Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Memories of a train ride

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Local Train in Kolkata

Local Train in Kolkata

The year was probably 1978-79. Time of the year – the summer holidays. Our family – mother, father, my younger sibling and myself – visited my grandparents whenever father could afford a short break during the summers. I think it was Kalka, going from Delhi to Kolkata. Could have been Shatabdi too. The ride typically was two days or more, depending on when and where the train got stuck. Rajdhani express, the first revolutionary train that traversed the same distance in seventeen hours, with its air conditioned carriages and Kwality Cassata for dessert would happen later during my teenage years.

The planning for the journey would start months beforehand. Father would stand in a long queue at the Delhi railway station for the cheap second class sleeper coach tickets. Mother would become cheerful. There would be a spring in her step and she would sing more often while buzzing around the house. A week before the journey, the preparation would begin.

Those were the days when people traveled with their bedding in holdalls, an old fashioned carry bag that had to be rolled up and tied up with belts. My brother and I would jump up and down on the holdall while mother would try to make a tight cylindrical pack out of it. Night before the journey, she would make puris and boil a dozen eggs. She would pack bananas, parle-G glucose biscuits and pickles. There would be a large water can filled with filtered water. Father would be in charge of packing emergency medical supplies – mostly dysentery tablets, fever and flu relievers, cough medication, tincture iodine and water purification tablets. Possibly, neither of them slept that night.

Early morning alarm, followed by a rushed ablution and we would be on our way. We would watch the Delhi working community slowly wake up through the early morning smog as the ambassador taxi sped towards the station at 30 mph on near empty streets. The station would always greet us with the shouts of porters. A brief period of bliss would occur only after father and mother would find themselves suitably planted at the right platform, together with their children and luggage. Father would get mother a steaming hot cup of tea. Most of the other passengers would be Bengalis too. Mother would strike up conversation with other young mothers of these Kolkata bound families. Father would buy newspapers and magazines in preparation for the long trip. Chaos would invariably start again when the train arrived at the platform. Miraculously, our porter would manage to find us our compartment and seats, family and luggage still all together and intact. Finally, with the luggage tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the assigned seats, the porter would start haggling with father and would finally let go when the train started to leave the platform.

Semblance of quietness would fall once the train picked up some speed. Not many of you have ridden on trains but most of you have seen train rides in movies, right? So, try to imagine a non sexy version of Some Like It Hot and add to it the chaos of humanity. The soot coming through the open windows, luggage and people everywhere, women drying nappies on the iron rods across the windows, families eating their foods, hot tea distributed from flasks, babies crying, fathers reading newspapers, grandfathers playing cards, women chatting, teenagers reading their comic books, young people coyly checking each other out, kids running around in that limited space …

Food vendors

Food vendors

I would find my way to a window seat and stare out, looking at my country go by at 50 mph. Slowly the outskirts of Delhi would give way to villages. For as far as eyes could see, there would be fields of yellow mustard or rapeseed like flowers. We were a populous country even then but between Delhi and Kolkata, there won’t be too many big towns or villages, not many people to be seen.

The train journeys in those days always had a few highlights. One of them was the meal time. The train always had a meal service and yummy smelling food would arrive in large steel trays. The normal fare would include rice, chappati, puri, daal, a vegetable, pickles, and yogurt. Non-vegetarian plates would typically have egg or chicken leg curry instead of the vegetable. I still have a soft spot for those multi-compartmental South Indian steel plates. My father, being a doctor, was always particular about food, so as kids we never ate these meals. But we had great fun nevertheless. How often did it happen that we could eat a dozen glucose biscuits for lunch?

I also have nice memories of the train stops in between. Well, most of them. The scheduled ones would mean an opportunity to watch new faces and hear new languages. At each station, mother would get some hot tea served in earthenware cups. Father would step out and stretch his legs. Vendors selling their fares would board the train and barter away with the passengers. Sometimes, while pulling in or out of a station, one could see the homeless and poor people living in shacks by the train tracks. The unscheduled stops usually meant trouble. Sometimes an accident, sometimes a breakdown. On one journey, not this one, the breakdown was more than 10 hours long. We were younger then. Mother still shudders when she is reminded of that.

The loos in these trains were a small four feet by four feet chamber that consisted of a hole in the metallic floor. Within hours of getting on the trains, these loos would invariably become filthy. The railway authorities always suggested using the loo when the train was away from stations and moving. They had the general idea of reducing human excrement at the stations. But have you ever considered trying to aim towards a hole in the floor, making sure that you body parts didn’t touch the loo walls, with the train jerking you constantly.

A few hours before Kolkata, packing would start again. The holdall with its bedding would be the first one to be repacked. Mother would fix her face and ours which typically involved sponging the soot off and applying some powder. That wouldn’t help me much, I would continue to press my face greedily at the window trying to catch a glimpse of Kolkata’s outskirts, the small farming and fishing villages with their charming ponds, made immortal by Satyajit Ray in his Apur Sansar. When we would finally arrive at Kolkata station, it would be no different than the Delhi station. However, with the journey behind us, holidays ahead of us and the anticipation of seeing gran again and thoughts of the large tub of rasogollas awaiting our arrival would be all delicious.

Travel Note: In most parts of India, traveling by train is still the same. Although, I hope that the loos are a little more modern. I also hope there is no smoking.

Written by Som

October 23, 2008 at 12:05 am

One Response

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  1. […] The only brew that beats this tea, is the one served in disposable earthenware bowls – served at little roadside shacks in small towns or train stops. […]

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