Time is money. So is your job. With both to maintain, travelling had to be made less time consuming. We tailor our itineraries in a way that the distance between two cities in opposite hemispheres of the country is traversed in lesser time than it takes from Behala to Barrackpore or Colaba to Kandivilli. In the last one year, all I can think of is, two train journeys…compared to innumerable aeroplane rides I had. Two hours flight replaced by 2 whole days in the train is unthinkable. However, Mr. Perfectly Alright and I are ceaselessly in love with train journeys and sometimes make it a point we travel by train. Needless to say, the excitement in travelling by a train is incomparable with any other journey (I haven’t tried space-ships though).
The thrill begins when you have a Waiting list or an RAC ticket. Every now and then you track it, with the anticipation that someone’s tickets are cancelled to give way to yours. You apply all your means, connections and bribes to get the tickets done. Especially, for Bengalis, travelling is like politics, adda and Uttam Kumar. Imbibed in their neurons. Life without travelling is equivalent to no life at all. (You see tourists dying in bomb-blasts in Kashmir or land-slides in Kumayun. All of them are Bengalis).
And once your ticket is confirmed, starts the real fun. Packing! There is no 20 kilos weight limit. You can almost carry your 800 sq.ft. home into the train with slight variations. Safety-pins, idols of Ram-Sita, gas burners, packets of puffed rice and Maggi, pickles, blankets, radio sets, pets (non-barking ones) and a range of other useless and useful things tuck themselves conveniently in those huge metal trunks and trolleys (read ‘suitcase’). In the event they cannot tuck themselves so conveniently, children would be asked to sit on the upper-lid, so that the luggage can be closed properly and locked tightly. And, if there is a numeric lock, then each time the luggage is opened (or closed), the person turns a Vinay Pathak in Bheja Fry! (You know what I mean).
One thing I fail to notice nowadays, which was very common when we were small. The owner of the luggage would have stickers bearing his/her initials fixed on the suitcase on two sides of the handle (there was a specific space for doing it). In yester years, suitcases used to come with alphabet-stickers. You choose your initials, stick them and when the luggage is lost, the whole world would come to know that it belonged to you by a mere B.G, C.N or S.P (as if)!!!!
Once things are packed, starts the first round of counting the luggage while putting them in the boot of a taxi (fondly called “dicky”) and then see for the umpteenth time whether the cab-driver has locked it properly. On the way to the station, at every red signal where the taxi has stopped, check whether the dicky is still locked. The second round of counting starts after reaching the station. The third round follows while handing over the luggage to the Coolie and the final one once you’ve boarded the train. The in-between mental counting goes on while following the Coolie till the train. And of course, keeping a count equally applies to little children, if you are travelling with a number of them (except the dicky and the coolie-part, of course).
For Bongs in Kolkata, like us, I think you would agree, the delight of travelling begins at the very step onto the Howrah Bridge. It is like a lovely trailor to a lovelier movie that lies ahead (unlike the present Yash-Chopra movies). The thrill, the excitement and the boundless joy begins just at the visibility of Ganga, the mightiness of the suspension bridge and the Howrah Station that beckons. And then, the sight, smell and sound of the station make you ecstatic..instantly. You don’t mind the sweat, the loud bustle, the annoying pleadings of hawkers and the relentless bargaining sessions with Coolies.
One more thing I have noticed. Whenever we used to travel in big groups, people would join each other near the “Boro-ghori” (the big clock) in Howrah Station. This was one unfailing landmark for all, I guess. Not only for travellers, it is the greatest rendezvous point for lovers, friends, relatives as well, before they take their respective trains. In the age of no-mobile phones, people who got lost in the railway station, would invariably wait near the “boro-ghori” with the anticipation that their friends or relatives would come here atleast once to look for them. I have heard, office-goers check if their wristwatches match the hands of the big clock during ‘awpish’-time.
And then starts the advent towards the train once the platform is declared. Checking names on passengers’ list (complaining “hey I am 36 years only, they have written 40 against my name”), pushing way thorough mounds of luggage, passengers and porters, dealing with the one who carried yours and ending the bargain with likes of “tang maat karo, tang maat karo, kafi ho gaya, zyada ho giya..” (in sonar kella-style). Achha, have you noticed, we, Bongs always speak to Taxi-drivers and Coolies in Hindi? Why???
With luggage settled beneath your seats and fixed with chain locks available on platforms (as if all that you are carrying are gold biscuits), starts the good-bye session. There would be a throng of relatives, well-wishers, neighbours to see you off, and as Mr. Santosh Desai rightly pointed in one of his books, “waving goodbye till well, after your train had crossed into the next state”. How true!!! Not to miss the assorted advices that follow…that follow you, once the train is on the move. “Eat well”, “Don’t eat from the vendors in the train”, “Don’t accept any food from co-passengers” (with the anticipation that they may put sleeping drugs into your food and steal everything), “Don’t put your hand outside the window”, “Try not to poop in those dirty latrines”, “I pity your seat numbers are 1, 2, 3 and 4..they are so close to the entrance and the latrines. You won’t be able to sleep because of the noise and the smell”, “Don’t pull the chain by mistake” are some of them. (I have heard that ‘don’t put your hands outside the window’ is such a ritualistic statement, that Bongs say it even when you are travelling in an AC coach or an airplane!!)
