off the cuff

Memoirs and memories of food in train journeys of yore

Availability of bottled mineral water meant that you no longer needed to protrude your hand from the train window

Lalit Raizada Special to Gulf News
17:19 September 19, 2016

Some decades back, pantry cars on the Indian Railways were not very much in vogue. Though meant essentially for the convenience of long-distance passengers, these were not attached to all deserving trains.

Food supply system was not organised. Pantry cars did have seating arrangements, but that meant the passenger had to leave his or her luggage back in the compartment while eating — all that time worrying about the safety of his or belongings.

Compartments were not interconnected through vestibules, as they are today. One had to wait for the train to stop at some station to quickly jump into the pantry car, which in most cases used to be towards the tail end. One option was to ask the pantry car men to deliver your food in your bogie. But the question was: How do you place your order?

Even if you were able to manage it, no waiter would be able to come to you in the running train to deliver some extra pinch of salt that you might have wanted. That was why pantry cars of those days were not fully utilised by passengers for whom those were meant.

Other options were carrying your own home-cooked food or buying hot ‘pooris’ (fried hand-made breads) from the station platforms with the ubiquitous potato curry and a pinch of pickle. That used to be the best and — as it used to be served hot — the most soul-satisfying option. Even if the stuff was lacking in some respect, no hungry stomach on a long-distance train could dare refuse it.

In a vast country like India with its diverse tastes, idli, dosa, sambhar, pav-bhaji etc have been the alternatives of poori-bhaji, which were always made available. Aware of the general penchant for warm food, these platform-based vendors were adept at readying them in sufficient quantities moments before a train’s arrival.

The hard fact is that the food was always satisfying, nobody bothered about the medium used and nobody ever fell sick. But amusingly, things started deteriorating as health consciousness and awareness grew!

Confronted with the practical problem of a few vendors being unable to serve a 21-coach train, an initiative was taken to sell the same stuff in cardboard cartons, but it did not evoke the desired response because of the food being cold and dry. Most people bought the box out of compulsion. Some entrepreneurs are in this packed-food business even today.

I would have faced a similar situation when, some decades ago, I was commandeered by my father to take my mother and four siblings from Aligarh to Bareilly, both in the state of Uttar Pradesh — to our maternal grandfather’s place. I was a teenager and always loved travelling and would grab any opportunity that came my way. But I was reluctant to take the family by train.

My father reminded me that I was a “grown up and a mature young man. You can do the job better than me”. I felt flattered and fell for it. Aligarh and Bareilly are about 110kms apart. The route is served by two daytime and one night passenger trains. Being a loop line, there was not much commercial activity in those days. There was only one major station midway and even there proper food was not always available.

Aware of the practical problems, I fished out a cane basket and packed it with eatables. Even though the passenger train used to take just about five hours, I did not want to take any chances. So, the basket was stuffed with lots of pooris, two to three types of vegetables and sufficient pickles. Availability of clean drinking water also being a problem, particularly during the summer, I bought an earthen ‘surahi’ (pitcher) and a wooden stand.

Water used to be served by two railway ‘water men’, who moved in opposite directions — one from the engine side and the other from the guard’s cabin side — shouting “pani, pani” (“water, water”) and pouring it into vessels held out of the windows by the passengers.

Years later, the wooden stand and the cane basket lost their relevance when the railways started serving food right on the seat. And availability of bottled mineral water meant that one no longer needed to extend one’s hand out of the train window, with some vessel, asking for water.

The ‘surahi’ stand remained with us as a memorial of a bygone era. The disused wooden stand was eaten away by borer, but the basket, aged 65, lives on.

— Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.