Till a few decades ago, travel for the common person meant pilgrimage. There was no concept of leisure holidays. If at all, there would be one or two expeditions to some hill station or a big city (combined with a family wedding), once in a few years. Yatra was synonymous with essential travel or Teerth Yatra for senior citizens. Govt employees travelled on LTC once every two years, carefully planning the destination and itinerary.
For me, travel came to be a part of life with my parent’s transferable job all over India. We travelled to far flung remote corners of India, landing in entirely new states, away from main cities, in green cantonments, taking admission into new schools, making new friends, getting acquainted with new neighbours and learning to adjust to a climate we were not used to. Travel also meant going back to my grandparents’ home every vacation. The train journey was one big adventure in itself. Indian Railways as the only mode of travel, was exciting, and even now, railway platforms seem like a known, familiar place to me.
The whole ritual of packing and preparing for the journey was special. Waiting at the station, nagging parents to buy comics from the book stalls, buying last minute snacks and day’s newspapers, folding bamboo fans, thermos flask filled with tea, the anticipation of the impending rail yatra was immense. Those days there were no mobile phones to bury your head into. Chatting with co-passengers, getting to know their entire family history throughout the journey, sharing food, snacks and stories was common.
A train bogey was a microcosm of life in general. Unknown people in an enclosed space for hours or even days. Observing one another, the journey seemed never ending, especially in the afternoon hours. Old railway fans whirred with an irritating nagging sound, the landscape seemed monotonous, parched and dusty, people yawned and dozed off on upper berths. Some rail passengers came equipped with stuff to bide time. Group of men travelling together for official work settled quickly after boarding, the leather brown suitcase would open and cards would be out for an exhilarating card game. Peals of laughter, loud jokes, bitching about bosses, the uninhibited private conversations were open for all to enjoy.
Once we happened to be in a baraat compartment, the entire bogey was booked by a returning wedding party and few seats taken by other passengers. It was a movie on wheels. Dancing and singing, makeup and fashion show, food and so much food that they kept distributing it to beggars at every station.
Personal equations, fragmented relationships, communication, or lack of it, few hours in the train gave away a lot of personal dynamics.
Snacks and rounds of tea sold in earthen kulhad was a delicacy in itself. Railway pantry food used to be delicious in those days. The menu hasn’t changed much over the years though the quality has deteriorated. Some of the train sectors were famous for best local flavours served in packed food. People waited at the door at every station to jump off and touch the ground for a few minutes through long journeys. Every time my father stepped out at a station, I panicked. What if the train moves and he’s left behind? Sometime the train pulled off and he appeared last minute holding fruits, biscuit packets or comics. Oh what a relief!
I used to pester my parents till they bought me every possible comic book available on every station. From here, sprouted my fascination for reading and a book worm was born.
With greater mobility, economic prosperity and larger disposable incomes, travel is no more a preserve of the rich. The travel industry had boomed in last two decades and air travel is affordable for the middle class. No destination is out of reach; Internet has done away with cumbersome paperwork or the need for intermediaries. As a result, we are travelling a lot more, ticking off names from the bucket lists, but somehow the charm of going to a new place after months of planning and anticipation is lost, with everything available at the click of a button.
I still take long train journeys with my children often, just to relive the memories. Very rarely do people talk to each other now, with heads buried in phones, some talking loudly, some watching movies and some playing games. Mud kulhads have disappeared, three sips of tea served in miniature paper cup is tasteless. We don’t trust outside food anymore, the vendors sell packed stuff and restaurants deliver food in compartments. Yet, I enjoy the journey, the unknown towns, huts and multi storied buildings around the tracks in different shades, fields with seasonal crops, over bridges, trees and chimneys bellowing smoke faraway.