Nostalgia Express: When Train Journeys Were About VIP Suitcases & North-South Debates


Nostalgia Express: When Train Journeys Were About VIP Suitcases & North-South Debates

Illustration: Arati Gujar

There are a lot of things that bring me joy. The smell of first rain after a prolonged summer, the angle of sunlight on a wall on a lazy afternoon, the sound of a koel on the tree outside my house in this concrete jungle. But nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – has come close to the joy I felt as a school child, when the final bell rang on the last day before the vacations. The final signal that released you from the bloody tyranny of waking up in the morning and following a strictly regimented routine. And if you were lucky, an LTA trip every other year.

Most people remember the places they visited the most, the sights that they saw. In my case, however, the memories that remain the brightest are those of our train journeys. Sure, now that we can just take a flight somewhere, we can snigger at the Indian Railways. But does hovering over a place with no time on our hands compare with the “realness” of our trains? The stained toilets, the oily platform food garnished with free flies, windows that refuse to shutter, and compartments littered with the debris of countless peanut sessions?

I come from a proper small-town middle-class family. My father was a government doctor and mother a homemaker. The sort of family for whom – before the new pay commission kicked in – a Vadilal cone used to be a treat and burgers were gourmet food. My father loved to travel with whatever limited means we had, and he ensured his family of three travelled throughout India, by cutting corners every day.

Every journey invariably began a month before the actual journey. Plans were made, relatives who would live close to tourist spots spoken to, and new railway timetables bought. My parents have an impeccable memory of all the trains that criss-cross India, and in our house, a railway timetable was second only to the Quran.

After a lot of careful study and deliberations, reservations would be made. Next was buying new clothes, followed by gifts for relatives. And after what felt like ages, the day of the journey would arrive. Food would be cooked – mostly pooris, kebabs and aloo ki sabziwhich could survive the inevitable delays in a mithai ka dabba.

We’d set off with our huge VIP suitcases, with military camouflage cloth covers to prevent them from getting scratched, chained to our seats with equally weighty locks. We’d leave for the station hours in advance, armed with our Milton water bottles. By the time we’d get to the station book stall, the ever faithful A.H. Wheelers, I’d be dizzy with excitement.

Finally, the train would start, after arriving late in the first place, and there would be a jostle to tie up and arrange the saaman as soon as possible. From here would begin the journey of national integration. The train compartment would become a microcosm of India’s multicultural, multilingual, and multi-religious spectacle. By the end of the journeys, everyone knew everyone’s past, present, and future; political leanings; whether Azhar was better than Sachin; or if the south was culturally richer than the north. There would inevitably be a Bengali family present in the congregation, who’d argue that Robi Thakur was the greatest man that ever lived.

After every few hours, my father would get down on a platform to fill in cold water in our red or brown Milton bottles.

Political arguments and discussions would break out, voices would be raised, but never without reason. These weren’t the times when people called each other anti-national or sickular or bhakt merely because their ideologies or religions differed.

On this journey of travelling with strangers who’d eventually become friends, was my favourite part of the vacations. The window seat. My bastion, my birthright, and my window to the world passing by. I would wonder at the vast open fields, dance on seeing a baarat, get excited at the prospect of passing a new city, or simply feel happy on seeing a lot of lights on a dark night.

I didn’t know it yet, but this idle distraction, these hours spent letting my mind wander, were crucial education for us. Our generation knows how to identify Nagpur, when the orange sellers would start swarming the compartment; that Meerut was about to arrive when you inhaled the unbelievably foul smell of the sugar factory. That you were in Aligarh if your shoes got nicked. One summer, I had my brand new North Star shoes stolen, sending me into a ballistic stupor that was calmed only by the steaming hot bread pakoras of Luksar and Rampur’s creamy coffee.

Unlike the posh AC compartments, sleeper compartments would have vendors step in at every station. It was impossible to go to Varanasi without feasting on the pakoras at the nondescript Madhosingh station, and singhadas would start arriving as soon as one passed Asansol and entered Bengal. And the chai – the cornerstone of the Indian train experience. No two teas taste the same in India, ranging from the downright detergent milk disgusting to syrupy sweet bad to something that looks and smells like tea but is an alien concoction mixed with cardamom. Even now I feel a vendor’s chant of “chai chai chai chai” could wake me up from the dead.

A train with a pantry car was a luxury and a wonderful thing. I still crave the taste of the classic railway breakfast – bread with the thinnest layer of butter humanly possible applied to it, with a serviceable omelette – that I first got aboard the Ganga-Kaveri Express. The steady supply of rasam, idlis, and sambar that we were plied with through the day, made me force mother to take me to the pantry car. I’d just hang around, fascinated, watching the employees hard at work, all of whom were extra sweet to the chubby boy.

After every few hours, my father would get down on a platform to fill in cold water in our red or brown Milton bottles. My biggest fear then would be that he’d get left behind and miss the train. I’d keep staring at the gate at the end of the compartment from the alley until I’d see him – afraid that if my gaze wavered, the unthinkable would happen.

That fear is long gone now.

In the 2000s, with new pay commissions and increased social mobility, my family slowly graduated from “middle middle class” to “upper middle class”. So did our train tickets. we went from a sleeper family to an AC 3 one. Now, our ticket stubs have been replaced by boarding passes.

And yet, despite all these fabulous experiences, I still feel a twinge of a dream that has remained unfulfilled. I always wanted to just get down at a random station that we’d be passing by – Etawah or Itarsi or Ratlam or Najibabad – just to see what it looked like on the inside.

Do I still intend to do it? Yes. But will I? Probably not.