From Samosas to Shortbreads

I am not sure how the present train of thoughts possessed me. Maybe it was the incessant wailing of the kids on board. Maybe it was general dimness in the plane with the evenly spaced overhead lights. Right now, at least five kids from five different directions are howling, with helpless moms trying in vain to pacify them. What, was it some sort of a “Look, I can cry louder” contest going on? Crying is probably one of the few contagious pastime for babies. The noise, combined with my incapability to doze off unlike the hapless dads who were so attuned to the shrill shrieks, was causing my thoughts to fly off in different directions. I was flying home. It was always good to fly back home.

Fly? Now wait, how many times did you think I have actually flown home? Traveling for me had always been in trains. Yes, the great Indian Railways, the world’s largest employer with 1.6 million people employed, 39k miles of track, nearly 7k stations and 8k named passenger trains with daily departures. Just a little bit of interesting statistics flicked from the internet.

Traveling in these comfort tubes, occasionally munching on the pure butter shortbreads, the rosemary crackers and the golden granola mix, and sipping iced apple juice as you look out of the window to stare into stretches of darkness (or ethereal whiteness, depending on the time of the day) is nothing compared to the so familiarly practiced tones of “chai-chai, caafe-caafe”, the tangy smell of lemon emanating from the Jhaalmuri Waala strategically beating on his dabba and teasing the taste buds berths away, and the sight of the station’s name printed bold black over a yellow background in English, Hindi, and the local language.

What kind of drink would you like ma’am?

I was suddenly shaken out of my reverie by an immaculately dressed, perfectly model-figured air hostess who had such a polite smile pasted on her ruby red lips. I wondered if she used the same mellifluous tone with everyone she knew.

Uh, just some tomato juice. No ice please.

You see, ice hurts my throat. The perfectly geometrical shapes makes me miss the “Baraf ke Gole” I’d greedily slurp on and later hang out my tongue to exhibit the shades of red and orange. Not that I told her all that.

So as I sipped my tomato juice (and my sarcasm) in silence, my belly turning into jelly every time the plane hit an air pocket, I missed traveling in trains. Traveling mostly in sleeper classes all my life, unless it was summers, I have most effectively witnessed a cross section of the typical Indian middle class (and the poor) lifestyle. The cello water bottles gave way to sealed mineral water bottles. The hot samosas with stale potato fillings gave way to air sealed packets of chips and diet cokes. But the flavors of life essentially remained the same. I would most religiously devour the puris and the potato curry rumored to be fried in diesel every time the train reached Kharagpur (Kharagpur by the way has the longest railway platform in India to boast of, other than the revered Indian Institute of Technology) . I loved the pineapple juice packets you inserted a straw into and drank till there would be sounds of air whistling in the straws. I missed the South Indian meals on the long distance trains of the South Eastern railway that tasted anything from spicy to bland, depending on how wrong the taste could get. It’s funny how you punched a hole in the polythene pillows filled with water and drank while you watched the elderly aunty of other families tucking away the unused pickles, butters, and tomato ketchups into the hinterlands of their bags. A crazy Pappu would be howling, throwing a tantrum every time the vendor selling Diamond Comics, cold drinks, or toys strategically sauntered around. You crazily ogled and salivated every time the family opposite to you bought onion pakoras presumably fried in stale oil, Dahi Vadas, or Jhaalmuri with thinly sliced coconuts adorning the paper packets (also called thongas in Bengali).

Kids are kids, whether be it Pappu from India or Peter from USA. I look at the kids around me, the ease and comfort they travel with, ensconced comfortably in cushioned bags, using diapers, and annoyingly kicking around fur toys. I also thought of the other kids from my country who don’t go to schools but work to earn a living and to feed their family? I see an eight year old Indian girl wearing a pink frilly frock, her hair braided into dozens with beads hanging all over her face and carrying a matching mini-case asking her mother in heavily accented American English, “Mommy, may I have those blah blah blah things and can we do those blah blah blah things when we reach Chicago?”Cocooned in luxury, I wondered if she knew about her coevals back in India who don’t get to have one proper square meal per day?

Perhaps I am getting a little more scathing than I should. No, I don’t mean to judge people. May be it’s just the noise and commotion created by the howling kids, not that they could help feeling as air sick as I was. You see, it’s not an easy feat sitting cramped for hours in a flight. You can’t move, you can’t stretch, you can’t get down at the next railway station at the pretext of filling up your water bottles, you can’t go peep out of the door to get a fresh breath of air hitting your face while the train speeds in an undulating motion like a boathouse on suspenders. All you do is get bored as if you are sitting in a spaceship, with no greenery, absolutely nothing to see outside the window. No eunuchs to ask you for money. Yeah, that’s definitely a relief. I remember how I’d go hide myself in smelly restrooms or feign sleep in the upper berths once I spotted them. Every time I traveled, I’d pray I met someone good looking guy to share the journey with. Yet all I’ve seen as fellow passengers are corpulent aunties and old uncles and misbehaved kids who needed spanking. I thought someday I’d grow up and travel in planes, meeting interesting people. I guess only the mode of transport has changed for me, and not my bad luck as far as my fellow passengers are concerned.

