This is a continuation of my previous post regarding our Indian Railways.
You wake up on hearing the words :” Chaiyaaa, Garam Chaiyaaaaa” , followed by someone screaming “BunOmlette ButteraOmlette, ButteraOmlette” and you suddenly realise you have reached a station. You jump up and put on a pair of chappals quickly not noticing that they are two mismatched sandals of different sizes. As you hobble towards the door, you hear someone saying ” Hak Thoooo” and a stream of dantmanjan laden water goes out the window to land on the station platform. And you realize you are living an experience the likes of which future generations will never see or enjoy. But coming back to what happened some time back :
Previously on this Blog
(yes I have watched a lot of LOST & 24 episodes so forgive the fanboy touch)
we discussed how the Indian Railways succeeds in killing all energy by the time we reach the train. Continuing from where I left off:
After surviving a marathon like experience in reaching the train and dumping one’s luggage, one ordinarily takes a breather to get a grip and evaluate the fellow passengers. In my engineering days, this also included a quick glance at the list pasted next to the door to find out if there were any young ladies on the train how many passengers there were on the train. When one looks at one’s fellow passengers, one can usually find a sample of each of the following groups of people.
In India, the concept of traveling light is looked down upon. Unless a joint family carries enough food and clothes to clothe and feed a veritable 3rd world country, the matriarch will feel that something is missing. The usual luggage for this group is huge metal trunks which leave the porters in a state similar to Yuvraj Singh in the field (namely breathless, shocked and desperate to get out). One can always count on the joint family to play antakshari just when you want to go to sleep or to noisily wake everyone up because someone dropped a coin. However they also bring a lot of charm into the journey , be it in terms of bringing some gaiety and fun through games, stories and general gupshup.
Next in line come nuclear families with children carrying enough luggage for the Indian cricket team (including administrators and masseurs).The small families with youngsters love train journeys the most. The children love the train ride, the parents take it as a temporary relief from office and the drudgery of home chores. Another added attraction for the children is the continuous convoy of hawkers and food vendors going through the train, selling everything from toys to magazines to snacks. The best part of the train journey for me personally were the ladders. I loved climbing up and down those ladders throughout the journey.
One can also find newly married couples who only have eyes for each other and would not notice if the world ended the next second. On the other extreme you also have the loner who grips his bag/suitcase as it has the crown jewels / nuclear threat codes. These two categories rarely interact with others and choose to maintain a distance from the other passengers.
To compensate for them, we have the elderly couple. Within the first hour of meeting them, they will conduct a cross examination which would probably teach our Delhi policemen some tricks of retrieving information. Once they have collected all information about your past, family, background and plans for the next month, they will quietly drop the bombshell with a look of enduring great agony. The bombshell is usually launched much like the Stealth missiles of the US: one never knows when it hits us and we would have agreed to helping them with their luggage and dropping them off at the station. They will end the conversation with a “beta” and leave you with a feeling of satisfaction and do goodism until you realize five minutes later that all your own plans are now hamstrung.
The best alarm clock in the world is also available on all railway journeys, free of cost. It is in the form of a small baby , usually accompanied by a harried mother or father who will have no clue on how to keep the baby quiet. The baby, marking its revenge on all the passengers and its parents, will quietly bide its time till 2:00 AM in the night and scream its lungs out , waking everyone within a ten mile radius. By the time the kid is quietened down, the mother has an expression rivaling that of Courtney Walsh coming down the pitch to blow the stumps out and our eardrums would have been ripped in two. However in the bright daytime, the kid will happily sleep while all of us stay up bleary eyed, not to mention irately giving murderous looks to the kid and mother.
As amusing as the passengers on a train are the other “stakeholders” of the train. At the top of the pyramid(yes all those management lectures did teach me some jargon) , we have the ticket checker or the T.T . The appearance of the TT in some states is a signal for a mass exodus from compartments as all people travelling WT(without ticket) choose to hide in toilets, or in different compartments to avoid the eagle eye of the ticket checker. However he usually swoops down on his prey much like Roger Federer pounces on a loose return and manages to make his pockets heavier while fitting enough passengers into a railway coach that BEST buses would be envious.
