I remember when two friends of ours were coming to India from France, and wanted to travel across the north. We warned them that reserving tickets on trains here is necessary, unlike in Europe. We had to book two months in advance (it was two then, not four, as it now is). They were surprised, but accepted it and made their travel plans well in advance.
In France, by the way, and in large parts of Europe, for regular trains (not fast trains) there’s absolutely no need to reserve. My sister and I had a rail pass and we made one reservation in all during two weeks of travel. For all the other journeys, we could simply get on to any train and go wherever we liked.
When we got to Howrah station to take our train out of Kolkata, both our French friends were stunned. In the beginning, I thought it was simply because there were so many people. Indian stations can be slightly overpowering. I realised only later that they were astonished at how long our trains are!
Confused, I said, “But France also has long trains!” I was wondering whether they thought that our ‘developing’ country would not have trains that were long.
That was not the case at all. “Why do we have to reserve then?” they asked, bewildered.
We laughed. “Because so many people in India want to travel all the time!”
I had no answer to that one. I have no idea why trains from everywhere to everywhere are full everyday. Why do we keep going round and round the country? As a child, it did not puzzle me because I was convinced that trains ran only during the summer holidays. I was perfectly happy with full trains during the summer. Now, though, I can’t understand it at all.