- I remember once waking up, with the train halted at an unknown station, the engine whistling and no sign of dad. I panicked. Where was he? What if he missed the train?
As the world is getting vaccinated against COVID, we are taking more trips. Some of us are going home. I don’t think we can ever completely go back to our pre-pandemic days. But traveling on trains with family was a tradition in India. Dad took us around the Indian subcontinent on many long and short railroad journeys. The fiery black steam engines, the trailing matchbox red carriages packed with passengers. Indian coolies in red shirts balancing too many bags on their toothpick frames. People haggling for sundry items. Ticket collectors trying to match everyone to their respective reservations, and the hullabaloo was a living circus!
Let me tell you about one journey. We were at Calcutta‘s Howrah station. Our minds buzzed with curious amazement in all the hubbub of people at the railway platform. Trying our best not to get lost, we marched in a single file behind Dad’s tall frame as he weaved in and out of the teeming sea of bobbing heads, He turned back from time to time to make sure we were following his lead. How Mom managed to look so dainty and unflustered in all this hustle and bustle was something I noticed with wonder then. But now it’s even more mysterious for me to replicate because my deportment unravels within minutes of travel troves.
Regardless of the confusion, both I and my baby sister Sammi stared at the panoply around us. Her eyes wide with excitement and my mouth open in awe at the motley station vendors selling inexplicable, tropical items we were never allowed to touch or eat.
By the time we managed to find our berths/ sleepers it was akin to climbing Mount Kailash. After climbing or more like being pushed up the steep steps of the carriage trying not to look down at the tracks we made a beeline for window seats.
We argued among ourselves over window seats, then settled down after being admonished by mom to keep a safe distance from the windows to avoid flying coal, dust and other unwanted flying objects thrown out by our Indian co-passengers. We promptly opened our books or board games. The excitement was high and the thought of this magical journey through new panoramas sent our spirits soaring with excitement.
Mom carefully organized our belongings, sanitized the seats and all touchable surfaces. She tut-tutted at our already disheveled faces and tried to wipe some koodies (ghisiaan in Punjabi) off our faces. Dad was the last one to enter our small “traveling compartment home” because he attended to tying the final threads. Tipping the coolie, buying newspapers, magazines, books, helping an older passenger with their luggage, taking inventory of fellow passengers. Being his usual larger-than-life-self. Soon after the engine let out the final whistle, and our train chugged away from the platform he scooted under the short door bending his tall frame to avoid bumping his head.
As the train tracked, my eyes misted at relatives’ bidding their loved ones adieu. I looked away from them and jumped for joy to see dad. To me, the sight of him was like seeing God. We were in dad’s company, all was well with the world!
Planning this journey had taken weeks. While we stayed busy with schoolwork and play, mom had occupied herself meticulously packing clothes and other necessary travel accouterments in clad-iron trunks and rolling our beddings in holdalls. She had also made our favorite savory mathis and besan burfi. For lunch, she packed soft paratha or poori alloo with tangy lemon pickle or mango relish. Everything was neatly ensconced in tiffin carriers with napkins.
As soon as the train picked up speed, big cities and humble villages, scurried in the opposite direction we proclaimed our hunger. Mom looked at Dad to see if he was ready to eat and then carefully spread our meal on cloth napkins placed over newspapers. Dad took one bite and his face glowed in pure appreciation for the tasty home-cooked meal. Likes always, he nodded his head and extolled our mother’s myriad virtues. Mom smiled in satisfaction, keeping an eye on me not to spill anything.
The meal over, we watched the scurrying scenery at our window seats. Mom pulled out her bag of crochet. Dad buried his nose in his newspapers. Mom tried to carry on a conversation with him but like always when he did not respond, she said: “Kapur Sahib are you listening to me?”
We played “name, place, animal, thing”, Chinese checkers, cards. Dad recited poems and recanted funny anecdotes. Later, we all dozed off, in a post-prandial/ digestive stupor. Rocking to the rhythm of the train.
I remember waking up, with the train halted at an unknown station, the engine whistling and no sign of dad. I panicked! Where was he? What if he missed the train? Why did he have this perilous habit of getting off at all stations? But he was a traveler in the true sense. He had to get off, to stretch his long legs, survey the land, smoke a cigarette, exchange pleasantries with co-passengers, catch cricket scores, discuss politics and other things that only he knew better.
My small heart pounded with the childhood anxiety of him missing the train. Mom went to the carriage door to call out his name. My face was glued as close as possible to sooty iron bars that carried the typical smell of Indian railways. My eyes weeping rivulets, when he appeared, his face wreathed in smiles. Carrying more travel treats. A box of cookies, hot pakoras and hot tea in earthen sakoras. Mom took the tea from his hands and shook her head. Kapur Sahib, you always… I let my tears roll down my cheeks and then hugged him tightly. This happened so many times. I don’t remember the final destination of our train journey but I can forget his words. He looked down at me and smiled… “Baby, why are you crying? I will never leave you.”
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.