These past few days all talk around me has centred around “life after retirement,” the “next phase of your life” and the “journey ahead.” Every single one of these interactions has been special and the sentiments expressed, heart-warming.
Moving forward to break away from a lifestyle of over four decades, it is only natural for nostalgia to set in. For some reason, my thoughts have turned to journeys undertaken by train in India. For those of my readers who have not traveled by train in India, it is a unique experience and whether pleasant or not, it is nevertheless memorable.
I cannot recall when or where I traveled on an Indian train for the very first time. Perhaps it was from Delhi to Dhanbad in Bihar where my father was posted in the 1950s. Indian Railways had three coach classes those days. Most wealthy and Very Important Persons (VIPs) traveled in the First-Class coach – the ultimate status symbol. Middle classes could afford to travel in the Second-class coaches, while everyone else scrambled aboard and tried to accommodate themselves in the Third-class coaches. The second-class coach or “bogie” was typically partitioned into four sections, each containing two upper “sleeper” and two lower “sitting” berths. During the day, the upper berths were hoisted up against the compartment wall. At night, the green rexine covered sleeper berths would be lowered to a horizontal level around five or six feet above the floor and were held in place by chains riveted to the ceiling at either end. Two fans encased in an iron grille were fixed to the roof of the bogie. Kids would scramble to sit near one of two windows that had horizontal iron rods welded in place to provide security. A small metal counter top painted yellow served as a table, between the two windows. My favorite item was the pale blue “night light” located in the upper corner of the bogie above the sleeper berth. Each passenger using the upper berth was entrusted with the job of switching this light on after the compartment lights were switched off by the authorities using a central control, encouraging passengers to retire for the night. Clambering up on a set of iron rungs to the upper berth was an intimidating and exciting experience as one had to be prepared to sleep in that high bed without any support to prevent a fall while asleep!
The best part of a train journey was always the food! Most families carried home cooked food in steel “tiffin carriers.” Typically, these comprised of three or four stacking stainless steel compartments firmly sealed with a tight-fitting lid and a side clip to avoid spillage, and a carrying handle on top. Dal (lentils), chana [chickpeas] or cooked potatoes [curried or fried with spices], parathas or puries and steamed or lemon/vegetable rice, yogurt and aam kaa achaar [hot mango pickles] made up the fare. Each dish was lovingly packed in its own container, with rice usually being stuffed in the one at the bottom. Railway catering staff would also come to take an “order” ahead of each meal-time and serve the preferred Vegetarian or Non-vegetarian (“non-veg” is an expression unique to India!) in a steel tray subdivided into small sections to hold each dish. If more than a single family shared the four berths between them, it was the done thing for both to spread out their dishes and share the food, soundly appreciating the other family’s offering. Dessert was usually mithai [Indian sweets like barfi, laddoos or halwa] packed separately.
Even as the train pulled into a station, young boys would run up and down the platform holding a large aluminum kettle of steaming hot syrupy sweet chai (tea) in one hand while precariously balancing a stack of small baked clay pots [“kulhars”] in the other. Shouting, “Chai, garam-a-garam chai” [“Tea, hot tea”] they would expertly pour tea into the kulhar and pass it to the demanding passenger through the bars on the window. The consumer would try to hand out the smallest possible currency denomination if the exact tender amount was not at hand, so that the “urchin” did not decamp with the balance due back! The tea-seller wanted to ensure he got paid before the train pulled out of the station. Most transactions were amicably concluded, in trust. Having drunk the tea, the kulhar would be tossed out the window; possibly the most hygienic way to consume tea, as the clay pots could not be reused. There were other vendors of assorted goods, ranging from biscuits and candy to paperback novels and magazines, including surreptitiously displayed raunchy publications in Hindi, Urdu or another local language, for adults.
Once the meal was concluded and the tiffin carriers packed away, the men folk would sit in a group apart from the “ladies of the family.” They would invariably engage in very vocal political deliberations. If seen to be getting out of hand, a saner person would introduce a game of playing cards to settle everyone down. Ladies would usually start discussing their accompanying children and gently but inquisitively move to inquiries about the family, husband’s job and income and if relevant, touch upon family members of “marriage age” to explore possibilities of “making a match.” Younger ladies or teenaged girls would start antakshri [literally, the “last word,” where a singer sings an opening line of a popular Bollywood song. The rival then has to sing a song that starts with the last alphabet of the preceding number.] The journey always concluded with people exchanging addresses and promising to stay in touch. Young, yearning hearts would try and pass hidden notes to each other with vows of lifelong fidelity, having spent a short night in close proximity of the opposite sex under the ever-watchful eyes of the accompanying adults!
That was another era. Those were happy times. Simple at heart, most people were accommodating and accepting, seeking nothing more than a good time as they journeyed together to their destination. Today, a young fourteen-year old boy gets set upon and is brutally stabbed to death by a bunch of young hoodlums in a train compartment. The kid’s dress and headgear “gave him away” and cost him his life, just because the mob felt his religious types should not be accommodated on the train. Or country?
What do such journeys lead to? How will they end?
Perhaps this is as good a time as any other to reflect on and board the Peace Train that Yousuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) first set in motion back in 1971?