Even before I had ever taken my first solo train journey, its attendant rituals were firmly ingrained in my mind. My father, an army officer, would move from place to place every two years, while we would stay put in more convenient climes. Before each relocation, he would make a trip back home to prepare for his great train journey. This would involve a massive packing operation, and my mother cooking food for what seemed like an entire train. Scores of kebabs would be patted into shape, kilos of chicken would be marinated, and dozens of parathas would be flying off the griddle. To me that’s how the train journey was built up into a great odyssey requiring a mustering of courage to take on.
The first time I flew the nest to go to college, with all my hopes and belongings packed into two overstuffed suitcases, I spent 17-odd hours on the Kolkata Rajdhani. It gave me the time and space to process the goodbyes I had just said and to prepare myself for what lay ahead. As the countryside whizzed by in an impressionist blur of green and brown, I thought about my mum who had spent the fortnight packing spices, frying cutlets, and baking cakes so I could carry them with me. Just like my dad, I joked that she was stocking me for a deluge, not a train journey. Then there was my grandfather dispensing last-minute advice and hugs, and Dad going through checklists and hurrying me up I recalled my crazy dog who had plonked herself inside my suitcase while I was packing. A layer of sadness coated my insides. I was leaving all that was familiar behind. As the train moved from the familiar lush landscape of Bengal to the red earth of Bihar, my stomach clenched with trepidation. Then a uniformed man arrived bearing trays of soup, that perennial soul warmer. I dipped my buttery bread sticks into the warm liquid and opened up my mum’s special train dabba. This was when I took baby steps towards interacting with my fellow passengers. Greased by the warmth of my mother’s food, conversations were surprisingly fluid, the easy chatter soon distracting me from my misery.
This was a pattern that was to repeat itself. The twinge of sorrow at leaving home would be assuaged by the gentle rhythms of the train. In the vacations, as I made my way home from each whirlwind semester at college, the train would give me that downtime to process it all: wins, failures, and heartbreaks.
On several occasions, I met strangers and for the duration of that journey we shared life stories. However, when the train rolled into the destination station, we would hitch our suitcases and go our separate ways. What we spoke about on the train stayed there. This space in-between places was a world unto itself where we could be a friendly sounding board, soak in secrets, dreams, and hopes, and allow new friends to do the same.
In the autumn of 2005, I was making my way home from Delhi. Diwali was around the corner and the markets glittered with impending festivity. That evening, a series of bombs went off around the city at just about the same time my friend and I were making our way to the railway station. Sheer coincidence had led to us avoiding the ill-fated main station outside which one of the bombs had exploded. We scrambled onto the train amidst rumours, paranoia, a barrage of security, and panicked phone calls updating us of the destruction and death. When we finally settled into our seats on the Sampark Kranti Express, it felt like being inside a safe cocoon. With the familiar smells of soap and pickle and routine activities like ordering dinner, we picked our rattled selves up and settled into our berths. As the train hurtled away from the burning city, we sat in amiable silence watching the evening lengthen into night. On that journey, everything was imbued with sadness. At the same time there was an odd sense of romance. Somebody sang a song somewhere. The countryside looked richer and lusher than before. I watched Satyajit Ray’s Nayak for the first time, a gorgeous film set entirely on a train. And all through it I felt grateful to be alive.
It has been a while since I took a train journey. The stressful scurry of work life and last-minute plans has meant flights at godforsaken hours. And in this frenetic rush from one place to the other, what I desperately need sometimes is those inbetween spaces and that wonderful pause of a train journey.
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Sunshine Express”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.