A recent internet article about an exaggeratedly long rail journey between two Indian cities had browsers up in arms — and the comments generated there sent those of us who have been travelling by train for half a century back along memory lane.
It is possible that the younger generation today believes that some two or three decades ago — in the time before the cable, cell phone and internet revolution, and instant everything — it was possible to move faster in a bullock cart than on a train and that rail travel involved dust, dirt, heat — and a very, very long time! Time that no one had at their disposal.
First of all, those days were not in the Stone Age: The pre-1980s or 1970s or 1960s were not a part of prehistory — and there were many luxuries for us on trains.
As children, teenagers, young adults and middle-aged, rail journeys — long or short — have always been enjoyable. Practically every year, if not more often, we have been on and off trains to different corners of the Indian subcontinent — and the whole intricate system has been a continuous marvel for us — glitches and delays notwithstanding.
True, a couple of decades ago there were fewer air-conditioned coaches and one always arrived at one’s destination carrying that characteristic half-sooty, half-grimy odour. And yes, we stopped at more stations, we got off to stretch our legs or fill our water bottles and buy a cup of tea and often had to run madly to get back on again, but our journeys were filled with technicolour experiences and sheer luxury!
There was a time when the old first class compartments had separate entrances — not through a single door as it is now, and then down a corridor that led into different coupes or four-berthers. Those old compartments were totally separate and each had cupboards to hang clothes that one would change for the night and its own private washroom-cum-bath. Anyone who got into a huff and did not want to spend too much time with their travelling companions could go in there and cool off, literally, and emerge in a better mood.
Often there were no bars on the windows. Instead, there were two kinds of adjustable barriers: Wooden slats that were raised or lowered for the night, darkening the compartment and keeping it safe from prying eyes while continuing to allow the fresh air in, and frames with glass which could keep out the dust while we continued to get a good view of the countryside passing by as we trundled along. When both were left open, we could rest our heads on those window sills, enjoying the breeze on our faces, savouring the aromas and smells outside.
For us, a journey meant that we got to experience first-hand not merely the starting point and the destination, but the areas we passed through as well — and if the trip took longer than it does now, all the better.
Curtains and thick tinted glass did not block our view and we recalled our geography and social studies lessons as we saw the differences in the colour of the soil as we crossed from one state to another, we leaned out of windows and rattled off the names of rivers and their tributaries, noticed the state-wise changes in clothing of the men and women (that was before the ubiquitous jeans / salwar kameez took over) and, of course, got to taste the specialities of each place as vendors yelled and thrust their aromatic wares under our noses ...
Most of all, everything was less crowded and so we could actually see and savour the differences and the similarities and take our time doing it.
That was perhaps the greatest luxury of all!
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.