Josna Rege

43. From a Railway Carriage

In 1960s, 1980s, history, India, Stories, travel, United States on May 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Kasha-sathi pota-sathi/Khandala-chya ghata-sathi
Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi

In some of my earliest memories my father is patting me on the back to the beat of this Marathi nonsense rhyme, sending me off to sleep to the sound and rhythm of a railway train riding through the Western ghats. Ever since, I have found the sound of a passing train soothing and soporific, whistle and all.

Train journeys have punctuated my life, starting with our early cross-country family marathons from West Bengal to Maharashtra. How to write about memories that, for me, seem almost to stand for India itself? They flash by like scenes from a railway carriage, “each a glimpse and gone forever” (as in Stevenson’s poem),  and yet they endure, returning to me again and again.

We lived in the East of India while the rest of my father’s family lived in the West. In preparation for the three-day train journeys to visit them in the late 1950’s and 1960’s,  my mother would make a dry, spicy meat dish, long-lasting and easy to eat with chapattis. We would reserve a coupe, or private cabin, which we opened by day to other passengers but locked at night. Every few stops my father would leap off  to buy snacks and tea, sold in (disposable, biodegradable) earthenware cups by loud-voiced vendors on the platforms. We waited on tenterhooks lest he should miss the train and be left behind forever, and he always maximized the suspense by waiting until the train actually started pulling away from the station, running beside it and leaping on, often several carriages behind ours.

When the train paused at Nagpur in the middle of the night, Nanakaka and Tarakaki were waiting to greet us on the platform with a basket of oranges, that district’s specialty. I have a fleeting mental snapshot of my uncle, aunt, and cousins standing on the platform; as I have a snapshot of the Taj Mahal, seen across the Yamuna River from a railway carriage. Long before I ever visited the Taj, I happened to see it, as in a dream, while staring half-hypnotized out of the train window on one of those cross-country journeys. No one else was awake; I fancy the vision was mine alone.

By journey’s end my face was black with the smoke and soot of the steam engine.

Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi

In the early 1980s, as a newlywed returning with my husband to India for the first time after many years, I booked the Rajdhani Express from Bombay to Delhi, second-class AC two-tier sleeper, offering luxuries I had never encountered in my childhood. We were issued blankets and freshly laundered sheets, thermoses of tea that fit into handy brackets on the walls beside our berths. We were served three-course meals as delicious as any I remembered from childhood, in large, deep stainless-steel platters with their neat compartments filled with rice, dal, vegetable, curried chicken, yoghurt, pickle, and even a tub of Kwality ice cream for dessert. The air-conditioning was a feature I had not experienced before, certainly welcome in the heat of the summer, but it meant that the windows were covered with smudged sheets of plexiglass, no longer open to the outside; keeping us cool and clean, no doubt, but at a further remove from it all.

Still, other trips on mail trains and locals allowed us more direct sensory experience with the world outside. We saw, through the barred carriage windows, station names in three languages as we sped by; bullock-carts stopped at a level crossing; peasants bending over the crops in the early-morning mist; ponds choked with weeds and waterlilies; women filling their brass pots with water at the well; small boys playing in the river. We smelled incense, cow dung, diesel fumes; bartered with vendors plying their trade from the platforms; engaged in deep conversations with idiosyncratic fellow-travelers who regaled us, at great length, with their theories of life; and, upon arrival, were besieged by red-uniformed porters who fought over our suitcases.

Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi

We have had hair-raising experiences on trains. On our honeymoon trip, Andrew and I booked a private coupe for a Delhi-Kanpur journey. The day before, I happened to read in the Delhi newspaper that the very train we were scheduled to take had  stopped inexplicably between two stations in the night, where “miscreants” had boarded and robbed the passengers at knifepoint. That snippet of news set us on edge to start with. As soon as we had consulted the passenger lists and found our carriage, a swaggering group of students entered and piled onto the benches beside and across from us. Although we officially had the compartment to ourselves, we were unsure of what to do, since we thought perhaps we were expected to allow other passengers in during the daytime. Emboldened by our hesitation, the young men began staring at us brazenly, nudging each other, and snickering—especially their leader. He inched closer and closer along the seat, until we were pressed uncomfortably together and he was almost rubbing up against us. The atmosphere of menace thickened. All at once the leader got up, went over to the window, and jerked it down shut. Instantly Andrew was up and over at the window, heaving it open again. A tense standoff ensued as we waited to see what would happen next. Finally, the young men decided to go out for a smoke, and as soon as they left the compartment, Andrew bolted the door behind them. They hammered on it, but we did not let them back in.

Now it was dark, and the train stopped between stations with no warning or explanation. The previous station had been the very one mentioned in the newspaper story the day before. Suddenly we heard people boarding the train and filling the corridor outside our compartment, shouting and jostling and pounding on our door to be let in. Fear and guilt mingled as we weighed the pros and cons of doing so, but fear won. When the pounding stopped and the noise subsided, Andrew peeked out for a second and saw a crowd of people settled down on the floor; doubt arose again, since there was lots of space in our nearly-empty compartment. But again, caution prevailed. Before long I was desperate to use the toilet, but could not bring myself to venture out and push through the crowds of people pressed up against our door, their bodies, bags, and bundles carpeting every inch of the way.

We never did learn whether those night-train passengers were in fact the “miscreants” we had read of, or whether they were simply poor villagers trying to catch a free ride to the city.

Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi

So many more train trips. Riding for twenty-two hours from Calcutta on the Madras Mail with a rib-wrenching cough, calmed only by copious spoonfuls of codeine-laced cough syrup sold over the counter by a Howrah Station druggist. Being dragged along by relentless rush-hour crowds of Mumbai commuters desperate to exit at their station, and nearly losing my sari in the process. Traveling in joyous holiday spirits to Ratnagiri on the new Konkan Railway, plied every few minutes with new and ever-tastier treats—steaming hot tea and coffee, bunches of tiny bananas, salty roasted peanuts, fresh chikki (peanut brittle)—and drawing every minute closer to our family home.

Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi

When I think of trains, inevitably I think of India. But there have been memorable train trips outside of India as well. There was another three-day journey, from Greece to Belgium in 1963, on a train packed with friendly, boisterous college students, passing through Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the terrible Skopje earthquake, being stopped at every border by grim, grey-overcoated guards demanding to see our papers.

Arriving in the United States long after the railroad’s heyday, I still loved what was left of its romance: the goods trains that hurtled toward our cabin in Concord in the night, their whistles shrieking through my dreams, narrowly averting disaster every time as the track veered away and past us; the old-timers’ stories of Winchendon when it was a thriving railroad junction, when letters dropped in the outstretched mail sack of a passing train would be delivered in New York City the next morning; and the railroad songs I sang to Nikhil at bedtime: The Wabash Cannonball, The Freight Train Boogie (Oh Lord, how the man made the whistle whine), The Old ’97, The Greenville Trestle High:

But the whistles don’t blow like they used to/Lately, not many trains go by
Hard times across the land mean no work for a railroad man/And the Greenville trestle now don’t seem so high.

Last week, Andrew read in the newspaper that in India, too, fewer and fewer people have been riding the trains lately. But with hard times here again, and an inevitably-approaching oil crisis, perhaps the railroad is due for a  comeback.

Tell Me Another

  1. I’ve always loved train rides, and I’ve had too few of them. My maternal grandfather helped to build the Transcanada, which is what took him from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, where he met my grandmother. He claimed that the company ran out of names, so started naming towns for the workers. If that’s true, there is (or was) a nothing-little-town named McDiarmid somewhere in the wilds of northern Ontario. The train kept the family travelling for a few years. Thus, my uncle was born in Medicine Hat and my mother in Winnipeg. She used to talk about taking the overnight train to visit family in Saskatchewan every summer for free. They’d get a sleeper overnight, and in the morning the train would grind to a halt to leave them essentially in the middle of a wheat field, where her uncle would pick them up with horse and buggy. When she was 7 or 9, they moved to Toronto and then Oshawa, far less exotic places. I took the Transcanada once, when I was around 22 or 23 with a friend. We didn’t have a lot of time, so got off only to spend a night in Jasper. We hiked a bit. At one point, we thought we’d wade across a shallow spot in the Athabasca River, which starts up in Yukon Territory. It was so ice-cold that our legs cramped to the knees after only a few steps in water barely over our ankles. I suddenly understood how people drown in cold water.

    Another memory is of taking the train from Switzerland into Italy through the San Simplon tunnel. Sparks from the wheels (I assume it was that) would illuminate the tunnel like flashes of lightning. I remember distinctly coming out into Italy in the middle of the night, passing the station for Domodosola, the whole station lit up in a flash of detail. One of the nicest things about my years in Europe and England was all the wonderful train rides.

    I want to take a train again soon, even if it’s just up to Bellows Falls!

  2. Sarah, what a romantic story! I love the sound of those place names–feel like saying them all out loud. I didn’t know that your mother’s side of the family was from Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. Have you read that children’s book called Sarah Plain and Tall? Somehow that image of your mother and family being dropped off in a field and met by your uncle in a horse and buggy reminds me of it.

  3. You’ve got me all nostalgic now. I have to show this post to your cousin, I’m sure she’ll love it. Trains have always been an integral part of my life. Almost all my childhood memories are associated with trains; in one way or another. Sadly, here in my little mid-western college town, we don’t have any commuter trains. However, the periodic whistle and the chug of the freight train engine rolling on the tracks away to Kansas City always manages to make my day. Dis you know that the official K-state marching band theme song is the ‘Wabash Cannonball’? And although there are numerous versions of this song, I like the Hank Snow one the best. Toot, toot!!

  4. If you show this post to your Mom, Pinu, ask her if she remembers that encounter we had with an uppity train official when on our way down to Karwar back in 1998. She really let him have it!
    Kansas State has just risen several notches in my estimation now that I know its theme song. I used to have a few versions of it on my computer. Let me see if one of them is the Hank Snow version.
    And like you, my Dad says that he always feels happy when he hears the freight train rolling through Amherst in the middle of the night.

  5. Lovely Jo.

  6. I really enjoyed this story but I loved the beginning. The memories we have of things that are associated with fathers (parents I guess, but I’m a father) are so very special.

    • Thanks, Dan. Yes, my early memories of my father are very tender ones. (Of course, I have later memories that are also loving, but the earliest ones, that perhaps even precede speech, are the warmest and fuzziest.) I’m sure your child or children will have similar memories of you, that help to give their lives a loving foundation.

  7. Kashasathi potasathi/Khandalachya ghatasathi — that’s the phrase that brought me here. My mother taught me that and it rhymed perfectly with the chugging of the steam locomotives. It was lovely seeing the red hot embers flying past the window and the little grass fires they caused behind the train.

    • Delightful to get your comment–thank you! Yes, the chanting of that hypnotic phrase does match perfectly with the rhythm of the steam locomotives. I love your memory of the sparks (which I think I may remember) and the grass fires (which I don’t). I went to your Net Magellan blog and looked at the amazing photos from the transfer of power ceremonies. Images that transport you back in time as you look at them.

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