The Romance of the Railways

I visited the National Rail Museum today on work, and as always was delighted to be there. It's an amazing place with a wonderful display of trains and engines, and brought back fond memories of traveling by train. I love train journeys and always have. Every summer, when we were kids, mom, I and my sister would pack ourselves off to the south for a two month holiday, with dad typically joining in around the half way mark. Earlier, the journey used to be in the good old GT or grand Trunk Express, which used to go from Delhi to Madras, where we had a 7 hour stopover before a new engine was attached which took the train up to Bangalore. Later, of course, the KK express - Karnataka Kerala express - took over, which used to take about 2 days to get there and was considered a vast improvement. Weirdly, I always used to start my asthma attacks at Jolarpet station before we got into Bangalore, and they would last the duration, finally relieving me when we passed Jolarpet station on our way out.

There was no AC in those days, just hard wooden seats and ineffective ceiling fans. We used to travel with holdalls crammed with a variety of bedding so as to make ourselves comfortable. At times, we would even bathe during the Madras stopover, or at other stations if the weather was too hot. Later, when second-hand AC bogies came in, life became much more comfortable. Dad used to get out at various stations to refill the cooler with cold water and I was always afraid that he'd get left behind. I used to peer anxiously through the crowds to spot him and be ready to pull the chain in case he was left behind. Both to my relief and chagrin, I never got to pull the chain.

The 3 day journey by train was sheer pleasure for all of us. The swaying movement of the train was the soothing rocking of the cradle when we lay down to sleep. And an intriguing obstacle course when we wanted to walk through the train. Going from one bogie to another through the coupling area was another adventure and thrill in itself - the swaying action always seemed to intensify there, and the noise level multiplied, and we were always a little scared that it would come apart. We looked forward to each bridge the train passed over, counted each tunnel and hung out of the windows to see the whole length of the train whenever it went on a curving track. I used to love clambering into the top bunk with a thick stack of books, or fight with my sister over who would get to sit next to the window. We would make up stories about the people we saw on stations or towns that we passed. I shuddered when the train went through the Chambal forest, fearing an attack by dacoits who were notorious in that area, and evaluated far-off hills as to whether they looked climb-able or not. We really saw all of India as we traveled through the countryside, from farmers in fields with tiny, red-roofed huts to small, crowded looking towns where whole families precariously perched onto one small luna, forests - mysterious and uninhabited, streams rushing busily from one place to the other, small, simple little temples and mosques...You could see the terrain changing as you went from one state to another, from the arid-looking Southern Maharashtra to lush, coconut-tree dotted Tamil Nadu and Andhra, the rocky, boulder-strewn western Ghats to the flat lands of Madhya Pradesh. The Krishna, the Godavari, the Narmada and the Yamuna, Kaveri, Tungabhadra, all became our friends in the process of crossing them to reach our destination.

Delicious food and train journeys are also intertwined in my mind. We would pack food from home when we set out - typically puliyogare or tamarind rice, mosaru anna or curd rice made with a spoon of dahi and lots of milk because it would turn sour through the hot journey. Puris and aloo sabzi. Fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and onions to cut up and have with each meal. The big brass tiffin carrier was ceremoniously brought out from the store room and cleaned up for this journey. Small steel tiffin plates and spoons, as well as a knife for cutting the veggies would be packed. Fruit would be bought - bananas, mosambi and apples. Bread and Jam for breakfast. All kinds of thindi - snacks - would be made for the journey - south Indian style fried avalakki, banana chips, masala peanuts, chakli, coconut barfi, besan laadu...Sometimes it seemed like a race between the food and the journey - which would finish first. Each station we passed through had its own food specialties as well. Aloo-puri at Agra. Mangoes and oranges at Nagpur. Maddur Vadai at Maddur ( between Bangalore and Mysore. My sister and I used to insist on traveling by train between the two cities, rather than by car or bus just so we could have the vadas). At every station, boys selling tea or coffee would pass by. Vendors would hawk petha at Agra, pedas at Mathura, and Amul chocolates and unbranded chips everywhere. Early morning, the waiters would wake us up with hot tea or coffee in flasks. Often, I'd get up to drain a flask-ful while everyone else was still sleeping and then go back to sleep. We rarely bought food on the train unless what we had brought with us had gotten spoilt, so I used to longingly eye the idli-upma-vada breakfasts and even the cold omlettes that our neighbours would be having.

Train journeys are communal affairs. When you spend two days with a group of people, particularly when the group is Indian, one tends to exchange so much personal information that everyone is soon on friendly terms. Meals and snacks were liberally shared, and I used to enjoy the oily parathas and pickles of Punjabi neighbours or the theplas and khakhras of the Gujjus. Marwaris too tended to travel with a compediment of fried snacks which were uniformly delicious. All the kids on the train would make friends after a couple of hours, and we'd dare each other to go from top bunk to top bunk across the compartment, wander through the length of the train or play cards for hours together.

Each family has train stories to narrate. Marriages get fixed, strangers become friends, or long-lost friends find each other by chance. Once we were traveling from Bangalore to Delhi by KK express. We saw the name SR Rao posted at the next compartment, which is my grandfather's name, and out of sheer curiosity went to check. Only to discover my uncle, dad's brother, who is also SR Rao, traveling by the same train. My dad has lost an expensive Citizen watch on the train - he had placed it on the soap-dish of the bathroom while washing his face, and as the train's swaying increased in intensity, it tumbled off the shelf into the WC!

Many of our movies too capitalise on the romance of train travel. Who can forget "Mere sapnon ki Rani kan aayegi tu...", with the whistling of the Darjeeling Toy train as the background music, or Half ticket, the madcap movie in which Kishore Kumar pretends to be under-age so he can buy a half ticket for the train? There are countless Hindi film romances which begin on trains, and of course a whole movie dedicated to the "Burning Train".

Plane travel, by contrast, is such a boringly functional affair. The only excitement for me in an airplane journey is that of the destination I'm traveling to, if it's someplace exotic, and the various names on the signboard - Tashkent, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Buenos Aires...When you travel by train, the journey itself is part of the pleasure. Some day, my dream is to undertake all the famous train journeys of the world - the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Blue train, the Peru Rail, the Colorado Express...Next year, A and I have actually resolved to take our kids south by train, so that they can discover the pleasures of train travel for themselves, and in the process, discover what India is all about.


china tour said…
Very interesting and romance travel story on the railway

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