Train Journey

Sitting idly by the window I was determined to not let him out of my sight but, after a few seconds of being followed by my unrelenting gaze, bhaiya1 suddenly vanished behind the screen of a family of seven. Time ticked by, I craned my neck several times, desperately darted my eyes all around, even forced myself to not get distracted by the kachori-wala2 fishing out an aromatic fresh heap from scalding hot oil a few meters away, but I couldn’t make out bhaiya’s contours anywhere. In my focused pursuit, I didn’t hear the trademark whistle nor did I notice the wave of the green flag. All I felt was a slight jerk and the abrupt realisation that the A.H. Wheeler bookshop was slowly gravitating to the left. And then … panic. Bhaiya has been left behind! Seconds later, as the train picked up pace to match my furiously flowing tears, my big brother miraculously appeared in our bay, grinning and holding the freshly-filled water camper. I breathed again. He had managed to board the train, after all.

If you were born before the 1990s, you likely know this story, that panic, and the unmatched thrill of train journeys. They belonged to an era that existed long before air dashes became the norm, paradoxically negating the modish phenomenon called ‘slow travel’. You want to know slow travel? How about being seated untiringly at one spot for journeys that sometimes lasted 56 hours or more? How about waiting with a bursting bladder for interminable minutes before the wet and stinky WC fell vacant? How about being inordinately stranded in the boondocks and having to ration your food and water? How about being stifled by the heat since stationary trains usually meant fans wouldn’t work? Don’t for a moment get me wrong. Notwithstanding all the discomforts and constraints, slow travel — the kind I equate with erstwhile train journeys — has a veneer of romance, owing in parts to its unpredictability and sheer luminosity, but mostly bolstered by wispy childhood memories. 

At every train station, perspiring people would queue up at the counters for platform- and train tickets as well as poochh-taachh (Enquiry). Some lesser-well-off passengers would be sleeping, a thin sheet enough to buffer them against the hard flooring. In the intense heat and humidity, everyone would seek a spot under the slowly-whirring overhead fans. Languor would overlap frenetic activity. There’d be a constant drone of chattering people and mobile vendors selling luggage chains, chintzy locks, plastic mats, paper soaps, cheap trinkets. Sounds of children wailing, roadside horns blaring and a hubbub synonymous with bustling Indian railway stations would envelope the air, pierced now and then with the rhythmic chhuk-chhuk of chugging trains and their whistles. 

The corridors, bays and berths of Indian trains were a universe unto themselves, peopled by ad hoc characters. Carrying an aluminium kettle and kulhads3 or plastic cups, there’d be the fellow shouting out in archetypal railway-style ‘chaaaiii … chaii garam … chaaaiii’4. Now and then, chaps holding bucketfuls of bottles of aerated beverages submerged in a sea of melting ice would come peculiarly intoning ‘thanndaaa5 cold drink’. “Pehle dikhaiye kitna thanda hai (show me how cold your cold drink is),” I’d demand after a beseeching look to daddy had met the go-ahead, and, regardless of the bottle’s temperature, would proceed to strip him of the load by one. Vendors selling combs and clips, wiry child acrobats with penciled-in moustaches, and eunuchs calling all manner of men “eh chikne6, tu toh Mithun/Dharmender/Jeetender dikhta hai re7” would snake through. Synchronising their entry were also beggars, singers and safai-walas8 who’d sweep the compartment clean of peanut shells, banana skins and paper-plates that the lordly train passengers considered their birthright to leave behind. Then there was the ‘To Stop Train Pull Chain’ lever that resembled a nunchaku. Hanging like a pendulum from the centre of a square niche, it begged to be pulled. 

