Vignettes of a Train Journey

January 5, 2010

While my parents were born in their respective villages, I was born and raised in Jamshedpur, a pretty modern town, though a small one. But a trip to the village; called gaon or des was de riguer for the entire family, especially during the summer holidays. Our trips to my mother’s village were more frequent, as her brothers in her extended family were getting married, virtually every year. But the trip was punctuated by a couple of train travels, and that is what this piece is about.

The trip from Jamshedpur to the village was via Patna those days. The Patna trip was easy to negotiate; we used to book our tickets in the quaintly-named “South Bihar Express” from Tatanagar (that is the name of the station which services Jamshedpur residents) to Patna.

The onward travel was a challenge thereafter. We had to sneak into an unreserved bogey on any train travelling westwards from Patna to Kanpur, often via the window! The “hold-alls” and “attaches” would be chucked in first, then younger kids, followed by heavy steel trunks. Women would then follow and just as the train was chugging past the platform the menfolk would slither in, often with half their bodies outside the window as the train left the platform. It was a miracle that all of us would eventually make it inside the same train dabba.

The chosen coach, after a studied advice from the coolie who was hired to transport the luggage into the train, was the general (unreserved) compartment. The “general dabba” as it was called. True to the nature of train travel those days, there would be something like 300 or so passengers in a coach meant for some 75-80 passengers. The lucky few sat on the benches meant for normal travel, albeit five to a bench meant for three passengers. Four would seat squashed tight in a space meant for three. The fifth would perch sideways with just a fraction of his butt resting on the bench, his legs perched firmly on the aisle, firm enough to prevent a displacement from the bench due to frequent sideways motions of the other four passengers trying to expand their personal spaces to release the pressures on their butts! Many would clamber up to the luggage shelf affixed over the passenger seating and arrange themselves on it somewhat similar to the co-passengers on the lower bench. Now just four to a shelf, but just as uncomfortable. Some adventurous ones would even crawl on to the small luggage rack kissing the roof and somehow manage to survive the journey. These stratospheric passengers were actually the good Samaritans as they would periodically rotate the fan blades sticking close to their heads and stoke them into motion to introduce a semblance of air circulation in the compartment. You see, mere electricity was not enough to get the recalcitrant blades into motion so varied implements such as a ball-point pen, a pocket comb and sometime even the small cardboard train ticket was employed to crank the fan-blades into motion.

The oppressive crush of multitudes would initially start off disputes over the seating “arrangements”. The oppressive heat, both from the hot climate and the human exhalations did not help the cause. Add to that the suffocating mix of beedi and hukka smoke hovering around in the air choking even those with the healthiest of lungs. It was, but natural, that the younger men would get into fisticuffs with those who attempted to grab more space by attempting to lie down on the limited seating space. The elders would intervene and sanity- and peace- would prevail in a matter of minutes with the youth from the warring factions muttering retribution under their breaths. Very quickly the crowds would realign and seating (or at least a comfortable seating space) would be found for all. The smaller kids would clamber onto hitherto stranger elders’ laps, some would climb up in the manner described above. Others would occupy every other square inch right from the aisle to the space near the bathroom. Some lucky fellows even would get to perch themselves over others’ gunny sacks scattered across the aisles!

Law and order now restored, it was time now for some to pull out their slim tins of khaini with a choona (lime) receptacle on either side. Some others would “process” the khaini on their grubby palms and this would be passed around to whoever cared for a pinch of the intoxicant. Khaini, as is the tradition, is a great class leveler; it does not respect either caste or class hierarchies. Some would even exchange beedis (they were never shared though, unlike khaini. The rare one carrying a newspaper would cheerfully distribute individual sheets to others when requested.

Those seated close-by would start enquiring about the personal details of each other. Origin, destination, marital status, purpose of visit, number and names of kids, food habits, physical ailments (helpful ayurveda advice proffered gratis for even complex ailments), unmarried siblings, reasons thereof. The queries would go ad nauseum. Never did the queried one ever get flustered, or the questioning one ever tired. After all, each was serving a great role in “reducing” the seemingly endless time and distance from the journey’s source to destination. I have not been witness to any, but I am sure that many a matrimonial relationship would have got hammered into a rough shape in these journeys should there be a congruence of castes between two willing neighbouring passengers.