I once again looked out of the window, but all I saw was pitch darkness with the blinking of the wing lights. I missed the sight of the green fields, the cows bathing, the snake-like muddy roads of villages with people cycling, working in fields, and semi-clothed village boys excitedly waving at the trains. Suddenly, I missed the trains, the so very familiar sights and smells of my country, the Chai Wallah screaming chai-chai, the tangy smell of lime, and the spicy South Indian meals. The buildings, roads, and trains in this country are not real, they are scenes straight out of a movie. They are too clean and organized to feel real. Suddenly, I longed for some real views, tractors on fields, lorries laden with hay, village women with their heads clad in dupattas, cows defecating with their tails held high, and the harsh sound of metal as the train sped through a bridge over the river at night. I’ve seen people in Bihar traveling on train tops during the Chatt Pujas (and no, it is definitely not as cool as Chainya Chainya). I have seen people without tickets traveling all night huddled in front of rest rooms. I don’t know why I felt so nostalgic, given that these are not really the most coveted sights to wish for and witness. Nevertheless, traveling 36k feet above the ground and thousands of miles away from my country, I missed home.

I was woken out of my semi-conscious stupor by another of those thuds I so very dreaded while the other passengers impassively read their magazines or slept. Must be some air pocket again. Air travels scare the shit out of me. Being suspended mid air at some 36k feet above the ground is not a happy feeling. What if the pilot dozed off? What if the engines froze? A little perturbed, I groggily looked out of the window.

Oh, wow, we landed? I should have known from the way my ears felt vacuum. Thank God I was home. My new home in the US. Finally.


  • Roopesh says:

    Hi Devasmita,

    Interesting read. Its difficult to fathom but the sights, sounds & smells of trains always beckon however uncomfortable it may be. There is so much variety on offer as if you are browsing through a market or watching a kaleidoscope. You have time to introspect, read a book, watch the fields, open spaces, rivers, ravines, villages & cities which is so soothing for the soul. One meets so many people from different backgrounds & purpose. I put railways as one of the unifying forces in our country of such diversity. You go to any part of country, the blue-skyblue ribbon is a constant. I suggest you to reach “Branch Line to Eternity” by Bill Aitken if you haven’t already.


  • Devasmita says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation Roopesh, I am checking it out. In fact, please let me know if there are other interested books (travel related or otherwise) you’d recommend :)

    • Roopesh says:

      Hi Devasmita,

      For travel you can look at titles by Bill Aitken (Branch Line to Eternity, Seven Sacred Rivers), Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar), William Darlymple (In Xanadu). Among fiction I would recommend Rohinton Mistry (Such a long journey) & Yann Martel (Life of Pi) & Khaled Hosseini (Kite Runner, Thousand Splendid Suns).


  • Onil Gandhi says:

    @devasmita….for the past many years, find rail travel in india a very cumbersome issue… something to be done as a last priority… and undertaken to be wished away as soon as possible…. but i liked your description …
    very well written

    @roopesh … ur perception too wasn’t bad

  • Nandan says:

    From Samosa to Samosa :-)

    once you have samosa, its difficult to take it out. Recently, we went to (8 adults, 3 small kids) Udaipur and decided to go via train to get some more time. We got a/c 3 tier on the way down but back on the way up, we could only manage to get “Sleeper Class”. It was a holiday (Dusshera) and hence crowds were less but it was quite an experience overall. Not sure on when we are gonna try SL again but I am still glad that we did that.

    Brilliant expression Devasmita.

  • Pammi says:

    @ Devasmita – I stumbled upon your post thanks to a google search. Amazing how a random search will turn up interesting results. I’m traveling to India next month after many years and one of the things I’m really looking forward to is traveling by train! Its been years since I traveled on a train. I just love the countryside as you pass it by. I don’t know if this still applies in India but the sense of community that I remember in trains was heartwarming.

  • Devasmita says:

    Onil- Thank you :)

    Nandan- :)

    Pammi- Do write about your experiences, it will be great to read them :)

  • Abhi says:

    Devasmita –

    I happened to bump into your post, while oogling at other tremendous writings from the kind authors here. I must say, your article struck a cord somewhere and the ending was fabulous. Your writing is powerful and charismatic. This particular piece is different from anything that you have written on this portal as this piece is not about your experiences of a destination, but about the journey and the emotional turmoil one finds him/herself while undertaking that. Living in North America and spent time in multiple countries, I have lived and breathed your sentiments. I think its not the order and chaos that attracts us to a particular place, its the “normal” that we define in our lives during those key budding years, that remains close to our heart and conscience. Keep writing!!

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