“The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical. ”
― Paul Theroux,
The aspects of uncertainty and serendipity in our modes of travel, are dying a slow death. Not that their presence is a particularly good thing, but I think it certainly keeps some of the romance alive in travel. Think about it, how many times have you fondly remembered the time spent at an airport, even if you were embarking on a life changing trip ?
Most of us are guilty of trading the romance of the journey for the guaranteed pleasures of the destination. While a self-driven vehicle comes quite close to fulfilling athirst for serendipity, nothing comes close to a journey by train. There is a true sense of letting go, almost unrivaled in any other mode of transport. I might be biased, attributable in no small measure to the fact that I was born in the family of an Indian railways employee.
Much into the late 90s, train travel was an annual exercise, replete with minor festivities of its own. Although we usually traveled to our native place in Kerala, I cannot imagine the setting becoming any different for people traveling to other parts of India by rail.
Preparation for the journey would begin months in advance, for there was no way of knowing whether you were lucky enough to bag a precious ticket. Latest train timetables, even booking agents were consulted before booking. I recollect my father spending a night at the ticket reservation counters to better his chances at booking a ticket.
As the date of journey approached, there was a sense of importance accorded even to the act of packing luggage. Old luggage was first cleaned and polished with a wet cloth. Clothes, gifts and items indigenous to Bombay were neatly packaged at least a couple of days in advance. As d-day neared, meals were prepared and packed separately for each day of travel. Clothes to be worn for the journey were set aside separately, drinking water kegs were brushed and dried, and even footwear was religiously washed.
On the day of the journey, we would reach the boarding station at least a couple of hours in advance. Then as now, the grandiose architecture of the British era train stations in Bombay never ceased to amaze. There was the fear of getting lost in the milling crowds. But that was quickly overtaken by the temptation of snacking at the mobile food carts and the omnipresent chai-wallah. Before the advent of Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri, there was Campa Cola, Aarey and Gold Spot. The ubiquitous weighing machine contraption spat out not only our weights on a ticket, but also our horoscope for the day. There was the delight in discovering treasures at the old book stall, usually a HigginBotham’s, that was manned by a stoic book-seller, standing on a tiny island of space surrounded by reams of print. Then there was the mild exultation when you found your name on the reservation chart, even if it had already been confirmed months in advance.
The journey itself was as variegated as the lands you passed by. Crowds, electric poles, slums and the overbearing noise and smells of an Indian metropolis gave way to hillsides, rivers, pastures and farmlands overnight. The cacophony of metal rolling on metal was accompanied by the (mildly) wondrous smell of diesel fumes mixed with grease and the onomatopoeic chugging of the locomotive.
The food changed with the landscape as well. The comfortingly familiar vada pav and samosa of the city gave way to slightly soggy puri-bhaji as you ventured south, then to bland dal-rice and sour curd and pickle before reverting back to the tastiest idli-vada and fried plaintain you could have on this planet. Just when you were in the mood for a post-lunch snack, a vendor would magically appear out of nowhere, peddling freshly cut cucumber and tomato slices sprinkled with a spicy masala. Ice creams, even close to melting, were prized most heavily in the sweltering Indian summers. And most surprisingly, I never fell ill from the drinking water refilled from the railway water taps.
Conversations with fellow passengers were inevitable, as is wont to happen with people traveling to the same destination. Invariably, someone would turn out to be an acquaintance of a distant relative. Notes on the family size, the parents’ occupation, children’s ages and each other’s residential addresses in the metropolis were exchanged. I recollect a bank employee who stayed in touch afterwards, even managed to help us with some work later, just because we had the good fortune of meeting him on a train.
Boredom could be tackled with an exchange of comics and magazines. Not a day or night would pass by without somebody playing cards on the top berth.
Before you knew it, the morning or evening of disembarkation soon arrived. Hasty byes with co-passengers were exchanged, and a wave at the train as it sped by leaving you at your destination only with the promise of making a journey in the reverse direction.
Maybe I am naive in comparing my childhood memories with an almost certainly better mode of travel that my adulthood has seen. But every now and then, I cannot help wishing for the rocking lullaby of a train, whistling into the night, putting me to bed with happy memories made for the day and promises of more to come.
Get a taste of what travel by train was like in India, in the past few decades in this wonderful BBC documentary.