One of my fond memories of childhood is taking these long journeys in train. There’s something about the whole experience that has left an indelible mark in my mind. I remember them quite fondly, it wasn’t nice or special, rather it was contrary. It used to be one of the very few intriguing experiences a typical Indian middle class family could offer 8 year olds. At least till 20 years ago. Especially for us, me and my brother, it can only get as adventurous as this, since we had a very protective childhood.
We were from Kerala but lived in Surat, Gujarat. My father served in the Air Force for 15 years wherein he travelled the length and breadth of our country in trains. Later he joined the banking sector and got domesticated. This is very normal for us Kerallites, we are largely non residents. Like most migratory birds, as summer approaches we flock together southward. And the great Indian Railways was our only solace. Connecting regions unknown like stitching mismatched pieces of cloth. Or what else binds them, Ahmedabad and Kolkata; Jaipur and Delhi; Okha and Eranakulum except for these railway tracks. Indian railways is the fourth largest rail network in the world and carries about 22 million passengers every single day. It is a saga in itself.
Train travelling is not all that easy, it gets sweaty in the sleeper class and sometimes the compartments had cockroaches. The fetid stench of the bathrooms can put a person of any size to coma. But yet it was not boring. At nightfall, me and my brother would fight to sleep on the upper berth. Once my father figured to stop us from fighting it was best to put both of us to task. He asked us to jot down all the stations and rivers that went by. He made us believe that he had this master list from the train’s driver, a Malayali from the same village. Upon hearing this my brother had a quizzical look, after some back and forth, he looked convinced, then I too would join the game. One such night I insisted that I would sleep sitting near the window, or I shall miss all the stations going by at night. I was fascinated by names of stations like Guntakal, Jowalarpattai and Kuruduwadi. Sceneries would keep changing as we moved kilometres, it goes from warmly green to sparse mountains to the dry boulder stretches of Deccan or the lush green coconut and palm trees of Kerala. Many valleys and rivers would pass under our feet. Not to mention the varied scripts written in yellow/black on the stations.
Our journeys were as long as 50 hours, after we alighted, I would still feel the ground beneath me swaying for a day or two. Food for the train was made with special care and packed with precision. My mother would make them semi-dry so that it would last long. We had a designated food bag, a multi-tier steel tiffin that otherwise never came out of the attic. Pulli sadam (tamarind rice) and nimbu sadam (lemon rice) would be meticulously spread in thalis for a session of cool down under the whirling ceiling fan. It will then be packed in portion sizes in roasted banana leaves which again would be wrapped in a newspaper and again in a plastic packet. Aloo bhaji, puris, tomato and onions chutneys, hard boiled eggs (my father’s favourite), pickles of mango and lemon would go in the tiffin. Mor kuttan (buttermilk curry) or rasam in Kissan Jam glass bottles. Dry snacks like murrukku and paka wada which would be prepared days in advance and we would know about them only when she takes them out in the train. She would also take Rasna, the coloured squash drink that many of the children from 80’s would remember. We had the Milton’s Kool Keg for drinking water which was so huge that it qualified as another piece of luggage. These were the good old days before the plastic bottled water. Refilling the keg was a big deal as according to my father water can’t be refilled at every stations, it had to be a “junction” like Vasai or Erode. Apparently thats the time when coaches also get refilled. Obviously we had time in hand. I remember opening the lid of the kool keg and finding the tiny plastic cups stacked underneath the lid and its tap perpetually dripping. The keg would sit on the upper berth with its nozzle perching out where my mother would put either a piece of cloth or some newspaper to soak the water.
If we didn’t get reserved tickets for all then we would be sharing the berth. Me and my mother would fit in one berth with our heads on opposite ends. I always then wondered how she slept in a saree. We made friends with our co-passengers. Mothers with other mothers and kids with other kids. My mother would be chatting heart galore with other ladies, as no household chores or homework of kids bothered them here.
It would be very unfortunate, if I couldn’t get my kids to be a part of this saga. So I soon will one day embark again, this time I will be the mother.