Until the mid-2000s domestic air travel was a privilege in India, with air tickets being almost prohibitively expensive for many middle class families. So, train journeys were the most common way for an average Malayali family in Mumbai to go to Kerala. In the pre-Konkan Railway era, the only direct train journey from India’s financial capital to Kerala involved crossing Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu on train number 16381, better known as the Jayanti-Janata Express. According to the Central Railway, the train was introduced on January 26, 1976, and connected Ernakulam Junction to Bombay’s Victoria Terminus.
There was a mention of these Janata (people’s) trains in the 1973-74 Indian Railway Budget speech, read out by then Railway Minister Lalit Narayan Mishra. The first Jayanti Janata was a biweekly train between New Delhi and Ernakulam/Mangalore that started running on January 26, 1973. (The train would spilt/join at Shoranur in Kerala.)
“The Railways have embarked upon a new scheme of providing comfortable, fast, long-distance travel for third class passengers,” Mishra said while presenting the budget. “An effort in this direction has been made in the running of the ‘Jayanti-Janata’ train from Delhi to Mangalore/Ernakulam, a distance of 3,200 kilometres. This is the first train with completely reserved accommodation, a dining car for service of food, and a well-equipped library on wheels with a book stall. Passengers can, for a small sum of Rs 2, obtain bed linen for use on the run.” The minister added that long distance trains on this model would be introduced on other routes.
The Bombay-Ernakulam version of the Jayanti-Janata, which was introduced three years later, was a dream come true for Malayalis who lived in and around the western Indian metropolis. Although it would involve a couple of nights in a train before getting to Kerala, the journey was more convenient than various permutations and combinations of bus and train rides. The train route was slowly extended to Trivandrum and Nagercoil and finally to Kanyakumari.
Traversing the heart of peninsular India
Getting tickets on the train in the 1990s in the summer months was considered an achievement. Since this was the only direct train connecting Bombay to Kerala, families would book their tickets months in advance to make sure they got to their ‘native places’ in time for Vishu. The ordeal was similar in December although not many families travelled to Kerala for the relatively brief Christmas-New Year school holidays.
Families in areas in Bombay with large Malayali populations such as Goregaon and Chembur knew agents who could somehow manage to get them tickets on the train in the summer even if the berths were initially separate. Calls would also be made to relatives with ‘connections’ to somehow get a berth.
The train was not particularly comfortable or clean but the sense of excitement on board, especially among children, when it left the historic Victoria Terminus on a 2,131-kilometre journey to the southern tip of India, is hard to describe in words. The train crossed some of the most well-known towns and cities in India such as Pune and Tirupati. It entered Kerala from Coimbatore via the Palakkad Gap and then crossed Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Kollam and Trivandrum before heading back into Tamil Nadu.
On this 44-hour journey through the heart of southern India, one could see several changes in landscapes and urban scenery. The hauntingly beautiful and dry reddish landscapes of Andhra Pradesh remain etched on the mind of this writer. Some travellers have memories of the train reaching Kadapa, where vendors would come on board and sell various products made out of the famous Kadapa stone, such as chappati rolling boards. Other old timers sing praises of the meals that were available when the train arrived at Katpadi Junction, the first stop in Tamil Nadu when heading south.
The train also brought together various strangers from across south India, building friendships between children and creating pen pals at a time when there was no internet. There are also stories of families becoming friends over the course of more than a day and sharing meals and snacks. But those were different times, and that was a different India!
The advent of the Konkan Railway
In the mid-1990s when the Konkan Railway was ready, the Netravati Express became the preferred train for Malayalis to go to Kerala from Mumbai. The train takes the straight route from Mumbai through the Konkan, Goa and Mangalore, connecting the western Indian megapolis with Thiruvananthapuram in 30 hours. The Railways still continued to run the Jayanti-Janata, despite the train losing a large share of its passengers to the Konkan Railway and cheap air travel.
Last year, the authorities in Delhi said the Jayanti-Janata would run only up to Pune. The Kerala government has taken this matter up with the Railway Ministry, but the train has not run since last year, on account of the pandemic.
One can only hope that it is restarted in the near future and runs up to Mumbai. The Jayanti-Janata is a symbol of independent India and should be treated like a cultural object. It has connected India in a way that few other modes of transport have and is very much a train for the common man. The authorities in Delhi, who are still obsessed with the concept ‘national integration,’ would be well served to make this train more comfortable and ensure it runs every day.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)