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Romance with the railways

The best way to get the feel of a country: hop on to a train

I overheard some youngsters grumbling and complaining about having to board a train as the air fares were high on the day they intended to travel. This triggered nostalgic memoires of my own train travel experiences. I belong to a generation for which travel meant boarding a train, especially as children. Air travel was a luxury that the middle class could hardly afford.

My affair with the Indian Railways began at a young age as my father’s job involved transfers across the length and breadth of India. I have vivid memories of the steam engines whistling past stations, belching black smoke and covering the passengers with soot. The first class compartments of those days were independent bogies with an attached bath. It is only in the late-1960s and 1970s that on major routes the diesel engines replaced the steam engines and the old first class coaches were replaced by coupes in a corridor.

The train by which I travelled most was the Grand trunk Express which runs from New Delhi to the then Madras. It was fascinating to watch people board with steel trunks, holdalls (perhaps the younger generation has never seen a holdall), water carried in earthen pots and huge stainless tiffin boxes. Even those who did not carry idlis, definitely carried home-made savouries such as chaklis to munch on the long journey. We used to love eating the oranges bought at Nagpur station where the trains had a fairly long halt. We children used to watch the elders haggle with the vendors for baskets of oranges.

I can’t recall getting bored on the three-day trip from New Delhi to Bangalore. These train trips were family bonding times. Our favourite pastime was counting the number of tunnels we passed through and memorising the names of the stations. The parents played word-building, word-ending games. Not only did our vocabulary improve but we also had geography lessons as we were informed about the names of the States the train had to pass to reach Madras. We played board games such as Ludo and snake and ladders. If the parents were tired we used to play with the kids from the other coupes. When we were tired of playing we used to read and re-read Enid Blyton books, my own favourite being the Famous Five series. I cherish the memories of my dad making up stories. My sister and I used to listen to them in rapt attention.

In my late teens my train travel was down-graded from first class to third class. I was a boarder in Bangalore and during college vacations I used to board the Grand Trunk Express or the Karnataka Express which went directly to New Delhi bypassing Chennai. The Karnataka Express had a circulating library that was quite a favourite spot with us. It was usually at the end of the train and we had a long walk through the vestibules connecting the compartments. My friend and I mostly opted for the topmost berth so we could sleep or read without being disturbed.

The bonhomie in the third class compartments is to be seen to be believed. It was fun watching the passengers play Antarakshi, and sometimes we also joined in. Fellow passengers insisted on sharing their snacks with us. Perhaps we boarders looked undernourished. When I think back I don’t recollect being nervous of our fellow- passengers. The boys in the compartment used to volunteer to fill our water bottles at the railway refreshment rooms, when the train used to halt at a big station. There was no bottled water.

My most interesting experience was during a trip to Deolali, a military cantonment near Nashik, from Bombay. I was visiting my friend at Deolali and she told me to hop on to the unreserved compartment for ladies in an early morning train which was going up north. It was impossible to get reservations on these trains unless one booked a month in advance after standing in overnight queues. When I reached the station I could not even get into the compartment as not only ladies but several burly Bhaiyas from Uttar Pradesh were also inside. I was wondering what to do when a couple with a small kid who were on the platform enquired where I was off to. They told me to come with them to the reserved third class compartment. After a slight hesitation I went along with them, minutes before the train left the station. To my surprise I found that they did not have any reserved seats. We stood in the space near the toilets. There were many passengers standing around. Luckily the ticket collector started checking from the other end and he threw out many travellers at Kalyan station. By the time he reached us the train had left Kalyan. The irony is that he asked the family that had asked me to join them to alight at the next station. Maybe because I was a young girl or because he thought I was an army brat and out of a misplaced sense of patriotism, he allowed me to stay. In fact he asked me to sit along with RAC passengers till Deolali.

When I started working my travel was by second class air-conditioned sleeper, including in the Rajdhani Express. Funnily enough I found the air-conditioned coaches claustrophobic and missed the open windows of the third class and the first class.

As middle age crept in, my romantic fervour for trains started diminishing. Now only nostalgic memories of the train trips remain. The best way to get the feel of a country is to hop on a train. At every stop a train makes a little part of India gets on and says ‘Hello’.

shobhaanand@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 7:17:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/romance-with-the-railways/article18400857.ece

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