I remember the massive aluminium food carrier our family used to cart along on train journeys — together with hardy VIP suitcases initialed with my father’s name — not only from memories of a distant past but also from sight. Our trusted companion from more than 40 years ago (that we half-jokingly dubbed ‘The Trunk’) still sits sturdy in my mother’s store — somewhere between brass vats and steel canisters — unused but not abandoned. It has five deep trays in which ma would pack countless soft pooris and a couple of well-fried sabzis9 meant to remain unspoilt for a couple of days, at least. The Trunk also carried durable meethas10, some namkeens11, and definitely veggies like cucumber, tomato and nimbu12 which daddy — it was always he who took on the task — would chop into neat thin roundels to ready a fresh salad garnished with homemade chaat masala and salt carried in salvaged dibbis13 of medicine or cosmetic. As the train hissed, buckled, tooted and swayed, the little me would tuck into poori14 rolls, either trying to unravel the mystery of the zig-zagging tracks or looking out at the blurred whiz of a world that’d disappear all too quickly behind us.

Sadly that world did disappear, all too quickly if you ask me. 

If travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts, like Paul Theroux had written in The Great Railway Bazaar, I know what I am pursuing. In place of the sophisticated call of ‘Ladies & gentlemen, boys and girls, this is your captain speaking’, I am pursuing that gruff voice exhorting ‘yatri kripaya dhyaan dein15’. Instead of well turned-out stewards pushing tall carts laden with ready-to-eat food packets and jugs of water, I am pursuing the sweaty fellow selling unhygienic masala chana. Over a prettily-made-up hostess with contrived politeness asking ‘Tea? Coffee?’, I’m pursuing the jovial ‘chaaaaiiii … chaai garam … chaaaaiiii’ chap. Instead of a busy neighbour bent over his laptop with headphones precluding any possibility of a dialogue, I’m pursuing Mathurji on coach C6 Berth No 18 espousing ideas to change the state of the nation’s polity. Always and forever, I’m pursuing some random auntyji’s humble aloo-poori which she’d generously share with her fellow passengers — “aap bhi lijiye, bhaisahab/behenji/betaji (you too have some)” — instead of deriding a co-passenger on 19A who dares to eat ghar-ka-khana16 with her fingers. No, anyway you look at it, I’m pursuing the slow, long, journeys in invariably-late trains from my past. I’m pursuing the despair and panic of believing bhaiya has been left behind at some wretched station. How else would I know the joy of finding him again … the relief at breathing again? 

Alas, my past has taken flight. Maybe I should’ve paid heed to that notice of ‘To Stop Train Pull Chain’. That way, I could’ve held up the trains and prolonged the memorable rail journeys. And, who knows, perhaps my childhood too.

Bhaiya1: Older brother
Kachori2: Deep-fried Indian bread
Kulhad3: Terracotta cups 
Chai garam4: Hot tea
Thanndaaa5: Cold
Eh chikne6: Hey, fresh-face!
Tu toh Mithun/Dharmender/Jeetender dikhta hai re7: You look like a hero
Safai-walas8: Cleaners
Sabzis9: Vegetables
Meethas10: Sweetmeats
Namkeens11: Tucks
Nimbu12: Lemon
Dibbis13: Small containers
Poori14: Fried Indian bread
Yatri kripaya dhyaan dein15: Passengers, may I have your attention please; an announcement typically made in Indian railway stations
Ghar-ka-khana16: Home-cooked food

Shilpa Gupta
Shilpa Gupta

Shilpa Gupta (formerly Rohatgi) is an insatiable travel writer and photographer who, in a former state of sobriety, had worked as a journalist with some of India’s top publications including India Today and The Indian Express. Owing to the peripatetic nature of her husband’s job, she is constantly on the move. Which is just as well because there is nothing she likes better than being like a marble on a slope, never to be found in the same place again. Shilpa brings back beautiful memories from their sojourns, of course, and priceless souvenirs too. But doubling up as memories and souvenirs are the countless articles and photographs she has been contributing to international travel magazines, webzines and travel anthologies.

Read more by Shilpa Gupta


Picture Credit : antriksh kumar from Pixabay

64 thoughts on “Train Journey”

  1. Wow… walk down memory lane indeed. Lovely to read about the now familiar “the trunk”….u have captured the scene perfectly as always Shilpa…pleasure to read.

