Tag Archives: Train

A Forgotten Love Story of Indian Train Travel

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to take our two children on the train to NYC. We always drove but I wanted our children to experience train travel; they struggled to understand why. It was deep-seated, you see. I wanted us to have a shared memory with my children that was reminiscent of my childhood in India.

Though we had taken the Metro Rail to Washington DC several times, the idea of inter-state train travel seemed appealing to me. We got to Union Station and after marveling at the structure and browsing through the stores were ready to board the train. The doors to the platform opened, we walked quietly, boarded a carriage, and sat down. As the train started, I began to think back to my childhood days and how different the train journey was. Here in the US, with everything so organized, there was none of the confusion or the loud excitement. People sat quietly in their seats with their laptops and devices. No looking out the window, no talking, walking, or eating. None of the joys that we experienced as children. It was actually boring. My children sat with their phones and I felt a pang. That is when I decided to translate my love of train travel in India into words, so as not to forget the memory. To share how absolutely thrilling it was to take an overnight train.

Train journeys were an integral and an exciting part of our lives, especially for those of us who grew up in India in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

As the train turned at the bend, the child craned his neck against the bars of the window squealing in delight – “I see the engine, I see the engine”. I am sure that this is a mutual fond memory of my generation in India.

Growing up, summer vacation usually meant going to visit grandparents Back then, vacation was not visiting exotic places or expensive holidays. Rather, it was the simple joy of going back to the village, town, or city of your grand-parents. Invariably, the journey was by a train. 

In those days, trains were not as fast or as clean and comfortable as they are now. The seats/berths were hard, had no foam bedding, and you were not served meals. Traveling by train meant packing not only clothes, gifts, toys and books, but also carrying your own bedding in something called the ‘Hold All’. In the ‘hold all’ you stashed your pillows, blankets, sheets, shawls, etc. It was rolled up like a sleeping bag, and carried along with your other luggage which included two or three suitcases, handbags, and even at times, small furniture. Then of course, there was the multi-container steel tiffin carrier (lunch box), which contained idlis with chutney, sandwiches, chappatis & sabzi, and yogurt rice. There were packets of biscuits and other fried savories to snack on. 

A taxi would be hailed to get to the railway station. No sooner had it halted at the station, coolies (porters) would come rushing wanting to carry your luggage. After a bit of haggling, a price would be settled and on the poor Coolie’s head would go two or three suitcases, a bag on each arm, and anything else you had. But, before you entered the station your eyes would fall on the weight machine that was standing there minding its own business. After a tussle and some pleading, some of you would stand up on the machine, insert a coin, and wait for the tiny rectangular cardboard piece that said how much you weighed.  

With the platform located, the porter would unload the luggage at a place where your carriage was estimated to stop. While waiting for the train to arrive, children would run up and down the platform, plead for chocolates, toys, or cool drinks from the vendors who had set up stalls. Train delay announcements were greeted with dismay, and on time arrivals sparked excitement and a call to the coolie to get ready to load the luggage. 

Chaos ensued when the train arrived at the platform. People scrambled to the coaches to check the lists posted on them for their seat/berth numbers! Then, there would be a hustle to get on the train, and locate your seat. 

Finally, we would begin the best part of the journey. After getting all settled in, luggage safely tucked under your seat (sometimes even chained to the berth to prevent it from being stolen), your parents would flip through magazines and newspapers and you would eye other passengers to see what interesting stuff they had. If your traveling companions were friendly, you would talk and play, and even share snacks and food with them. When it was time to sleep, the middle berth, which was your back rest till now, would be pulled up and secured to the upper one with an iron chain. A minor skirmish would follow for the upper and middle berths. With that settled, out came the ‘hold all’ and all of the bedding. Then came the hard part, trying to sleep amidst the smell of food and multiple snores heard through the carriage.

In the morning, with the middle berth back as the backrest, the ‘hold all’ packed and rolled up, everyone all cheery and bright, the excitement of arrival ensued. At the first station of the morning, you would hear the tea and coffee sellers, and vendors selling breakfast items like idlis, wadas, and upmavs. The “chai, garam chai and coffee, coffee, coffeeya….” still rings in my ears. A brief period of anxiety would pass if a loved one got off the train and the guard’s whistle went off. A sigh of relief, everyone aboard, but wait, some more tense moments, as some who had climbed into a different compartment so as not to miss the train, had to walk through the precarious gangway to get to the right compartment! The last leg of the journey continued with impatience and anticipation about what awaited at the destination!

