36 hours of free time.
Positive or negative, nothing can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia like that of a train journey. To me, the quintessential train journey of my childhood was that taken from Coimbatore to Bombay (yes yes, Mumbai) and back during summer vacations. Fortunately, for most of these 36 odd hour-long trips, we were able to afford a 2-tier air-conditioned coach (there were no 3-tier AC coaches then). Tamilians, Malayalis, Gujjus & Sindhis would form the majority of passengers travelling this route. Strangers would become friends by the end of the journey.
An interesting observation that sticks to my mind was the always-uniform food habits. The south indians would invariably home-pack their food. Tamarind rice and curd rice would be neatly wrapped in banana leaves & old newspapers alongside spoons and paper plates. A Bombay-bred family like ours would sometimes carry theplas (spiced Indian flat bread) in aluminum foil as well. Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING could replace Idlis (rice dumplings) smeared with chilli powder (and sugar at times) as the staple train breakfast. Buying from trains or stations was not the norm. In sharp contrast was the gujju family seated next to us. The mother (or better still grandmother) would first remove the knife, then the kairi (raw mango) which was deftly and finely chopped along with an onion. A quick mix of this with puffed rice and the masalas culminated in a delicious looking Bhel which was then distributed and consumed. And mind you, this was just the appetiser. While I recall it to be a great ‘timepass’ watching the fervour with which these folks consumed their food (and occasionally offered me as well), I must admit that it did not contribute much for the tidiness or odour of the place!
As years passed by, only overnight or half-day journeys were preferred, the one I now classify into the ‘insomniac’ and the ‘contemplative’ trips. The former being overnight sleepless train journeys where one hears atleast 4 different types of snores in various intonations and rhythms! And the latter which start early morning and reach the destination by noon/evening. These are ones where you read a book, take a nap, and contemplate life by looking at the countryside.
I think most of us Indians have gone through these varied emotions at some point in time on the train – cringing in disgust while visiting the loo, the thrill in getting off a station for a few minutes and rushing back before as the bell rings, the excitement at spotting your loved one waiting to receive you at the station or the deep-down feeling of sadness when you wave frantic good-byes as the light goes green and the train slowly chugs along to its destination.