  2. Dear Shilpa went through your article followed by big smile.I relived the journey to my village or to my Nanaji and Naniji place…most of the time during Summer Vacation.Hard times and yet enjoyable.The description is excellent no doubt but I really liked the last pragraph
    which carries lot of meaning.Flawless writing and vivid description of the happening.YOU ARE TOO GOOD DEAR.Thanks for sharing.

  3. Shilpa it’s wonderfully penned as usual enjoy reading yr articles,can so relate to the journeys described.We all are more or else from the same era.

  4. Shilpa your this article took me actually to train journey wow what nostalgia .Train journeys use to be full of fun and you have covered each details,long forgotten aH Wheeler ,aloo puree . Thanks for taking memory down the lane

  5. Ahhhhhh…… How you can just take me into the past… The sweet memories of Train Journeys and our childhood days! Each word and each sentence just creates an image in my mind that’s just like how I’d experienced it!! Reading your piece makes me feel as if you took each journey with me, experiencing my own experiences! ❤️ How well you transport us into that beautiful chapter of our shared past!! 💕

    1. Thank you, Karnika! The fun in recreating a certain era is in finding fellow travellers 🙂 So glad you enjoyed reading this one and could relate to the experiences (even though you’re much younger).

  6. Super article, Shilpa! Reminded me of the time that I used to travel from Jamshedpur to trichy whilst I studied there for 5 years. The travel time was nearly 60 hours over 3 nights. I remember those hard wooden berths in the 3 tier bogies with a motley but interesting crowd of fellow passengers, getting off at stations to get food and water. Those days one used to have station water straight from the tap with nary a care. Thankfully I never got left behind. Each station had a character of its own, and the train I travelled in, the Tata madras express was almost like a passanger train, stopping almost everywhere. I remember at Waltair, we had a 45 minutes stop, enough time for me to go to the station restaurant and have a lazy lunch, and the train would be there still waiting with its steam engine hissing silently whilst fresh coal was being loaded on it. Thank you for taking me back to the nineteen seventies and my numerous train adventures during that time. Love, Mahesh

    1. Thank you so much, Mahesh! Waise, we need to talk … so many stories and anecdotes to hear from a fellow train journey-lover!

  7. I could visualise each and every word, experience . Definately I too have lot of childhood memories connected to train journey, missing train, traveling without reservation and my most favourite when all my cousin’s n us used to travel together during summer holidays…..cannot forget any of those. Thank you for bringing out those memories out from my memory trunk. Your writing is undoubtedly impeccable and the best is each one of us can relate to your stories. Thank you so much for sharing this and I hope you keep doing the same in future. All the very best

  8. An excellent piece of writing. I totally empathized with the imagery & sounds you have so brilliantly captured with the choice of perfect words and expression. The kaleidoscope of the Indian Railways of our youth is so brilliantly portrayed by you. Your writing is getting better by the day. Congratulations.

  9. Dear Shilpa, this is truly sensational ! I always loved train journeys and do so even today. In fact the train journeys in the 60s were even more interesting/ romantic with an exclusive four berth coupe with attached toilet. We even carted our dog in the compartment. The coolie demanded anything from 4 annas to 6 annas for the entire heavy baggage. Waiting rooms had chairs with extendable arms to rest your feet !
    I really enjoyed reading this lovely piece. All the details were so so real that one actually took the train journey while reading. Simply mesmarising ! God bless.

  10. Hi Shilpa…
    Very well articulated article as always…
    took me back the memory lane when we travelled all the way from Bengaluru to Jorhat….
    Over 3 days and 4 trains…
    Had to keep the fingers crossed to find our names in the reservation charts….
    First class coupe without AC…
    Fighting for the window seat….
    Avoiding the call of nature , as long as one could, in the fear of losing the window seat to a sibling….

  11. You took me down memory lane Shilpa and for a while I almost forgot the downside of train travel ☺️
    Nostalgic memories were relived through your writing, which also triggered a memory of that distinct smell that I associate with train travel….And now I can’t get it out of my head/mental nose. You paint such a vivid and real picture!

