image of train travel, the Indian railways hosted their fourth annual Railway Literary Fest last week. Held again in the ever popular Maintenance Shed of Moradabad Junction Station, this year's festival boasted a range of Indian and foreign writers. Ramesh Pande, whose magnum opus on domestic ticketing, has been nominated for the Indian Travel Writers Award, read out briefly at the opening ceremony, though the book's mythical quality was duly overshadowed by Prakash Chakravorty's new thriller, "The Revised Northern India Timetable", a narrative, with an almost encyclopedic lucidity, originally written in Bengali, but translated into 32 languages. "It's all part of a great literary rivalry developing between the two", remarked a critic who refused identification.

On opening night and to thunderous applause, Dev Soni read from his soon to be released manuscript, "Waitlisted Passengers on the 242 Down Bhopal Passenger". Many of those gathered in the dark unlit hall choked back tears when the author uttered the now famous line, "Sarla Mehra, Female, 47, Upper Berth, Waitlisted 7". Soni continued haltingly, developing the intricate plot, cleverly employing an endless cast of unknown, often unlinked characters, reading line after line, completely straight faced, as if in a cadaverous stupor: "Prashant Thakur 34, Lower Berth, WL 6, Usha Thakur 28 F Upper Berth WL l3". Using strikingly spare prose to draw a complex web of family relationships, the author placed husbands and wives on different berths, splitting apart whole families into different compartments, relegating their servants into unreserved classes, sometimes at the far end of the same train. After the reading, when the audience had gathered on Platform 2 for the bondas and bread pakoras, it was hard not to miss the emotion;there was not a dry eye under the asbestos.

Using the 1993 Punjab Mail derailment as a pivot for the story line, Soni's narrative climaxed in the overturned Club car, where the disheveled and mildly disoriented protagonist finally met his injured lover, and the two appear miraculously at the Station Master's office to seek compensation and lost luggage. Towards the end of the plot, the author cautioned metaphorically, that violence was not the answer. Soni is currently working on the remake of Train to Pakistan, the historical bestseller about train shunting in the railway yards of Lahore, this time written entirely from the locomotive's viewpoint. It is understood that Soni has been approached by New York's Random House with a multi-core advance for all North American publishing rights, but is awaiting a signal from his European agent, before signing.

Late in the evening, many well known writers were spotted at the bar. Parveen Naik, the fearless railway caterer whose masterly work 'The Indian Guide to Veg Catering' was published to rare acclaim in the West, but was banned in India for its provocative and insidious content was also spotted at the festival in a dal-stained shirt. Copies of his book had been burnt earlier this year in violent protests in Mirzapur, home to some of India's bestloved non-veg travel dishes. Interviewed for late night television by Oprah Winfrey, Naik defended his political position, stating that, "freedom to eat veg-cutlets on a moving train was a fundamental right, and no government could take that away". Last year Naik had been denied an Indian visa to attend the festival. However, being an Indian, of Indian origin, with Indian parents and Indian children, he lodged a strong protest with the Indian embassy in New Delhi, citing, "irrevocable differences", and so, was granted a divorce instead.

The highlight of the event however was the animated exchange between Sir Mark Tully, one of the first white settlers in Colonial India and a founder of the East India Company, and Subhash Bhalla, the ex TC of the Bhopal Mail. Bhalla who has been an Indophile ever since he left India, maintained that the 314 DN Jhansi Passenger imparted a sense of regional identity to central India much before the introduction of the Malda Mail. "The Malda Mail was introduced by the British", huffed Sir Mark in a petulant Post Colonial way, and added, "mainly to transport sepoys during the insurrection". The comment drew jeers from an audience steeped in the literature of 20th century train travel. Eventually Sir Mark had to be ushered out of the venue with an armed escort.

The sponsors of the Railway Lit Festival hope to draw a wider range of committed authors next year. "We still haven't drawn on travel agents and railway support staff".

The writer is a Delhi-based architect.

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