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A slow track to paradise
Matheran Railway Matheran Railway: It is a 77-year-old line connecting Neural (on the Mumbai-Pune line) to the resort of Mather and close to Mumbai. The panorama of hills and plains unfolds as the sturdy little train chugs up to the peaceful retreat. The train runs between sunrise and sunset, covering the distance in 1.5 hours.

You do not see India from a train but on the train is a somewhat timeworn cliche'. Over 11 million people a day ride the Indian trains and rail travel is the best way to soak in the country, its colour and sheer size. On a train, the drama of life is played out daily and a train journey is long or brief vacation. You may witness sweet reunions and sorrowful partings, the rekindling of an old romance of escape from a dead one; and counsel a jilted lover in the process of mending a broken heart. A train ultimately is a microcosm of the real world. This is the case with the Matheran toy train as well, the narrow gauge hill station of Matheran in Maharashtra.

The journey is short generally action - packed. The toy train takes me into familiar much - loved terrain as I have travelled in it innumerable times. The overture to the trip is the train's whistle, which wafts shrilly in the crisp air. Passengers swing aboard lazily and urchins run alongside pleading for baksheesh (reward). Images and memories unspool in my mind as the train toots self- importantly on its way. The train trundles at an average speed of 10km per hour and picks up speed very slowly. It manoeuvres a ruling gradient of 1 in 20 and has a gauge of only two feet.

This almost minuscule iron horse opens a window on a picture postcard world of undulating terrain and deep ravines, which seem to hold their breath. A few jagged hills jut out like fangs from the jaw of the land Passengers lean out of the windows to capture a succession of camera - clicking views. Some are absorbed in the serious business of having fun - munching on salted and shelled peanuts and sipping soft drinks sold by vendors who swing from coach to coach from the outside, balancing precariously on the footboards.

Ensconced snugly in cushioned first class or in the cramped second class, I sometimes tear myself away from the wraparound views to observe my fellow travelers. On one occasion I met a sadhu (Hindu holy man) clad in flaming orange garb. He had forsaken his family and the bright light of Mumbai's up market Peddar Road to retreat the Himalayas. My husband and I chorused, "How lucky!" Envying him his courage and freedom from earthly wants. "you can do it," he said eyeing my better half as though he was the ideal candidate for sanyas (renouncing the world) "the Himalayas are vast and you are never alone . you have your soul."

Horse Riding in Matheran Generally on the toy train, one shares space with Mumbai's upwardly mobile middle class in signature jeans and -shirts. However, all of India mingles here, bright and colorful as noisy parrots. I have rubbed shoulders with a Christian priest and a Muslim mullah. Raucous school kids and extended families with aunts and uncles in tow. A young woman unabashedly suckles her baby, comfortable in the knowledge that it is the most natural thing to do.

A turbaned Sikh, a down - at - heel Rajput princeling and a self - styled Bollywood hero converse in Hindi and Marathi and some commune in sign language. The Matheran train is like others of its ilk, the most egalitarian o gathering places.

Honeymoon destination
Matheran, the hill station discovered by the then collector of Thane in 1850, is a favorite honeymoon destination too. I have often been cooped up with a beautiful bejewelled bride with downcast eyes and the groom clad in tight jeans and bicep hugging t- shirt. (Subsequently, I saw her clad in rustling silk sari riding a horse on the red earth forested trails in Matheran sharing smouldering looks with her jaunty husband in a brand new suit.)

The train halts briefly to catch its breath at Jumapati and Waterpipe staions where passengers tumble out to purchase piping hot vadas ( lemon juice). ON one of our many forays, we travelled with the engine driver who pointed out that the steep tortuous climb of nearly 2,500 ft posed a mighty engineering challenge. However, the builder Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy completed the project in three years at a cost of Rs10 lakh and the train started to operate in 1907. He told us how when the hillsides were blasted for construction, hundreds of snakes slithered out o their age - ok hole but the workmen refuse to kill them Then, according to newspaper repots, one rupee was of Mammon over came their squeamishness.

During the three years that the railway was being built, a German firm, Orenstein and Koppel, built a special locomotive to meet the needs of the Neral - Matheran traffic. It was a small engine weighing about 18 tones and understandably people doubted if it could haul the train. Abdul Hussein rode on the engine on its maiden trip to prove both the safety o the railway and the prowess of the engine. On reaching the summit, Abdul Hussein exultantly handed out baksheesh to the workers and the locals. (Today the train is pulled by a diesel engine.)

Matheran toy Train When the Neral-0 Matheran railway got going, the government gave the builders a Golden Pass enabling them to travel by rail in any part o India in recognition of their distinguished service. Closer to summit, the train ploughs through verdant forests and you inhale lungs- full of the crisp forest air greedily. The Matheran toy train is the ideal rite of passage to this leafy hill station perched 803 m above sea level. Despite the crush of tourists, you can still feet the old magic and mystery that swathes the forested hilltop.

And there's always that return journey to look forward to when the train almost careens downhill like an ageing Schumacher on a Formula I circuit.

How to reach :
By air : The closest airport to Matheran is Mumbai, the main nub of Jet airways.
Toy train: There are four services per day (up and down) in a week and six over the weekends. However, in the monsoons, there is just on service and that too, weather permitting. Conveniently with the local trains from Mumbai and the early morning train up to the hill station also connects with the mainline Deccan Express from Mumbai.