The romance of the train journey

Is nicely captured in this must-read piece of Malavika Karlekar:

As one would expect, children, particularly those who travelled in the first class, were immune to such grown-up fears; for them, there was little to rival a train ride. Colonial memoirs recount many such journeys, some more exciting than others. Jon and Rumer Godden in Two Under the Indian Sky write of long train journeys to north Indian hill stations. As high-spirited children, they swung from the upper berths, visited the lavatory endlessly — assiduously disinfected with Lysol by their mother — and waited for entertainment at the next station.

Ample food lay safe in tiffin baskets, “large oblong Japanese cane baskets with leather strappings to hold enamel plates and mugs.” Bottled water was carried from home and though during the journey, “bread went dry, butter melted, shells off the hard-boiled eggs got into the buttoned upholstery of the bunk seats… we thought the meal ambrosial”. An accompanying servant would come to wash up, squatting on the floor of the lavatory shower room that led off from the compartment. In the blazing hot summer when travelling in what were basically metal boxes on wheels could be unbearable, a zinc stand with a deep tray beneath it was set up in the middle of the compartment “and every morning with shoutings and staggerings, coolies would carry in a huge block of ice and unwrap it from its sacking”. A fan often circulated the cooled air and telegrams used to be sent down the line for replacements of ice during the day.

As dusk came about the countryside, “a curious sadness would fall on us” and the compartment suddenly seemed small, “the train infinitesimal as it travelled over the vast Indian plain”. And then finally, out came the bedding from those “invaluable roly-poly pieces of luggage rightly called holdalls into which anything and everything would go”. Those irreplaceable holdalls may be difficult to come by today, and ice blocks have given way to fitful air conditioning; yet which train passenger can deny an inexplicable sense of wonderment — or maybe even melancholy — as night falls, a few lights twinkle on the horizon and the edges of India fade away beneath the criss-cross of railway tracks?

Take a look!

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