    1. I’m wondering if I should say ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ 😃 Guess I’ll settle for the former! Cheers to the good days of yore.

  12. What a wonderful article Shilpa. 🙂Brought back many wonderful memories especially since I have not traveled by train for over 10 years. You are indeed an amazing writer. 👏

  13. Very well articulated piece. Great reminder of our frequent train journey to Calcutta from Jabalpur with family of 10. Wrote essays in junior school on *Journey by train* wish i had your this article to copy. I ld have scored cent percent marks.
    Wishing you all the best for your next assignment.Keep writing.God speed.

    1. Thank you! Travelling by train as a large group must’ve been so much fun. I never got that opportunity, unfortunately.

  14. Transported back in a flash to those slow journeys where all our senses were tickled and etched forever.
    Beautifully narrated, something we all have experienced. The children of today don’t know what they’ve missed.
    Really enjoyed this virtual train journey.
    Thank you!

  15. Beautifully written Shilpa.
    As a child my travel by train used to be to Shimla every year.. I still prefer traveling by train having family time.

    1. Thank you, Neetal. Given a chance, I too would prefer to travel by train even now. Its thrills and adventures are unmatched.

  16. Thank you so much, Harsh! Trains (and trains of India, in particular) have their own unbeatable charm. So glad this piece brought back wonderful old memories for you.

  17. Dear Shilpa,
    As always, excellent write up to revive our memories. Train journey has got its own charm.
    One instance, I vividly remember that a fellow passenger, qute affluent, was traveling in the same coupe with me, got into conversation. On being asked as to why he was taking this 36 hrs journey when he could well afford to take a flt to save on time. ” Time”
    – that is what I want to save for ‘myelf’ to have a sigh of relief, without phone (Mobiles had not started as yet). He wantd a day of peace for himself, catching up on rest, relaxation, light reading …….. . He was on tthe top echs of an MNC firm & undertook this Ex once every 2 months.
    Another instance – my wife had to undertake a Day journey of 7-8 hrs to accompany some relatives along with our small children. I was told no reservations are applicable in this Train thogh there is lot of rush. So at the entrance of the Rly Stn, a Coolie approached us with a propasal that he will ensure ‘seats’ for the passengers, ofcourse with gratification . We agreed & started moving towardsthe designated Platform. We were at the Stn well before arr time of train. Coolie started putting our stuff in a empty Couch. I told him that still half an hr is still there for scheduled arr of our train & this train is all empty.
    He said don’t worry Sahib the Train No is same & with same destination though it is of yesterday running 23 + hrs running behind schedule. That’s IR.
    – Once our Children Karnika & Kunal attained the age of 5+, we could take very long journeys w/o any worry as they will remain awake during the Daylooking out of the window & at night, they will sleep in turns, ‘one at a time’ so as not to miss the Sunrise. Alka always felt safe to travel with them.
    Typical of Alka – her eyes will shut as soon as the train starts moving …. chuk chuk … & as soon as it halts her mouth will open – so the drill was that as soon it is approaching any big or small stn, I will be ready to rush out to grab whatever is available to eat.
    Quality of the product was immaterial. Drill remains the same till now as we still take regular train journey up North from Nagar as we can’t travel light & will not like to pay for 6 passengers by Air for 2 of us. Additional advantages from Nagar , U save agony of 8 additional hrs of misc activities before Takeoff, no tension of intercity travel & going through present day Wagholi bottleneck & last but not the least having all the time in the world at our disposal.
    I recommend the same for all this lovely mode of travel with immense benefits incl strssbuster. Ofcourse U require attitude for the same.
    Shilpa, once again thanks for putting across your experiences of Train journey in such wonderful & flowing manner so as to force the reader to respond. This is the 1 st time that I have texted more than 2 sentences in my life. It’s pain for me but I enjoyed in responding to your write up.

