off the cuff

The joy of a train ride

Our first glimpses of some of the places we had read about only in our history books were thrilling

Cheryl Rao,Special to Gulf News
16:55 September 8, 2017

Passengers on select trains in India will soon be able to catch up on their favourite television shows and other online entertainment while they travel from one place to another. Those of us who are addicted to our soaps and sports and our digital devices will probably welcome this move, but I am sure there are others who wonder why we need to be “entertained” on a rail journey.

Isn’t a journey entertaining by itself? Aren’t those hours on a train an opportunity to disconnect for a while from the outside world and sit back and relax? Isn’t it fun to be cocooned inside a railway carriage as we skim across different types of landscape?

From the time we were very young, a trip by train was usually the first choice whenever we had to travel — and it was always something we looked forward to: The noise and confusion at the railway station, the happy feel of movement once we were underway, the variety of food and drink on offer, in addition to what we carried with us, the encounters with strangers who may or may not hold our interest, the many conflicts that arose when we were confined to a small space with our siblings, the fun of fighting and making up.

Of course, we usually took something along with us to keep us “amused”: A few comic books for the moments when we climbed out of everyone’s way and reclined on the top berth — or if we were feeling anti-social, a book thick enough to last through the entire journey; a pack of cards for a boisterous game of “Grab” while our parents hoped that our little cabin was sound proof; snacks of all varieties — and the opportunities we got to indulge in a little bit of petty thievery as we dug into someone else’s packet of wafers or swiped some off a plate when they were distracted for a second or two. (Yes, snacks are high up on the list when it comes to “entertainment” on a train.)

More than anything else, however, I recall the guessing games we played and how we learned geography by staring out of the windows of our train on those long ago journeys. We tried to figure out which major river we were crossing — and which of its tributaries we had passed earlier or would come to later. We sought to name at least five of the trees of each forest we cut through. We guessed what crops were planted in the fields we sped by — and of course, we knew when we were nearing our home state of Maharashtra because we saw the black cotton soil alongside the rails — quite distinct from the reddish soil of some of the southern states.

Family saga

Our first glimpses of some of the places we had read about only in our history books were also thrilling — as were the places that belonged in the pages of our family saga. Imagine chugging through an innocuous little station, just like any of the scores of other stations we had passed — and then suddenly realising that it was Panipat: The same Panipat where some of the greatest battles in Indian history had been fought! Or getting to hear the tale of our favourite uncle and aunt’s courtship as we entered the university town of Dharwad and tasted the famous pedas (milk sweets) that came from there.

Perhaps our idea of entertainment was different in those days; perhaps it still is.

Because, despite decades of journeys across the length and breadth of a country as vast as India, on trains of all types, we still look forward to those “empty” hours on a train that we can fill with whichever wonders we want.

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.