After reading about Indian Railways' recent efforts to provide a makeover to their trains and ensure a smooth ride on them, memories of my own wonderful train journeys came trundling to mind.
Looking back, I realize how those days spent on the train played out as a microcosm of the culture, colours and diversity of India. Friendships were created, enthralling stories were exchanged with complete strangers, entertaining observations were made about people and life in general, and of course, food from every region was shared.
There was never a dull moment. I remember being part of a birthday celebration on one journey, an exciting game of cards on another, and at least two occasions when the train came to an abrupt halt at a deserted location when someone had pulled the emergency chain.
The one constant was the din — of people walking up and down the carriage aisle, the chatter, luggage being shoved in or out from under the seats, and the myriad chants of vendors selling their wares.
The one constant was the din — of people walking up and down the carriage aisle, the chatter, luggage being shoved in or out from under the seats, and the myriad chants of vendors selling their wares. The rhythmic rocking of the coach and the welcome clanking of food trays brought during meal times were the other familiar sounds.
Besides the food served on the trains, the tantalising variety of snacks at stations, often a regional specialty, made the journey even more fun. Lazy afternoons on the train usually revolved around eating fried snacks on paper plates while sipping steaming cups of chai. And, who can forget the taste of freshly plucked guavas cut into pieces and served with a sprinkling of salt and spices by a vendor at an isolated station.
The rapidly changing landscape outside offered a far better engagement than any digital screen. As the train traversed the green countryside or dry and barren land, across rivers and over mountainous areas, through slums and busy cities — the incredible diversity and the stark contrasts never ceased to amaze. There were painful sights too, such as a hungry homeless man eating leftovers from a plate and beggars with limbs missing.
Train journeys also yielded wonderful lessons on helping co-passengers and learning to accommodate.
Train journeys also yielded wonderful lessons on helping co-passengers and learning to accommodate. Who can forget the warmth of being offered food or a blanket by someone you had met minutes ago or being moved by the plight of a poor boy belting out popular songs to earn small change.
As our destination approached, we would be worn out by the chaos, filth, delays and other travails of the journey. However, the excitement, adventure and unexpected encounters wove a magic that outweighed all the inconveniences and we would be bursting with stories and anecdotes after an exhilarating ride.
Modernising the trains with plush interiors, making them safer and equipping the railway stations with better facilities are all much needed and welcome steps. However, one hopes that along with the bells and whistles of technological changes, the richness of experience that train journeys have always provided remains undiminished and the charm of train travel lasts for ever.
(A version of this article appeared earlier in 'Gulf News'.)