MY EARLIEST CHILDHOOD MEMORIES of rail travel were when we visited our maternal grandparents in Maharashtra, during summer holidays. I and my brother would be thrilled to bits, especially my brother, as from that tender age he had a secret desire to become an engine driver. A metal trunk would be packed with our clothes, as suitcases had not yet appeared on the scene. And there was a handy hold-all, a khaki colored cloth contraption capable of holding a mattress, a pillow and a couple of sheets, firmly rolled over and secured by sturdy leather straps. I was given the all important task of carrying the flannel covered metal water bottle. Or there was a surahi with a lion’s head for its spout.
And so we would set off for the station. A coolie would be hired to take us to our designated platform. After much haggling he would bring down his price to four annas. It was a princely sum in those days. Balancing the trunk on his head and carrying the hold-all he would race ahead with all four of us trotting behind, vainly trying to keep pace with him. Depositing our luggage on the platform, he would depart, promising to return when the train arrived.
While my parents would occupy the platform bench, we kids would sit on the luggage. Stations would hardly be crowded those days. A few families would be there, some coolies, the ticket collector in his white uniform and a smart peaked cap, and stacks of wooden crates waiting to be hauled away. A sweeper with his long T-shaped stick would walk and swab the platform from one end to another. A passenger train would arrive and there would be a sudden frenzy of activity. The excited chatter of people, coolies bustling about and vendors selling their wares through train windows. When the train departed, silence would reign once more over the platform.
There was often no need for reservation as there was plenty of space in the compartment. Food was not needed as our journey was short. An occasional cup of hot tea served in thick white porcelain cups was sufficient. Mom’s golden rule was, ‘no eating or drinking during journeys’, as trains were notorious for their filthy loos, but who cared!? In the moving train, vendors would sell tea, biscuits, peanuts and chana jor garam. I and my brother would happily much on chikki and nankatai. We didn’t mind the hard wooden benches or the dirty carriage strewn with beedi stubs and bits of paper. As long as we got a window seat, we were fine. For us children it was an adventure with a capital A.
We would come across miles and miles of uncultivated barren land, clumps of grass, a few scattered trees and the unending horizon where earth and sky meet. And horror of horrors I once beheld an awful sight – a bleached skull grinning grotesquely at us from beyond the tracks. I wonder which unfortunate person was mauled to death by a wild beast and I was mighty grateful for the iron bars on the windows which protected us from the cruel world outside.
In the wee dark hours of the morning, the train would slowly pull into a station. One could palpably feel the echo. I would watch with wonder as the huge platform pillars would slowly glide by, plastered with film posters of Dev Anand, Nutan, Sunil Dutt, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Mumtaz, Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh. To my untutored eyes, these beautiful people with pink complexions and perfect teeth lived charmed lives in fairytale castles. I did not realize that the film stars owe much of their beauty to makeup. A.H. Wheeler, the famous bookshop would still be closed. A coolie wearing his red shirt and dirty white dhoti would be sleeping on the bench with a mangy dog curled beneath keeping him company. The only things alive were the bright tube lights and the large clock hanging from the roof. After some time the guard would blow his whistle and with a jolt the train would start once again.
I can still remember those glorious sunsets when the sky would turn blue to orange to pink to purple and finally black, stars twinkling in the sky, a full yellow moon racing with our train, dry and cracked river beds with a thin silver stream of water, the sudden inky darkness of a tunnel, the tracks, signals and cabins, the permanent way inspector making his routine inspection on a small trolley and the famous Chambal ravines of Madhya Pradesh. Dad would regale us with stories of Tantya Bhil – a local brigand – who would stop a passing train and chop off passengers’ legs or stretch them to match his own. Such medieval torture!
Fellow passengers are a class apart. We would tend to look on them warily in the beginning but as time went by, we would settle down comfortably and become like one big happy family. Some would immediately clamber into the top berth to get their much-needed sleep. Others would discard their footwear, sit cross-legged on the benches, burp, pick their teeth or noses and talk incessantly. Some would pull out their dog-eared books and start reading while mothers would comfort their wailing babies.
Most if the co-passengers I have come across have been good. Some provide a bit of amusement while others are downright obnoxious and it is best to avoid the latter category.
Many years ago I was travelling from Nagpur to Delhi and I had the misfortune to get an upper berth. A local politician was also going to Delhi with his friends and offered to exchange his lower berth after his dinner which was a sumptuous affair as he had a ten-box tiffin carrier with him. To this day I can still smell the spicy aroma of zhunka and bajra rotis, typical Maharashtrian fare. He was going to meet a minister and was carrying a huge bunch of raw peanuts as a gift.
Then there was the young Sardarji couple whose baby son was running a fever. A bit of Crocin brought the fever down. The parents were so overwhelmed. The father gave me his card should I ever need his help. I should have retained it as he was a lawyer.
Rural eye camps were held in winter. I had to travel from Itarsi to Khirkiya (which literally means windows), a tiny hamlet in Madhya Pradesh. The rest of the team had gone on ahead and I along with the hospital ward boy were bringing up the rear. In our carriage, apart from ourselves, there was only one other occupant—a lady. She stared at me for a long time taking in my bob-hair, sari, high heels and lipstick, and then picked up the courage to ask me timidly if I was ‘foreign returned’.
Travelling by AC coach has its own merits. Everything is so spotless. Meals are served in hygienic plastic covered trays. A pillow and blanket would be provided at night for a nominal fee. Once I used such a pillow and next morning to my dismay I discovered that there were lice in my hair. Even the snobbish AC passengers have feet of clay. My son aged ten, undertook his first train journey in the padded comforts of such an AC coach, a far cry from journeys we undertook as kids. Seated opposite us was a plump girl, also going to Nagpur, after purchasing her dowry items from Delhi. Munching on kajus she gave me the glad tidings that she knew 17 Indian languages. “Good for you. I hope your husband keeps that fact in mind when you have one of your fights”, I thought to myself.
Someone wrote in the newspapers, “Once it leaves a station, a train morphs into an alternate world, a world humming with romance and filled with deception, where you can lose your heart or your life.” How true! As for me, I still remember that world with nostalgia where train journeys were pleasant and the passengers were kind, courteous and friendly. I wish that era did not have to end.
Dr. Kalpana Sarkar