Platform Fare

My father was a great traveller. He was a true wayfarer, someone to whom the act of journeying was at least as important as the incidental objective of reaching a specific destination. Yet he was a domestic man and liked to travel with a comfortable clutter of luggage, which included the family. As a result, I spent my early childhood on swaying, rattling trains criss-crossing the Indian subcontinent.

We seldom went by first or second class. I don't think it was so much that we couldn't afford it as that my father seemed to feel that real travel, as distinct from merely getting from one point to another, could not fully be savoured within the stiff and rather starchy setting which was a feature of higher class accommodation. Sometimes, however, he drew the line at the hurly-burly of the third class coaches and made a truly middle-class compromise by opting for the inter — a curious niche that now belongs to the past. Inter was different from the first and second classes in that it had a longer coach which carried some 16 or 20 passengers as against the four, six or eight of the former, and it was distinguished from third class by the addition of an inch-and-a-half of padding on the slatted wooden seats.

I sat by the window with the wind in my face, drowsy with the rocking lullaby of the rails, the slow spin of the flat countryside, the heat of the afternoon and the bluebottle drone of whirring fans. Then the train slowed, there was the staccato rhythm of points, and my father shouted, "It's Tundla! Who wants some fresh crisp dalmoth?" I was up and at the open door beofre the train had stopped moving, scanning the surging crowd for sight of the dalmoth vendor. For, of course, if it was Tundla near Delhi, it would only be dalmoth. It could not possibly be the glass bangles of rainbow music with which a seller was trying to tempt my sister; nor the creamy rabri, served in shallow cones of dried leaf; nor, regrettably, the pocket knife with its many intriguing blades and other implements fanned out in a glittering arc which kept distracting me. My father was firm about that. Tundla, he had taught us, was famous for its dalmoth. Only someone who had the opportunity to travel, which we had, and so did not know any better, which we did, would buy anything apart from dalmoth at Tundla station.

From my father's catechisms my sister and I knew that Burdwan, 70 miles out of Calcutta where we lived, was the place of mihidana, tiny globules of gram flour soaked in syrup, and sitabhog, a sweet vermicelli confection. At Moghul-serai, you bought earthenware pots which kept water cool even on the hottest of days. If one took a slight detour one could go to Patna for laddus, round as cannon-balls and almost as hard, but sweetly delicious to eat. The holy city of Benaras was the place for mangoes, as also was Saharanpur.

In my personalised geography of taste and texture Nagpur, wherever that was, evoked the tang of oranges and the aromatic smoothness of their peels. Allahabad was for flower vases and glazed ceramic dogs of improbable hue, Aligarh for knives and locks, Agra for bangles and Moradabad for brassware. Barog, on the narrow gauge line once known as "Mr Kipling's railway" because the English writer often used it going up to the hill resort of Simla, spelt breakfast. Barog station was supposed to serve the best breakfast on the entire railway network, even if — like my father — you were a strict vegetarian and substituted vegetable cutlets for the traditional British-style bacon and eggs. And at Karjat, chugging up the narrow gauge line into the Western Ghats, you could get piping hot battata wadas, potato patties hot dipped in batter and fried. And so the vast country with its far-flung, strange names grew familiar to me, each place with its own localised flavour, its own reason to be on the map.

But now we were in Tundla, and unless I looked sharp there wasn't going to be any dalmoth for us. I finally spotted a vendor, and called him, buying a packet which we washed down in crunchy mouthfuls with earthenware bowls of spicy tea. South of the Vindhya range, it is coffee, and very good coffee if you like it with plenty of milk and sugar and poured out by the yard in great steaming cascades to cool it. However, in the northern part of India, tea is the most common item of platform fare. From lonely whistle-stops in the far reaches of night, to important junctions teeming in the noonday heat you can hear the sing-song cry of "chai, garram chai!" ("Tea, hot tea!"). The call conjures up all the sights and smells and sounds of train travel in India.

Fierce sunlight, tiger-striped by iron bars, the acrid miasma of dust and stream, the cool sweetness of water poured from a baked clay pot, the press of bodies and clamour of voices, the oiled patience of great machinery, the unending land slipping by the window, the sudden thunder of a bridge and the wail of the whistle down the tunnel of night. All this in a mud bowl of tea.

But even the tea varies, as my father explained in Tundla. In the east it tended to be somewhat stronger and darker. As one went north and west, and the milk became richer and more plentiful, the taste and the colour constantly changed. The brew became thicker and lighter and, in the west, had an aftertaste of cardamom. My father was not pedantic about all this, just comprehensive. To him travel was a moveable feast, best enjoyed by accepting and relishing the best that each successive stage of the journey had to offer.

He was equally interested in the people we met on the way. Fluent in Bengali and Hindi as well as his native Gujarati, he seldom found it difficult to carry on a conversation with a bewildering variety of people. There were small-town merchants generous with scented zarda and advice; village elders with gnarled hands and shrewd eyes who were knowledgeable about cows, crops and how to keep a small boy engrossed by showing him the best way to tie a turban; young brides-to-be smothered in brocade and parental concern; big city clerks full of self-importance and scandal; pilgrims carrying containers of sacred water from the Ganges and holy men swathed in saffron or smeared with ashes.

Not everyone was a bona fide traveller. There were some short distance passengers who used the train as a means of livelihood. Astrologers and palmists who predicted alliances, births and successful ventures with astute felicity. Herbalists and faith-healers who offered black powders or copper talismans as antidotes for everything from asthma to unhappiness. Devotional singers with stringed instruments who asked for alms. Many of them travelled without the formality of buying a ticket and occasionally a guard would materialise and descend wrathfully to demand their tickets. Often my father would try and intervene, asking the official not to be too hard on them. I think his sympathy to some degree arose out of a wistfulness for their itinerant ways.

After my father died, my travels as I'd known them, came to an end. My excursions became purposeful exercises, conducted via the airconditioned chair-cars of super-fast expresses that thundered across the country without deigning to stop at any but five or six of the most important halts. Then as luck and a lapsed reservation would have it, I had to make the 1,100-mile journey from Bombay to Calcutta, cutting right through the heart of the country, by ordinary passenger train. The inter and third classes of the past had been merged into an omnibus second into which Bunny and I managed to cram ourselves.

The cast of characters had changed. Mingled with the rural folk returning home, agog with the excitement of having visited a big city, there were a couple of young low-budget Western travellers in denims and rucksacks. Junior government employees with railway passes sniffed imperviously at chattering fisherwomen carrying baskets of their catch. Children wailed. A man with an enormous bedroll asked everyone whether the train would stop at Sewri but seemed not the least put out when no one could tell him. A seller of boiled sweets accompanied his sales pattern with the rhythm of a Hindi pop tune which he tapped out on his glass jar with a spoon.

At nine o'clock it was time to get into our narrow bunks, three to a tier. I crawled in, conjecturing how I was going to stand 40-odd hours, or maybe even two days of this noisy bedlam. The calls of the tea boys woke me next morning. The train had stopped at a small station. The cries of "chai, garram chai" introduced a sense of the familiar. I got down and bought two bowls of tea on the small platform. There was a hiss of frying puris, and someone saying in a mid-western American voice, "Hey, that smells good."

"It tastes a bit funny," said Bunny. "That is the cardamom," I replied. "It's nice when you get used to it. Anyway I promise to get you the best oranges you've ever eaten when we get to Nagpur this afternoon." As we settled down to the rhythm of the moving train, I began to remember the rites of passage my father had taught me long ago. The distance to Nagpur, or even to Calcutta, didn't seem to matter so much any more.

Material provided by Jug Suraiya, Copyright © 1983
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