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 Contributing Editor Srishti Prabha.