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.