Rail journeys of bygones

Rail journeys of bygones

Waiting at the platform for the train, one inevitably reflects on how rail travel has changed over the years. Take passenger baggage, for example. Heavy steel trunks are passé. Wheeled bags are in and these can be transported by the passengers themselves, which means fewer porters around. But the one piece that has been retired totally is the bedding hold-all.

With more and more coaches being air-conditioned and the railways providing beddings, however musty, for the night, it is no longer necessary to carry those large canvas wraps that, as the name suggests, held all. In the winter, the mattress as well the quilt, a pillow and several odds and ends could be accommodated in it. During a night journey one just rolled it out and snuggled into the quilt instead of taking all items out and laying the bedding afresh on the berth.

The only problem was its size. It was generally much wider than the ledge on which it was spread. Keeping it from sliding down was always a challenge that kept one occupied for most of the night. This was of critical importance if one had an upper berth. Although there was a short railing at one end to hold all in place, the fear of falling below added to the night’s discomfort.

Because the hold-all had to be rolled up and strapped, there had to be loops to hold the straps in place. Unfortunately, the loops and leather bands holding them in place poked through even the thickest of mattress. So, constant fidgeting was required to ensure that the body did not stray from the narrow space between the loops. In this process, the entire bedding assembly could move laterally from its designated position, adding to the risk of a rapid descent on to the floor.

Rail coaches, too, have changed. Gone are the single compartments, instead of which we have the entire train connected through vestibules. So, eatables can be provided even as the train is in motion. But when this was not so there were three options of sating one’s hunger. On could either wait for the train to reach a station and then get something to eat from the vendors on the platform.

Or, one could, if the halt was long enough, run to the ‘dining car’ and have a meal there and at the next halt, sprint back to one’s coach. This was the preferred option on long-distance journeys.

Third, one could carry a tiffin box stuffed with homemade goodies. The commonest menu in the north was paranthas with aloo/gobi/bhindi sabji and some mango pickle. The aroma of the spices that went into making of the pickle permeated the entire compartment. Even though everybody had more or less the same fare, sharing or at least offering to share one’s repast with fellow passengers was a part of the travel etiquette.

Strangers who had boarded the train eyeing each other with suspicion and hostility soon, in the close confines of the rail coach, over shared victuals of paranthas and pickle, became the best of buddies, and that does not happen any more.