A train ride down memory lane

One of the largest rail networks in the world, the Indian Railways carries over eight billion passengers in a year (Source: Wikipedia).  

Recently I undertook a journey by train on the Shatabdi Express from Chennai to Mysore.  I relished the seven-hour ride through small towns, rocky mountainous regions and lush green fields.  It brought back memories of my first train journeys as a child.

When we lived in New Delhi during my elementary schooling years, our summer vacation plan was always fixed - to visit my grandparents who lived in Chennai (known as Madras, in those days).  We rode the Grand Trunk Express (G.T.) which took two nights to take us from New Delhi to Chennai.  

Although a long ride, it brought us kids (my sisters and brother included) tremendous excitement as we geared up for the journey - a pack of cards, games like Snakes & Ladders and Chinese Checkers, colours, pencils and storybooks. 
 "Meals on Wheels"
My mother would pack up enough food to cover two meals.  Extras would be purchased on board.  Idlis with chutney powder, parathas with dry potato sabji, yogurt rice with spicy mango ‘aavakkai’ pickle – all went into the food basket.  Even though it was the usual kind of homemade food, the train ambience always made it tastier and delightful! 

My father would fill a big ‘hold-all’ – a kind of bag with pockets that could be rolled up, buckled and carried with a strap.  He stuffed it with pillows, blankets and other stuff that we’d need for the train ride.

A train journey, without its restrictions on the shape, number and weight of luggage items, was convenient for a large family like ours.  Sometimes, we’d carry as many as four suitcases, two hand luggage items, a hold-all, a food basket and a few miscellaneous packets. But the number of bags had to be just right to fit us into one taxi to get us to the station. 

We always hired a porter (‘coolie’) at the station after much haggling about the price of his services.  The guy would skillfully balance most of our luggage on his head and even carry one or two in his hands, ascending and descending several flights of long stairs along the way, to get us to the platform concerned.

The second class AC sleeper 3-tier rooms were perfect for our family of six.  Being the youngest, I had no voice over which berth I could sleep on; it had to be the lowermost.  
AC sleeper 3-tier
In fact, I was demoted to a bedding on the floor after I rolled off the lowermost berth!

Unlike me, my siblings settled their berth preferences after several arguments!  The topmost berth was always in demand, being away from the watchful eyes of parents where an extra snack or chocolate bar could be smuggled and enjoyed.  

Once the train journey began, we took turns sitting at the two windows available.  When my turn arrived, I waited for a glimpse of the engine car up front whenever the train went on tracks that curved.
My brother and I competed in writing down the names of every small town or station the train stopped at or passed through.  I blamed his ability to stay up late and middle berth location as reasons for a more comprehensive list than mine!

Higginbothams bookstore at train station
If it was too dark outside to look at anything but our own reflection on the window, we played games or read books.
 Tea in a 'kulhar'
When the train stopped at a station, my father and brother sometimes stepped off the train to stretch out and pick up a pack of biscuits or simply browse the magazine kiosks.  I stayed back with my mother and sisters on board.  At times, my brother would proudly walk in with a copy of the latest Tinkle (children's comic).  At other times, it would be tea in clay ‘kulhar’ cups that my mother and sisters enjoyed.

 However, there were moments when I feared that my father and brother would be left behind at a station and separated from us forever, just like in the Bollywood movies!  Once when the train took off from a station and my father and brother didn’t show up, all of us panicked.  Thankfully, they emerged a few minutes later; they had managed to get into a different compartment in the rear of the train.

Though I enjoyed most of the journey, by the time we got to our second night of our journey, I was ready to reach our destination.  When morning arrived and we approached the Chennai station, our eyes eagerly scanned the platform for our grandparents who usually came to receive us.

Thus began most of our summer vacations in those days.  I’d enjoy my grandmother's South Indian delicacies and snacks.  I loved going to the beach, visiting the Higginbothams bookstore on Mount Road, meeting our relatives, especially my cousin sister, and doing so much more!

When it was time to return to New Delhi, I'd know it would be the final bout of fun before getting back to the usual routine.  But at least I had something to look forward to – another train journey!


  1. Vidhya, you certainly brought back fond memories of essential part of annual summer vacation trips......and your writing so vivid that every child would like to experience it even today. Sanjeev

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