The tracks to freedom that made me realize the boredom of growing up
I was a wild teenager about to be unleashed. At 17, travelling solo was an adventure mixed with breaking the boundaries of an Indian mindset. I was going to experience freedom. My only train travels had been from Delhi to Bareilly to my mom’s native home during the summer holidays as a child. My father didn’t like trains, so I never traveled with him on trains.
Trains are systematic and they run on time, most of the times. They are supposed to start on time and end on time. You are supposed to reach far before time if you don’t want to miss your train. In the late 1980s, internet was an alien in India. It hadn’t arrived but some whispers from abroad did come now and then. No one knew computers too.
To know a train, you had to be at the station or sometimes, some places had small booking counters. Booking agents were there though.
But freedom means freedom from everything and standing for hours in long queues to check the many trains, choose one which began in daylight and reached the destination in daylight, cross check if there was a seat available for the day you wanted.
My starting point was Ludhiana and destination Delhi. And Delhi means Old Delhi, New Delhi, Nizamuddin and Sarai Rohilla in the railway jargon. Where I had to reach was New Delhi. My mom and I scribbled on bits and pieces of booking sheets, cutting and throwing a lot, until we got a seat in Shan-e-Punjab. Chair Car–sit and travel for four and a half hours.
What to carry in the chair car coaches?
Radio doesn’t work in the train, big headphones seemed odd, besides the music system was too big to carry in the train. Books and I seemed to be the ideal companions. It was the hottest month of the year—June, but the train was fully air conditioned and I could fall sick. So a shawl went into my already full handbag. Food, god knows what I would get, so 10 parathas with aloo and biscuits. I could have fed a family!
So stuffing my large suitcase and handbag under the seat, I told the elderly gentleman to ensure no one sat on my seat while I went and said goodbye to my mom.
Ready to roll to Delhi
It took me 15 minutes to say goodbye, typical Indian daughter to a worried Indian mother. I had tracks, feathers were too light for humans, to Delhi. Tea is an addiction, so I bought a flask of tea inside the coach. I hesitantly took out my biscuit packet, watching the elderly gentleman from the corner of my eye, dipping my biscuit in the tea. Shucks, it had to fall into it! Not much space, but I liked tea and books together. So out came the first book.
Soon the breakfast shout was heard. We could buy food on the train. My eyes went to the bag with parathas. But I took out my purse to buy some breakfast—eggs and bread. This was my first solo traveler adult breakfast on the train. It didn’t have any taste. And then I was waiting for the attendant to come and take the boxes, so I could put the table up and sleep off.
But aunties in the train kept talking and I kept trying hard not to listen. Finally we came to Ambala, signaling Delhi was very close. I really wanted the kullad wali famous chai. So my heavy handbag in my hands, I ran to the cart on one side of the station, shouted for cup of tea, asking him to hurry and eyeing the coach. In flat three minutes, the whistle blew and the train jerked forward. I had managed to reach my seat, tea intact and suitcase had not been stolen.
I got off to a hot and sultry New Delhi station; the shawl had not been taken out even once. I hadn’t finished a single chapter, I had not opened the paratha breakfast, lunch and now dinner and I had not found a coolie to help with my overladen suitcase. But I had managed to reach Delhi in one piece without anything being stolen, lost, not fallen sick and not fought with anyone. Thank god for that!