    1. I am touched, thrilled, humbled, overwhelmed, and so, so, so much more, Col Uppal! It’s gratifying that my recollections of train journeys have triggered so many in you, my esteemed reader. Thank you, not only for appreciating this article but also — and much more — for sharing your own experiences of rail journeys. I especially loved ‘eyes shut’ and ‘mouth open’ in reference to Mrs Uppal 🙂🙂

  18. Loved reading every word of it. Shilpa you really took me down the memory lane. Train journeys were so much fun and to relive those old memories, we opted for a train travel while going to Delhi from Kolkata on my husband’s retirement You have penned down so many details so vividly that it makes it an absolutely delightful read …

  19. Beautiful journey through memory lane. Reminded me of the endless journeys one has taken n each one has left an indelible mark ! Brought back all the fun , enjoyment n travails too!! You activated my mind’s eye !!enjoyed every bit of your article!!

  20. Beautifully written.I actually boarded the train with her and traveled back in time.Tasted cutlets and relished garam Chai.
    A virtual ride .will hold the interest of any reader.

  21. As always dear Shilpa, you’ve transported me to a time that I’ve cherished so much. Growing up in those days was a blessing. Your description is so accurate, even now if I cook that specific Alu bhaji/poori, we call it train wala khana…. Not to forget the dry coconut chutney or achaar. You’ve not left out anything, from the sounds, to the scenes, from the smells to the feel. Thank you for this beautiful flash back, I hope our children get to experience this and discover the joys we grew up with.

    1. Thank you so much, Divya! I hope to share your train-wala khana on some beautiful train journey together someday. While Indian Railways will continue to exist for long into the future, I feel our children won’t know its thrills. Ours was a simpler generation and we could look out of the window for hours without getting bored. Kids now are more restless and have the need to ‘do’ something all the time. But we must plan a train journey together. I’d like to see the experience from Vivaan-Aadi’s eyes too!

  22. Beautiful penned down Shilpa. Glad to revive old memories. Missing cutlets of train, which use to be my favourite. Thanks a lot Shilpa for sending me link of a beautiful write up. You are ocean of knowledge and Talent. God bless you

    1. Thank you for such a sweet compliment. I hope to get better at what I do so you continue to enjoy my writings. Thank you, again.

  23. Didi, I am no words to express the appreciation except for the fact that the train journeys were rolling like a film while I read it.
    I still do take those train journeys once in a while. Except that of having a smart phone, charging point and a clean lavatory not much has changed with Indian Railways.
    I still remember those cardboard paper tickets, the coolies eager to pick up the lightest of the bags and the speciality of each railway station, Pakoda of Godhra, Rabdi of Abu Road, Casa Vada Pao of Valsad, Flavoured Milk at Anand, Kulche Chole of Ludhina its still as fresh as it was yesterday. Thanks for bringing out the past and I would still prefer to slowe train journeys to flights.

    1. Thank you so much, Mohit! The food of Indian Railways — just thinking of THAT is making my mouth water.

  24. Hi Shilpa
    As always a great weaver of words!! Though this time it was not just words, you weaved my memories of uncounted train journeys to various places . Loved the specific words you used to describe the journey. ‘Pehle dikhaiye kitna thanda hai’ is so me and then saying “yeh toh bilkul bhi thanda nai hai bhaiya”…
    Keep writing Shilpa!! Love reading your articles always!!

    1. You always make me so happy, Mrs Jha. Thank you for being a constant encouraging force. Thrilled that this piece about my memories of train journeys made you relive yours. To more happy journeys and beautiful memories …

  25. Great read Shilpa. Loved the flow of the language –
    weaving a dream gone by. Many of us have lived and experienced the story you’ve woven around your train journey – including harrowing times of missing or even boarding trains in a dashing hurry heading the wrong direction! Some of us even today enjoy train travel, not me though. I’ve had enough of this experience that I can do without in this stage of my life – but then that’s only my take. All the best and keep pushing the pen, really enjoy reading your writings.

  26. 5th May 2021. Very well written ….like always. Nostalgic. reminded me of my childhood train journeys 😊Reading magazine n thanda Thums up . Thanks for sharing

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