And now that your train has started, you have a mixed feeling of fear and frolic. You cross-check the tickets and in case you have a 15 years old Mumpi traveling with a 26 years old Sumana’s ticket (due to last moment plan-change), you teach her to settle in the upper berth as soon as the ticket-checker advents, so that he fails to fathom her exact age from a distance.
The beginning of the journey is characterised by men putting their sneakers into their bags and pulling out from newspaper-wraps their rubber sandals (which we Bongs affectionately call Hawai-choti), taking off their trousers and slipping into a pair of shorts (also known as haap-paant) or lungi. Yes, Indian men often have a separate set of clothes, one for boarding the train and the other for travelling in it. It is then followed by expert comments regarding the cleanliness of the toilet and pleading co-passengers to use it to their heart’s content with the anticipation that the latrines would soon become soiled and unfit for human defecation.
As the train moves on, crossing one state after the other, conversations with neighbouring passengers intensify. We soon get to know their whole itineraries including the money invested in the tour. Their aloo-parathas are exchanged with luchis during dinner and upper berths exchanged for lower ones, pleading arthritis (telephone numbers are exchanged too!). Swapping seats with friendly co-passengers is a widely accepted phenomenon. I remember, many years ago, while travelling from Chennai to Kolkata, a couple with 2 kids had waiting list tickets. (In Sleeper class, you are allowed only to board the train with such tickets but NOT to sit). My father had made me sleep with one kid while the other slept with my brother. My parents left their entire berth to the couple. The two sets of parents had kept awake the entire night sitting and talking to each other.
And no journey however small or big, is complete without the mention of food. The moment one boards the train, I guess, the appetite multiplies infinitely. Tea is had at an interval of 10 minutes, followed by ‘coal-dinks’, jhaal-muri, roasted peanuts, pakora, cutlet and bread-omelette (the vendors have a peculiar way of saying it!). When we were small, the second meal in the train was always from the pantry (the first being home-food). And the enthusiasm of eating train-food was like having a lunch at a 5-star hotel and the excitement as great as turning 18. The pickle, the dahi, the almost-always-arhaar daal and the presence of 2 eggs in the egg-curry (when you had expected one) was heavenly, trust me. It was a feast for eyes and for the stomach.
Train food was punctuated with food from big junctions. Kharagpur signified puri and alu-sabzi (unskinned potatoes, i.e), Bhubaneshwar stood for sweets, bananas and filling of water-bottles, Vizag and Vijaywara for fruit juices, Nagpur for oranges. The stations in South India would invariably distinguish themselves with Vadas (which looked like doughnuts), Dosas, Curd Rice, Egg-Biriyani and onion-raita, all wrapped in Sal leaves.
Filling water bottles in railway stations reminds me how anxious we used to get at the thought that the train may start any moment and leave the station with Baba being stranded there forever. (To be honest, we, as kids secretly wanted this to happen atleast once, so that we could pull the chain. That would have been a lifetime experience).
Such simply exciting and excitingly simple were the train rides. In one of my Kolkata-to-Mumbai flights, at the time of getting down from the aircraft, my neighbour asked me “Mumbai?” I felt like saying “No. Uzbekistan”. In the entire 2 and a half hours flight, I was feeling terribly bored and was waiting to talk to someone, while the man on my next seat had his eyes glued to an India Today. Now that the flight has come to an end, he finds the time to talk! Had it been a train journey, I would have made him play cards and/or antakshari with me, share his lunch and books and knew enough of him to write a short biography. Exaggerations apart, what I mean to say is that the warmth and the joie de vivre a train journey offers are truly unmatched.
The last time I travelled in a train, I made it a point to collect as much memories I could. I had as much pantry-food as possible, IRCTC tea was had in abundance accompanied by bread-omelette, ludo bought and played but most importantly, soap papers bought in a bundle. This is one thing I miss so much. With the advent of wet wipes and hand sanitisers, that is. When we were kids, wedding feasts were followed by finger bowls (colourful plastic ones) with soap papers in each (instead of lemons, as it is today). And these soap papers were a MUST in train journeys as well.
Well, as I said, in our endeavours to maintain time and jobs, travelling cannot be made a prolonged affair. Flights have thus replaced train journeys in a major way. Simple ways of life has been swapped with faster and more refined ones. Nevertheless, for people like us, whose childhood memories are overflowing with moments spent in the train (sleeper class, to be noted), no journey can ever replace them in terms of the fun had. Hearts are trained that way!!