I got up with a jerk and looked out of the window of my three tier compartment and was greeted by that all too familiar cacophony of “Chai, garam chai’, ‘taaza kela’, ‘fresh bread-omlette’, ‘paper, le lo paper’, …….‘T.T. Saab just one berth, I’ll give you extra’, ‘coolie, coolie, come this way quick....” The sights, sounds and smells were all so familiar.
Peering out I asked a hawker selling peanuts, “Which station is this?”“Rourkela,” the boy answered. I had got my favorite seat - a side lower berth. I had started exactly twenty four hours ago from Mumbai. It would take me another 2 hours to reach my destination - Tatanagar. I had a good night’s sleep inspite of travelling Sleeper Class after a gap of 9 Years, to think of it after 6 years on any class in a Train.
They say, If you haven’t traveled in Indian Railways, you haven’t seen India! Yes, the Incredible India is not complete without it’s fascinating bit of the great Railways. The British built narrow guage lines to beat the heat in the plains and traveled to the cool hill stations during the British rule in India. but, my train trip was more to relieve my memories than any new experience hence I chose Train over Flight yearning for the good old days, when trains with evocative names like 'Frontier Mail', 'Flying Ranee', 'Gomoh Express', thundered through the nights trailing a mixture of steam and smoke. Trains with romantic, magical names are still there. But those steaming, thundering nights are just a speck in my memory and it was time to go back in flash back and bring back those moments.
I got up to brush my teeth and get ready for some hot tea and newspaper……. The Shouts of Chaiwallah got me into reverie 9 years back……………….When for about 5 years I was a regular traveler of Gitanjali Express between Tatanagar and Mumbai. The wonderful journeys that I undertook by this train during my college days are amongst my best journeys on board the Indian Railway, Generally a big group of friends would be there and we would begin the journey at around 6:15 AM from Dadar and reach the next morning at around 9:30 am.
I remembered my first trip from Mumbai to Jamshedpur in 1998 ,We were a group of 20 people traveling from Dadar and it was our first journey back home from Hotel Management Institute …I had a ticket in another coach away from the others and I believe I was initiated into entrepreneur spirit during that journey as I sold my ticket for an exchange of Waiting Ticket of another passenger all for Rs.400/- Making a straight profit of Rs.200/- on my concessional ticket half that price. fully aware that there were 19 other births to plonk in during the night…..To think of it a profit of 100% was not bad…….These group journeys would have college Romeo-Juliet’s, Booze party, dancing and antakshari.
Dadar station looked like a “casbah” in the Middle East. prior to the departure of Geetanjali Express, 20 times more crowded and just as chaotic. Passengers running after coolies, who would be trying to locate particular carriages; vendors trotting up and down the platform trying to sell their wares, mineral water, fruits, newspapers and periodicals. Adding to this melee were the inevitable bhajiawallas .
The real fun of travelling use to begin as soon as we would board. Our role changed from that of a spectator to a participant. Indian middle class are not content to mutter a comment about the lateness of the train and then immerse themselves in the crossword. They are far too social for that. As the train gathers speed, so does the banter. It was difficult to believe that your fellow passengers are meeting each other for the first time. Not only is gossip exchanged, but also food and life stories. As everyone is expected to join in, you might as well do the same. Your fellow travelers are not averse to asking you direct and leading questions even if you put on the reserve. This is not nosiness but friendliness. However, I can visualize a few raised eyebrows, when somebody you have only just met, asks you what your take-home pay is!
You should be prepared to field questions about cricket. If you have no knowledge of cricket, the easiest way to get out of this predicament is to start talking about Indian politics. Start the ball rolling and then sit back. Indian politics is so complex a subject that it is easier to understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
..... Having chai was an experience not to be missed. The Chaiwallah were an institution in themselves, unlikely to be seen anywhere. Their strident cries of "Chai, garam chai" (tea, hot tea), would penetrate even well insulated air-conditioned carriages. Even at 2 o'clock in the morning, they would parade up and down with undiminished spirit. Passengers themselves didn’t think anything of getting up from deep slumber to partake of this nectar. The typical way of making it was to boil the living daylights out of a mixture of water, milk, sugar and tea leaves, and when no more tannin can possibly be extracted, strain it off into small cups or glasses. On smaller stations, they used small disposable earthenware pots or “Kullhars”. After you finish, you throw the pot, usually between the platform and the train, where it disintegrates into smithereens. Dust to dust Ashes to ashes. I remembered The old “chaiwallah’’ with his famous negative marketing pitch “kharab se kharab chai pijiye’’ who was a regular between Tatanagar & Rourkela stations and gave the passengers the best Tea that was possible, However, the days of this most Indian of drinks may be numbered. On this trip, I was served a lukewarm mixture of considerably watered down milk with a miserable looking tea bag floating in it in a plastic cup. I suppose that is progress!
Another feature of this journey use to be the undulating tunnels & rivers in the same leg of the journey...a must watch for the nature lovers...and we used to sit at the door for the best views……..Little children in the train, defying parental commands to go to sleep, would peer out of the windows at the engine at some bend……. The Train window use to be like a celluloid Screen where you could see glimpses of real village life, Farmers on their way to rice fields, Goatherds on their way to grazing oasis, rice farming on narrow paddy fields and all these while the Train would chug along faster and faster over Bridges, crossing Villages, Rivers, Forests charging along like an army through the meadows and sights of the hill and the plains, The painted stations would disappear in the wink of an eye, Each a glimpse gone forever or at most itched in memories ,Time would fly and before long we would be at Jamshedpur clamoring down to go home for vacation before it was time to return and take the journey the other way.....homesick.
A sudden jolt woke me up from my reverie ,I could see the horizon loomed large on the other side of the window ,Chakradharpur had come It was time to collect my luggage and my memories scattered across iron tracks spread over these 1000 KM……I started to get ready before I got lost once again to the sound of “Chai Garam Chai”……