Passing the green paddy fields, counting the green squares, waving back to the smiling village children who would stand in a row, watching stalled traffic, houses and trees zoom past, counting the number of stations, watching the steam coming out of the engine (getting soot in your eyes), and if you were brave, the walk on the precarious gangway connection, all made the train journey more interesting. 

When the train finally arrived at your destination, you would rush to the platform side of the train and wave your arms profusely while yelling out the names of your cousins or uncles who came to receive you. Once again surrounded by porters, your luggage unloaded from the train and loaded into a car or taxi, your fun vacation of a few weeks began.

As I was writing this, I began reliving my childhood and began feeling the same love and excitement as I did back then. A thought crossed my mind, my children would never be able to relate to this. Sadly, for the present generation, this would probably be a fictional read, something they would never fully comprehend. It will be a forgotten and unrequited love story between me and the Indian train. 

Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelancer from Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for writing and especially enjoys writing about Indian life and culture. 

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

South Asian Spelling Bee Documentary Debuts

The soon to be released “Breaking the Bee” documentary that details the rise and dominance of the Indian American diaspora in spelling bees has been accepted into major Film Festival circuits.

Starting this month, one can see “Breaking the Bee” at the Cleveland International Film Festival on April 6th & 8th, then on May12th at the New York Indian Film Festival in New York City.

“Breaking the Bee” follows four second-generation Indian-American children, ages 7 to 14, over the course of a year, or “bee season,” as they train to reach (and win) the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s an inside look at studying, family life, competing in qualifying bees, and being a kid with big dreams. Some are in their final year of eligibility while others are just beginning their spelling careers. With expert commentary from CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi, and past Scripps winners, the film offers an analysis into what drives this trend, while exploring the ups and downs of chasing a dream and pondering just how long this incredible trend can last.

The film is directed by Sam Rega and produced by Chris Weller, both of whom worked at Business Insider when they got the idea to produce the film.

Since 1999, all but four contest winners have been Indian-American, and of the 285-plus children who make it to Scripps each year, roughly 25% come from families of Indian descent. This is something of an anomaly, as Indian-Americans make up just 1% of the United States population.

The perfect storm has been brewing for decades — from the 1965 immigration law that eliminated quota systems for Indian immigrants, thus driving a wave of highly-educated individuals to come to the United States, to the formation of Indian-only spelling bees, to the explosion of mainstream interest in competitive spelling, ever since ESPN began broadcasting the Scripps Bee in 1994.

The film details the South Asian Spelling Bee’s contribution to this phenomenon with expert interviews with its Founder Rahul Walia. The SASB as its fondly known amongst Desis was started in 2008 and has the distinction of being a precursor to the winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Winners of SASB have been winners at Scripps and while Scripps has produced 3 sets of co-champions, SASB has been considered tougher since only one speller ever becomes the champion.

On its Facebook page, one can see 5 star reviews from parents and spellers alike who attribute their overall success to the experience they got at SASB.

“It’s the Gold Standard of Spelling Bee,” says Usha & Ganesh Dasari, parents of the spelling bee duo Shobha and Shourav. Shourav is one of the four spellers “Breaking the Bee” follows.

The SASB is conducted every summer and starts June 16th this year. It will be conducted nationally in 6 major cities and registration is now open at www.southasianspellingbee.com. The series is shown on Sony Entertainment Television Asia and is sponsored by Kawan Foods and Touchdown Media Inc.


A 1947 Partition Tale – Thwarting the Ghost Train

Kasoval, 1947

It was a hot August afternoon and the heat of Kasoval village made the dust stick to his shirt. He was headed home from school with his younger brother in tow and he was irritated. The maulvi had made him re-do his Urdu calligraphy again, giving his friends Aslam and Khalid an opportunity to snigger. “I’m not even nine!” he told his brother. “They are eleven and still doing the same lessons. What do they have to laugh about?”

Beeji called out to them as they neared their house. “Arre, don’t forget to wash your hands, garam parathas are coming off the tava quickly!” A quick sluice at the hand pump and the brothers Ravinder and Devinder were seated cross legged in front of the angeethi, with the smell of homemade butter melting on parathas wafting from the big thalis in front of them. Beeji made the best parathas, and after gorging on them, an afternoon nap in the shade of the bargad tree was in order.  They decided not to join the older boys in their game of marbles; it was far too hot that day.

