Monday, February 15, 2010


Staying in Barrackpore and having lots of relations in Calcutta meant that short train journeys (about an hour and a half) were a regular part of our holidays. Trains meant a mix of excitement and apprehension, clutching tightly to Baba's hands on the crowded platform, the pleasure of standing in front of the window with the wind whipping my hair into my eyes, seeing the fields and houses tush by, getting warned every now and then not to put our hands out of the window, buying candies or fruits from the hawkers on the trains. And getting the yellowish cardboard ticket as a keepsake after the journey.

But my first really l-o-o-o-n-g overnight journey on Indian Railways was when I was seven years old, and we (Maa, Bhai and I - Baba had to go to 'office') accompanied my Dadu (mother's father) to Bhopal to visit my Mashi (mother's sister). Bhopal is 1356 kilometers away from Kolkata and we went the distance in an ordinary (not air-conditioned) second-class compartment, in the summer vacation when the temperature outside was often more than 40 degree celsius, in a train that had a coal-engine (which multiplied the heat-factor considerably) and which took two nights (if I remember correctly) to reach Itarsi (the station where we alighted, 77 kilometers away from Bhopal city). But being children, being middle-class, and being part of the frugal-seventies-generation, we never felt the heat or the discomfort. We didn't know any better. Maybe that is a good thing.

Dadu was a meticulous planner, and Maa was his able ally. So we got up on the train accompanied by, among other things, one kunjo of water (earthenware pot) in a wooden stand (to get deliciously cool water - beats refrigerated water any day), unlimited home-made cakes (to last the entire journey and beyond), limited luchi-mangsho (unleavened bread and mutton-curry, for the first night's supper, in such enormous quantities that it could feed an entire coupe of people), and one bedding-roll.

Why bedding-roll? At night, Dadu slept on the lower berth, taking an air-pillow and a two bed-sheets (one to lie upon, one to cover up), Maa and Bhai (then a three-year old enfant docile) slept similarly on the middle berth, and I was put inside the bedding roll with a pillow under my head and the straps tied over my body and bundled up onto the top berth. Despite being strait-jacketed to sleep, I loved the novelty of my high vantage point and spent a large part of the daytime sitting up on the top berth, reaching up to touch the ceiling every now and then.

Only the lure of the window got me down. Travelling through the vastness of India, with its changing terrains, soils, vegetation, cultivated and barren fields, villages, crowds and miles upon miles of empty spaces was an eye-opener. Except when the coal-engine belched extra-vigorously and the sooty smoke wafted into our eyes.

Faces black with soot, tummies full of a constant supply of food, mind replete with a multi-sensory experience of a lifetime, we got down at Itarsi station past midnight, the darkness adding to the mystery of the new place. Maasi (aunt) was waiting for us, and we travelled through the dark and long 77 kilometers to Bhopal clip-clopping in a tonga (horse-drawn carriage). But that's another journey, and another story.



Book Dilettante said...

What an interesting memory of train rides. I remembr shorter trips as well on a slowsteam engine through the countryside in the West Indies.

SloganMurugan said...

"But being children, being middle-class, and being part of the frugal-seventies-generation, we never felt the heat or the discomfort. We didn't know any better. Maybe that is a good thing."

That's very true.
My yearly train ride was on the Island Express that goes from Bangalore to Kerala. I still have memories of the soot and the whistle and what I remember most is the food. Yum!

purplesilt said...

I so miss those times when just the though of being on a train could bring happiness. It meant meeting new people and travelling long shores.
Who cared about the temperature when so much was happening around.
Looks like my children will never know the pleasure of cold/hot air rushing to their faces.

Lazyani said...

Lovely memories of such train rides rush to my mind - trips to muzaffarpur, agra, kiul and places all over Jharkhand.

These days he comfort of air-conditioned travel have taken away the tactile charm of travel. I remember that the air smelt so different as you proceeded into the Hindi heartland from Bengal.

Looking forward to the addendum hinted at the bottom of the post

Kavi said...

You have some memories indeed ! some deep seated memories !

Well captured ! how have you been ? Its been some time...!


Rajesh said...

Train journey is always interesting. There is a race to get windows seat and when bored climb up to the upper berth and survey from top. Who can forget card games

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Enjoyed reading the first part. You have reminded me of many things, the kunjo for one, accepting physical discomfort as part of many adventures for another. Will look forward to the next stories.

Aleta said...

Your blog posts bring such warmth. What a pleasure to read about your childhood memories.

My first train ride was to Atlanta. Because it was a short ride, we road in coach. I must have been 17 or 18. I remember when my brother and I wanted to walk to the lunch room. You had to go outside of the train car and then go inside the next train car.

But between the train cars... the ground MOVED. We didn't expect it and freaked out. Rob was the first one to go from car to car. I held open the door of the car we were in, then he LEPT over the "moving part" and held open the door to the car we were going into. I followed his lead and lept over too.

By the afternoon, we were able to walk across and it wasn't a big deal. Have to laugh about the leap frog fears!

The second train ride was from New Orleans to California. We had rooms this time instead of going coach. It was nicer, but wow - those rooms were small!

lopamudra said...

Apart from all the long trips that we took as a family I loved the most were the trips made from howrah to kgp.I could see what Bankim meant by 'shashya shyamala'.The vast streches of green paddy fields were year round feature.I loved tea in earthen containers...the people and everything.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks for letting us board your memory-train.