The excitement was not about the school year coming to an end but the anticipation of the summer vacations looming ahead. Summer vacations meant endless hours of playing in the garden, eating freshly plucked mangoes, swimming, reading endlessly, and most importantly going on the train trips. Yes, the train rides were the highlight of the summer vacations.
Every year for the summer vacations we would be packed off to our maternal grandfather’s house in a small, sleepy, modest town of Berhampur. To reach there we had to change at least three trains, if all went well, or there would be a bus ride thrown in for more adventure – these were the wonderful times before the Olas and Ubers. Every year we would travel by the same trains, so we knew the route by heart. It had a sense of familiarity, as if it was a natural extension of our journey. In spite of that my brother and me would look forward to the journey with unmatched excitement.
Once at the railway station, our father would buy us both two books each from the AH Wheeler Book Stall, an integral part of all Indian railway stations then. While my brother would quickly pick up Amar Chitra Kathas and be done with the job, I would be tearing my hair apart deciding on which books to buy. Two Amar Chitra Kathas or one Amar Chitra Katha and one some other book – these were the most difficult decisions in my life then! Finally, I would select some books, some were my choice and an extra thrown in by the father, in case he was still in a generous mood.
We used to travel in either the first-class coach (if my father had remembered to book the tickets well in advance) or in the second class. AC coaches were a rarity, a luxury. After the fights as to who would sit by the window seats, we would settle down for a long journey. It was nearly 36 hours from Kanpur to Bhubaneshwar – phase 2 of the journey. The train moved through the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and finally enter Orissa. The scenery changing from the browns and gold to the verdant coastal greens. With each year we would notice the changes in the landscape. New bridges, roads or buildings, more people at the railway crossings, new railway platforms added to the existing ones. Though we had read about topography and physical features in geography, seeing it ourselves was anytime more educative. We would spend time eating, sleeping, fighting, playing board games, solving puzzles and of course reading. We would even make new friends with the other passengers. Imagine a day and a half spent without any gadget – seems near impossible now, isn’t it?
Both of us had a holiday homework every year and we were very competitive when it came to producing quality work. Our grandfather would ask us to maintain a journal of the journey. We had to note down all the important things we would have experienced. We would also religiously note down the names of the railway stations by looking at the bright yellow name boards painted at the end of the platform. At night the station would be transformed into something else. The dim tube lights would light up the ends of the platform while the middle section would be brightly lit up and filled up with people – some waiting for their trains, some waiting to board our train and many more there to either see off or receive someone. The vendors would be running along the train trying to outdo one another trying to attract the attention of the passengers. Around early evening at one of the major railway stations, dinner trays would be loaded in for the passengers who would have ordered it. Even though mother would have packed something healthy from home, we would coax her into getting us a dinner tray too. The taste was nothing much, it was bland and watery but it was a treat.
Sometimes we would be rudely woken up in the middle of the night by some obnoxious passenger who would claim that we were occupying his seat. Arguments, or rather animated discussions, would ensue till the Ticket Collector would arrive looking important and bored and would settle the matter. It was a sight watching that rude, mean uncle being asked to move away or get off the compartment. Just amped up the thrill factor of the journey.
The best part of the journey was looking out of the window. In the night the scenery would look like an extension of the night sky. Tiny yellow or white lights flickering at a distant, sometimes in clusters sometimes solitary. The dark silhouettes of the trees would whoosh by as if some magical creature just flew by, peeking into the soul of the compartments, as the train rushed ahead to reach its destination. The railway stations would be deserted barring a few porters hoping to make the last commission before calling it a day; or some weary traveler waiting for the ride to take him to his next stop. The mornings were ethereal. The sky would change colours so fast that it was difficult to make out who was travelling faster, time or train.
I could never sleep on a train. The comforting rhythmic sound of the wheels had a lulling effect on one’s senses. But not me. I was always excited and waiting for something. I would carefully note down the names of the stations even in the night. I loved to watch the world wake up to a new day. The countryside would be teeming with life. I wished even then if I could stay there, far away from the maddening city life. Farmers would be out in the fields with the first day light. Women would be out carrying water from the wells or lakes or rivers or washing clothes or doing some other chores. The kids would be dressed up and going to school. A quiet town life would zip by, as if in fast forward.
Nothing is the same now – not the summer vacations, not the train journeys, not the way I look at life. But whenever I remember those journeys, it brings a smile to my face and warm memories come gushing from the deep recesses of long forgotten times. Childhood memories are forever beautiful!