As evening fell, the rays of the setting orange sun picked out the cows that were ambling home through fields of green. Dusk turned to a dark, hot night and suddenly there was urgent knocking on Tikkam Chand’s door. The Moharrar, embarrassed to be the messenger, stood outside bearing dreaded news. “Chand-ji, it is your house that they are planning to attack tonight. It will be best if you leave immediately.”

There was no time to think,. Small bundles of jewelry and cash had been prepared and were carried by Tikkam Chand, his wife and Ravinder’s daadi. “No, you cannot take your marbles” whispered Beeji. “We can carry nothing that is not important.”

“But, Beeji, Ravi’s marbles are the most important thing he has” said Devinder. No one seemed to care.

Soon they were on the street, headed towards the railway station. “How will Papa find us?” whispered Ravinder to Beeji with a sense of urgency. “He is a policeman,” she whispered back “he will find his way.”

“We cannot take the passenger train to India,” said Tikkam Chand. “It will stop at every village!” In an instant, he makes the bold choice of taking the train heading backwards to Khanewal, so that they could catch the mail train, an express that stopped at few stations along the way. When the train chugged out of the Kasoval station, Tikkam Chand cried out – “Sab jal raha hai. Humara ghar jal raha hai!” (Everything is on fire. Our home is burning!)

The Khanewal station platform was a scene of utter chaos. There were hordes of people and just as they stepped onto the platform, violence erupted around them. Ravinder screamed as a bullet lodged in his leg. The pain was unbearable and he started sobbing, unable to walk. Beeji tore off a strip of cloth, discreetly sterilized it with her urine and wrapped the wound. Ravinder did not know it then – but, the resulting scar would remain forever.

Ravinder saw a bizarre sight  as the mail train that they were waiting for pulled into Khanewal station. The train was filled with people – they were everywhere – they were perched  on top of the train, they balanced their bodies in the couplings between the carriages, the compartments were packed with them – they hung on for dear life from doors and windows. The sight stirred something deep and foreboding within Ravinder’s mind. The sight made him realize that life as he had known it till then had ended – madness had taken root.  

He saw Tikkam Chand negotiating with the Assistant station master.  Cash and jewelry soon exchanged hands and an agreement was stuck to take them in the bogey reserved for passengers traveling in first class. Soon, they settled into the compartment with trepidation.. As the train passed through a bleak landscape, Devinder developed a high fever. In desperation, Beeji pressed a piece of wet cloth on his forehead striving to keep his temperature at bay. Ravinder stared out of the window and was unable to process the various sights as the train hurtled through village after village. Women were jumping into wells, pursued by men with murder in their eyes. Dead, dismembered bodies were lying by the railway tracks. Fires raged everywhere. Houses, fields, animals and carts – everything was up in flames. His eyes turned red and he felt numb.

As the train pulled into each station where a stop was scheduled, the Assistant station master pushed all of them into the bathroom and locked the door securely. Men wielding lathis charged in, and they could hear them demanding “Hai koi Sikh da bachcha?(Is there a *expletive Sikh here?) The Assistant station master in a clam voice responded with, ““No one here but my family.” To prove his point, he opened the train windows and declared with more confidence to the marauders on the platform, “See? It’s just my family in here.” Eventually, the train reached Kasoor, the last stop in the newly created Pakistan, before it was going to cross over into India.

At Kasoor station once again, the Assistant station master opened all the windows to show the crowd that the first class  bogey held only three people – his wife, child and himself. He helped his wife and child to disembark onto the platform. They waited for him to clamber down, but he shook his head ever so slightly. He stayed on the train and then leapt from the moving train as it neared the end of the platform. It was his last gesture in ensuring the safety of his charges who hid in the bogey.

Tikkam Chand and the others stayed hidden it the bathroom until the train reached Firozepur, where they disembarked to come across another scene of horror.Their train was a ghost train, full of dead bodies. Dismembered arms and legs and severed heads had fallen off the train onto the platform. They were the only ones to get off the train alive, saved by a kind Muslim.

Ravinder did not know this then – but the face of the Assistant station master with his large chocolate brown eyes and his flowing beard, a man whose name he would never know, would stay etched in his mind through every waking moment thereafter.  

