You can’t really separate the railways from the food. Most of my memories seem to revolve around food. Read on!
Travelling from Tatanagar to Howrah on the Steel Express eating Jhalmuri. The amazing bhel that came seasoned with mustard oil. It never ceased to surprise me that Nanna didn’t object to the rusty cans the ingredients were carried in, the jalmuri-wallah’s dirty hands or the coriander, onions and lemons chopped with a very suspicious looking knife. But he seemed to feel the need to draw the line somewhere, and that was at the sliver of coconut bhaiyyaji used as a garnish. One of my first acts of “rebellion” as I grew older was to eat the coconut. It was terrible, of course. But I proved a point. I think! 😀
Stopping at Kharagpur and Rourkela stations, we would never miss the puri-bhaji. The puri was fried in oil that no one wanted to learn the origins of in a blackened kadhai perched atop a kerosine stove. The liquid potato curry (the potatoes still had their skins on, of course) would miraculously never drip out of the leaf-cone it was served in. Amma or Nanna would hold up the curry for Annayya and me to dip into. Self-centred brats that we were, we never bothered to ask why they always waited for us to eat first…
As we moved further south, we hit the Vijayanagaram and Vizag stations. There was amazing Mango Jelly and even better milk sweets, pala kova as they were called (Vijaya dairy of course!). The best of all were the packets of buttermilk. Spicy, salty, cool, wet packets picked out of the ice bucket cut open deftly with a small blade (or one’s teeth) and sipped through green, blue and pink straws. No one worried about holding the “cold” packet with a tissue or wiping the water that dripped off the packets (Vizag humidity… Pah!). The clothes just dried by themselves as the train moved on towards more goodies!
At Samalkot station came the meals plate. Who can ever forget the dal/sambar/unknown liquidy substance and the unidentifiable curry and the sour curd that was inevitably part of the meals plate? For some reason, we considered this a treat, growing up!
Then came Rajamundry station with a treat unknown to many children “back in the old days”. Pineapple juice! Fresh pineapple juice poured straight out of the mixie with a foamy top J
The idly wada and the dosa at Vijayawada (and Rajamundry too). The masala chana in the South Indian stations. The biscuits, chocolates and gold fingers. The constant flow of food in the Shatabdi trains. The tiffin dabbas of other families that always seemed so much more interesting… The chicken curry-chapati of Vijayawada families, the idli, curd rice and pulihora from Vizag, the biryani from Hyderabad…
Food just seems to define Indian life. What we eat, when we eat it, how we carry it… It’s all such an intricate web. But nowhere more so than on trains. We inferred so much about a family just from their dabba. How many times did we hear the question “Brahmins aa?” as mom shared out the puri-curry and curd rice in the train? How many times did we whisper under our breath, “They must be xyz (caste, state, religion)” just by observing their lunch?
Train travel was certainly the “national integration” experience the posters said it was!
Watching North Indian women cover their head and knit furiously. Watching the obnoxious traveler occupy half the space of the meek one. Watching students get onto the train traveling to the city nearby where they attended college. Watching little children make friends with each other just as we did as little children ourselves. Listening to the men discuss politics and cricket.
Watching the hills, the rivers, the trees and the villages speed by. Watching little children wave to the train. Reading Tinkle and Chacha Choudhry. Feeling grand and important when Nanna allowed me to accompany him to get water at unknown stations. Looking wide-eyed at the stations around. Listening to Nanna bargain with the coolie and then watch him pay an extra Rs 10 because, “The poor man depends on us to make a living”. Taking an auto to go back home at the end of a vacation and asking the autowallah, “Did it rain recently?”
As I think back, I feel some of the best times we spent as a family were the train journeys we made. On the train, Nanna had no phone to answer, he brought no reports to read, he was relaxed and talked to us about everything we saw. Amma didn’t care what we ate and when. She would eat everything that came along too! There were no rules. We all talked and shared jokes and stories. For the 18 hours or 24 hours or 36 hours it took to get to wherever we wanted to go, it was all about us as a family.
As I think back, I finally understand why my parents continue to travel sleeper class even though they can afford the AC.