What stays in everyone’s memory is the call of “Chaiyaaaa” in the morning. This is the signal for one to wake up somehow and call the vendor for a cup of dishwater run through a washing machine twice , going by the name of “tea”. The Chai wallah can easily be called the unofficial mascot of the Indian Railways. He is present at every station with a small kettle and a bunch of mud cups (kullad or bhaand ) which has now been upgraded to plastic cups or thermocol cups. In spite of all the curses and bargaining, all passengers agree that the chai of the railways is like an elixir – one hates it but one cant stay without it too.
Just as one finishes the tea, other food hawkers grab the opportunity and present themselves at your disposal with tantalizing snacks. The thumb rule is : the nicer the snack looks, the more dangerous its gonna probably be for one’s health and stomach. However train journeys are an excellent opportunity to try out the local snacks. So in the East, we have singhadas (the local version of samosas, which are triangular puffs stuffed with steamed potatoes and cauliflowers and cooked in dalda) and jhalmuri. Paens can be sung about jhalmuri and the very process of preparation. First the vendor will put some puffed rice and some peanuts, a few cut onion, chilli and potato pieces along with some light savouries. Then comes the secret sauce : mustard oil along with a slight amount of copra. Then follows an intricate dancing ritual where the puffed rice is shaken and juggled and finally served with a small coconut copra piece on top. All this jugglery and exhibition for a measly Rs 5 usually.
In the North, one can have the most amazing jalebis and poha while the West has the desi version of the burger, namely the vada pav. In terms of food, the railways beats any food festival hands down. Travellers recall stations famous for certain food dishes for years. Sometimes specific stalls and vendors are also remembered and when a train reaches the station, there is a breakneck rush for the food.In a simple journey, an ordinary traveller can get to experience multiple Indian cuisines and at rates sympathetic to his heart and wallet. One also gets to hear amazing names for food and snacks such as ” Butteramilkkk ” for buttermilk, and the infamous “Thanda Thanda Thandaa…..” for frootis and cold drinks.
As if food vendors and hawkers are not enough, families bring their own food. The best in this regard are Gujarati families. Not only do they bring boxed lunches and huge tiffins , they also bring a variety of snacks (Bhook lag gayi beech raste mein to?? ). As I have experienced, when the Gujju family pulled out huge tiffinboxes filled with parathas, two to three sabjis and other assorted snacks including Khakhra, Bhakervadi and what not, one used to look at one’s packed chapatis and aloo sabji and sigh in jealousy and regret. Yet another major cause of jealousy was the fact that their parents had no concern if their kids contracted food poisoning. Their kids used to point at all the food vendors going by and the parents would dutifully buy the kid the snacks while if we asked our parents to buy us those same snacks, we used to get hour long discourses on how the snacks were made in bad oil and horrible cooking conditions with dirty water. However the gujju kids seemed to have some amazing immunity as they never fell sick but only grew fatter and happier while we moped around and looked at them angrily.
Of course, this is not to deny that the Indian Railways does not have its part of unsavoury people. A classic example are the eunuchs who will turn up to demand money on long distance journeys. All one can do is sit quietly and hope they dont disturb you too much. Usually most people give in and give a paltry ten bucks or so to get away from their nitpicking. Once in a while people get into arguments and then one gets to see/hear an extraordinary amount of abuse if not physical heckling.
Some of the simplest joys on a railway journey rank among standing on the footbridge of the compartment and letting the wind blow through your hair or sipping a cup of tea in the early morning while its raining all around you and the rain drops drop from the bars of the window slowly reflecting the sunlight in a thousand ways. Some of India’s best sights can be seen through the bars on a window of a railway train, be it the Konkan Railways passes or the Western Ghats in the early morning sun or the fine mist of the Brahmaputra when one approaches Guwahati. Its these experiences which define the Indian Railways.
To conclude, I would like to mention a short incident which happened a few years back.We had ordered a railways lunch which in terms of taste is only slightly higher than worms and mud. However one can always be assured you wil never fall sick.So we ordered the lunch and tasted the dal and spit the whole mouthful out. On calling the attendant and asking about the worse than awful taste, he laughed nervously and said ” Sir, Railways Thali mein aur kya 5-Star khana expect karte ho? ” On hearing this, we all burst out laughing and sent him back.
P.S: As mentioned previously, inspiration for this post goes partly to @busybeebee who started this trend on twitter. Another amazing blogger who deserves mention is Tapan Hoskeri who has written an equally amazing post on train journeys
P.P.S: Indian Railways food seems to have improved in recent years. I hear people even complete the full meal these days.