At Firozepur station there were a few Sikhs who handing out apples and warm milk to the few passengers who had made it out alive. They were soon herded onto a train to Delhi, where they disembarked to find even more chaos. Hundreds of people thronged every corner of the station. Devinder soon got lost in this milling  crowd and Beeji went crazy, yelling and crying, as she ran around looking for him. Luckily she soon found him, frightened and crying near a pillar.

Soon,they were taken to a refugee camp. They arrived there with no possessions, except for the clothes on their backs. Beeji knew that her daughter-in-law’s sister lived in Delhi and that her husband was a store keeper in Chandni Chowk selling luggage. Everyday, Beeji went to Chandni Chowk along with Tikkam Chand and made a stop at every luggage store – her question tinged with desperation was the same – “Do you know Leela?” One day, one of the store owners replied with the words she waited to hear – “Yes, she is my wife.” Hearing these words, Beeji sobbed in relief. “I have brought Kanta’s children here. My work is done.”

Leela hurried to the refugee camp and took all of them home in a tanga. She immediately summoned a tailor and got new clothes stitched for everyone. A telegram was dispatched to Kanta in Jagadri,informing her that her sons Ravinder and Devinder were safe and that they were in their aunt’s care.

It is a while before Ravinder and Devinder are finally reunited with their father Narendra Nath. Their father had left Kasoval village to move to another town to accept a promotion and a new posting. ,He had left his mother and his two sons Ravinder and Devinder in the care of his merchant friend Tikkam Chand. He had sent his wife and daughters to India earlier. Before he could go to Kasoval to bring his two sons and his mother, violence had erupted and there was no way to reach them. He had come to know that they had taken the train, but there was no news about whether they had arrived in India. The journey was filled with peril and there were so many stories of sheer horror that he did not know where to look for them or where to find them. He had finally used his connections to get a ride on a plane to Delhi and listened to radio announcements day in and day out for weeks on end. Then he heard the message that he had been waiting for all along – Tikkam Chand’s family and the Chopra family had arrived safely – they had now left Delhi and had traveled to Jagadri.

It is a thankful but not a joyous reunion. Too many of their brethren had been lost. The horrors that they witnessed had wrought a profound change in each one of them. Out of this unspeakable horror, a tacit agreement was born in silence – the things they endured will not be spoken of.   

They had to focus on rebuilding their lives and their identities in the newly independent India.

San Francisco Bay Area, 2017

It has been seventy years. Ravinder Chopra, a grandfather many times over, is teaching a “Jollywood” dance class at ICC. After an illustrious career in the Indian Army where he rose to become a general, he is enjoying his days of retirement. Theatre and dance are what he is passionate about now.  In all these years he has not spoken of his flight from Kasoval to Jagadri. Until now. The subject was taboo in his parent’s home.

Life has a way of bringing us full circle.

Ravi-ji, as he is fondly called, now 79-years old, is playing the role of a kind Muslim, complete with flowing beard, in a play that re-creates the events of the Partition right here in Silicon Valley.

The Parting, opened in January in San Francisco and moves to San Jose in March,and  is the brainchild of Vinita Sud Belani and Farah Yasmeen Shaikh.

One is Hindu, and is from India. The other is Muslim, born in America of Pakistani parents. One runs a theatre company, the other a dance company. To them, these are not opposite but complementary states of being, coming from several centuries of coexistence.

Produced by EnActe Arts and Noorani Dance in partnership with the 1947 Partition Archive and India Currents, The Parting is a seamless blend of theater, dance, music, and multimedia. Twenty-two actors, eighteen dancers, and a lone violinist explore the true-life stories of the survivors of the Partition, the forgotten, and the dead.

These were the ultimate victims, caught up in the maelstrom and tumult of hope, panic and denial that occurred when Great Britain in what many see as a blithe last act of colonialism, decided to partition the country of India based on religious identity following the Indian Independence Act of 1947, thus setting in motion one of the greatest migratory upheavals of the twentieth century. 15 million displaced, 2 million dead is a familiar statistic to South Asians.

“I am alive today because of the kindness of two Muslims”, says Ravi. In all the cruelty that the Partition unleashed and that Ravi witnessed firsthand, he saw kindness and humanity shine through on both sides of the divide. “We are the same people,” he says. “Who said a line could divide us?”

This interview was conducted by Vinita Belani.