By the way, if I implied that everyone in the coach was in harmony and socializing freely, my apologies. There was a class of travelers who typically would wear shirt-sleeved polyester bush-shirts (often shiny and dark; they considered this pretty smart) over white or some other light-coloured trousers. They would look suitable bored as they waded through a novel (mostly Gulshan Nanda or Ranu or Colonel Ranjeet). Once in a while they would look at the train chugging past on the neighbouring track, upturn their wrists to read the time off their watches which they wore in the reverse- the dial in the same plane as their palms. They would then make grave statements about how late such-and-such train was running that day. Like ”Today’s Kalka mail is running four hours behind schedule.” A small argument would break out among these shirted-trousered folks. One would say it was the Jayanti-Janata Express running on time while the third would claim it was actually Kalka Mail which was 12 hours late. None was any wiser and after 15-20 minutes of intense arguments they would pull on the mask of a bored look and sink right back into their Gulshan Nandas, Ranus or Colonel Ranjeets. Some of the enlightened ones even read magazines with names like “Satya Katha” and “Manohar Kahaniyan”. And of course the favourite of all train travelers: “Mayapuri”, the film magazine.

Somewhere in the midst of it all appeared the vendors. Those ubiquitous sellers of varied wares, snacks, toys, books, magic remedies. People would ask to be shown the books (Kissa Tota Maina, etc), and toys. They also got the details of the herbs which made up the remedies, but none rarely bought. What indeed got some customers were the tea and snacks. Snacks like boiled-and-spiced chana, sliced coconut (looked so enticing with water dripping from the ends of the sliced coconut crescents) and something which I have seen only in Bihar; “Ramdana ka Laddoo”. Suddenly strangers would offer to buy for others these snacks which after a raucous argument on either side would settle into each of the parties buying and sharing something.

And over the course of the few hours of the journey, strong bonds developed, with promises to meet again if not for any other reason but to meet up at a mutual friend’s, acquaintances family functions. (Arey, agley mahine uskey naati ka Janau hai, kaisey nahin ayengein hain ham.”).

Phir milengey, namastey!


Train Journeys 1: Packing

July 3, 2008

In which we discover the might of the humble “Hold-all”


One significant memory of train travels in my childhood is the way in which the entire family would collaborate to pack the “hold-all”. An apt name for this very useful piece of luggage. A military-green colored affair (sometimes dark grey or brown as well), mothballed through the year, pulled out just before we went on a holiday and aired in the sun as the whole family collected together all the stuff we all wanted to carry on this holiday. Lest you assume that the so-called “holiday” involved a popular tourist spot, or an exotic location let me clarify that holiday in my childhood always meant a trip to our grand-parent’s place in the heart of what was then called Arrah Jila. More specifically visit our maternal grandfather, our nana, in the village.


Someone would pull out the mattresses, someone one would get the pillows, some the bed-sheets and slowly the hold-all would be prepared to live to its name: “Hold-ALL“. Clothes and sundry other items were packed in steel trunks which had the owner’s name and address prominently stencilled on the front face, next to the locking fixture. Sometimes a suitcase was also carried, an elaborate cardboard and cloth contraption often finished with an edging of aluminum to impart strength to it. The suitcase was called attache, or in our language, “ataichee“. “Jholas” were marshalled to pack in chappals and such stuff which could not go into the regular luggage pieces. A plastic basket carried food stuff for the journey; essentially poori and bhujiya and some thekua for the in-between snack.


And the final act was the rolling and closure of the hold-all. Very often, someone wanted to pack in some last minute stuff. With the trunk and the suitcase full to the brim, the only saviour was the hold-all. Somehow the new addition was inserted into the hold-all and the elaborate process of packing the hold-all began. The open hold-all, carrying about 30% more than what it was designed for, was laid out carefully on the floor. Care was taken to arrange its straps neatly under this. Two quick folds at either end of the hold-all and then a mighty heave to place one end on top of the other to make a cylindrical arrangement before the final assault began to buckle the strap around it. And more often than not, the two ends of the strap did not meet and the kids were summoned to sit atop this bulging cylinder to somehow squash the hold-all into a strappable mass. Sometimes when the strength of the strap was suspect, an additional rope was wound around this to provide additional strength. And then the packaging was done.


The taxi was already waiting at the gate to ferry us to the station. Pitaji would stand at the gate while individual pieces of luggage were fetched and loaded in the taxi. The total luggage count was done and two of the kids were assigned the task of remembering this. The count was sacrosanct and was maintained throughout the various stages of the trip. Any deviation from the count was a matter of grave concern and a recount was ordered till such time the number was reconciled with the original count. There were always two elements which would put the count awry. One was mother’s purse (always a part of Pitaji’ initial count, often ignored by the luggage minders!) and the food jhola (after the food was consumed). Right till the time we reached Nana’s house this count went on. The count was often disputed, but we never a piece of missing luggage.


But the hold-all would never betray the count. How could it, after all it was the centerpiece of all our packages! The hold-all, a home away from home.