I remember the sketches my friend’s daughter had made of her co-travellers on a train journey. A pot-bellied gent sat slumped in his seat, his eyes closed; a young man sat like the Rodin sculpture; the middle-aged woman next to him was looking out of the window, with an ill-tempered look on her face; on the opposite side sat a young man engrossed in a paperback….
She had captured the atmosphere in a train compartment perfectly. Scenes like the above are the norm on train journeys these days. Gone are the bonhomie and pleasant atmosphere that hit you the moment you boarded the train in the not too distant past. It used to be fun — the longer the trip the better it was. A nice book, some friendly co-travellers, yummy packed food, and you were all set! I used to wish that the train would go on and on without a destination with me just enjoying the ride. In fact, I still do!
Let me take you back in time with some nostalgic snippets of train rides past…
There used to be a category of friends in the line of pen friends whom I called train friends. One easily made friends, talked nineteen to the dozen about everything under the sun and then parted ways when one of us got off. Often we wouldn’t even know each other’s names, yet we would talk about our children, the city we lived in, or the latest movie we had seen as if we had known each other for ages! I can still remember many such friends, their faces etched in my memory but alas, without a name attached to them!
Today we talk a lot on journeys too — on our mobile phones. We listen to sounds and sing along — with our earphones jammed into our ears, eat insipid food by ourselves from foil containers before burying our noses in a book to avoid conversations. We can’t blame anyone, given the many cases of drugging and looting we hear of. Who knows whether the nice lady has laced her aloo parathas with something to put me to sleep so that she can relieve me of my belongings?
Better be safe than sorry, you say?
Not so in the old days. Older women offered child-raising tips and recipes to the younger women, babysat their children for the duration of the trip and so on. Everyone amicably shared the food they had brought along as in a picnic. When a man/ boy/girl was travelling alone, he or she was included in the party and plied with food and warmth. The young ones and even older ones travelling alone today want to be just left alone with their smartphones, a bag of chips and bottles of coke or want to merely sleep through the journey.
Back then, no one asked whose berth was whose and everyone looked out for each other. If there were many small children, the ubiquitous hold-all was unrolled on the floor and several young ones slept comfortably. Lower berths were relinquished without a fuss to accommodate the elderly and women with children. Today a senior citizen has to beg, plead and grovel with the young ones to please give up their lower berth often with little success. I have seen it happen many times including to me. These days it is more like the elderly obliging the more elderly!
Recently I travelled with a middle-aged couple and it was as if I was back in time! They happily shared my roti and subzi and gave me some of their wonderful pulao. We talked over cups of horrible tasting tea from the pantry car with her delectable homemade crisps. The trip ended all too quickly, alas! And true to the nature of train friendships, we hadn’t exchanged anything more than first names!
This couple was visiting their children and carried quite a lot of stuff. One of the bags was bulging on all sides, ready to burst at the seams. Every pocket was crammed with something or the other. It reminded me of the ubiquitous ‘hold-all’ that every long train journey entailed back when I was young.
This piece of luggage literally was a ‘hold-all.’ It was slightly smaller than a standard mat and had two pouches at either end, big enough to hold a pillow each. The idea was to use it to store sheets and other clothes well spread out in the middle and then secure the stuff by folding the flaps and buckling them up. This was then rolled tight to make a big bedroll. Sometimes the contents would be too much and prevent the buckles from being fastened. No problem! A rope would be brought and voila! It was all bound up! The hold-all was opened out usually to make a bed for an adult or two kids. Yes, back then there were no cushioned berths except in the first class compartments, so this was a very handy thing to carry. I am sure the older readers of my blog would remember the slatted wooden benches that served as the berths till cushioned berths appeared in the late ‘70s. Truly cattle-class, as Shashi Tharoor would have said.
Anyway, I am digressing. Coming back to the hold-all, we kids used to stuff the nooks and crannies with all the contraband that would not pass muster in our mother’s eyes: shells, pebbles, books (many of them), toys and other treasures only children understand the value of. We carried them for our cousins as gifts. As the day of departure neared this item of luggage was packed and repacked with us kids hovering anxiously in the periphery lest something got discovered and thrown out by mother. In hindsight, I think she knew of all the stuff we had stashed away, but pretended not to have seen them!
We kids were needed for an important job while packing: the leather/rexine suitcases of those days fastened with buckles and required one or several of us sitting/standing/jumping on them to close them after they were filled to bursting!
On the day of the travel, huge tiffin carriers would be packed with puris, idlis, tamarind rice and curd rice, enough to feed almost the entire coach! We would be fed to the gills by our mother in the fond hope that we would not ask for anything to eat the moment we boarded the train. But of course that never happened. The pulling out of the train from the platform synchronized with our grumbling stomach. And mother would grumble some more, but end up feeding us again!
The food tasted divine, served on pattals (plates made of dried banyan or sal leaves) that could be simply thrown away after eating. The foil wrapped food we get today might be hot, but not a patch on the food mother served with so much love and a lot of scolding. Water had to be filled at station taps and one waited for the big junctions to do it, as the train stopped longer at those. There were screw-top metal jugs we called ‘kooja’. Some even carried small earthen surahis to keep the water cold in the summer heat.
There would often be some unaccompanied children escorted by neighbours. I have travelled that way several times too! So the compartments would be full of noisy kids of all ages having a wonderful time, never mind the baking heat and uncomfortable seats. Thinking back, it is a wonder to me how the adults put up with the cacophony and mayhem in the compartment. I can’t but compare this with today’s trains where often there is sepulchral silence with each busy with his or her own thing and not a smile shared.
Then there were those rhymes and songs you sang along to the rhythm of the wheels! We kids would sing at the top of our voices. Have you ever noticed how the rhythm changes with the rhyme or the song you are singing? I mean you sing hickory- dickory… and the rhythm would match it, and when you change over to ‘Mera joota hai Japani,’ the wheels would alter their rhythm to the Bollywood song! Ditto for even a bhajan if you are in a mood for one. Next time you travel long distance, try it!
I tell you, half the fun of train travel went with the AC coaches. Boxed in and unable to commune with Nature through the airtight and often dirty windows, you can’t hear the robust sounds of the platform, taste the specialty of that region/station. Since vendors other than the railway caterers are not allowed inside AC coaches we hardly get to eat delicacies like spicy chutney smeared cucumber slices, the tangy chana jor garam or the rice murukku, as the case may be, depending upon the region or station you are passing through.
I could go on and on, but no amount of nostalgia is going to bring back those magic train journeys. Is it that life has become stressful? Or we have become too self-absorbed and churlish to take note of the world around?
I am sure life was not a bed of roses for the earlier generations either, but they had the some of the most important ingredient that made for happy communication – compassion, empathy and generosity. It makes me sad to realise how we are diminished in some way as human beings having lost these vital emotions.
Images: Top: www.gettyimages.ca Bottom: donni-nina.livejournal.com