I woke up with a start and realized that the train had already halted. I hurriedly climbed down the upper berth and peeked out through the windows. It was the station that I needed to pack my dinner from! I was on a super-fast train with limited stops that did not have on-board catering services. So this was the station where everybody purchased their dinner, as the next station would come only past midnight. I rushed towards the door, dodging people on the aisle way. My thoughts raced; “I must‘ve overslept! Everybody is finishing dinner already! I hope I can find my meals before the train starts moving!”
Just before I could reach the door, the train started to move. Dejectedly, I watched the plaform pass me by. Unsure of what to do, I walked back and slumped down in my seat. An old woman who had greeted me with a smile when I boarded the train in the evening struck up a conversation.
“Did you get your dinner, beta?”, she asked with concern.
“No aunty, I overslept and didn't realize when the station came and went.”
“Oh! Just wait.” Saying this, she bent down and pulled a bag from under her seat, opened it up, and brought out a round steel dabba (tiffin).
Anticipating what was about to happen, I started: “It’s okay aunty! I am not that hungry. I have biscuits, I will be fine, don’t worry”.
In a stern Punjabi accent, she lovingly scolded me, “I will not let you sleep hungry. Would your mother let you sleep hungry? Don’t argue with me, these are extra parathas. I already had my dinner, and I will not let you leave until you finish this paratha here and now.” I smiled and obliged her command.
I remember this incident with a lot of reverence. I was very hungry and I did not actually have biscuits. But, that was never the point. Her genuine love towards a stranger, her gentle way of scolding me, her offering of food with so much kindness, and the taste of home-cooked food. Despite being on a moving train, I felt at home.
On train journeys with strangers abound, sharing food and warm conversations is what brings familiarity. It not only fills one’s stomach but their whole being with kindness and love. This memory often reminds me of the train journeys I took as a child with my family. Back then, the routes were longer and used to take more than 2 days to reach my native place. All meals for the whole journey were prepared and packed from home. All cutleries, including a big flask full of boiled water with steel glasses, were part of our luggage.
Buying food from outside wasn't a culture amongst Indian travelers then, but sharing meals definitely was! It always led to smiles, conversations, and new friendships. A kid calling us out to share his snacks or toffees, or an aunty calling us to share something special she got from home; were common occurrences. People entered the train as separate families but exited as one big family with everybody seeing others off at their destination and waving goodbyes from the train’s windows. I believe these formative years of train rides are what made me fall in love with them.
Things have changed a lot since then. Meals on trains might no longer be only home-cooked food. With catering services on most of the trains and station platforms filled with hotels and vendors, options are plenty. But even with all the modern facilities, Indian railways still have a way of carrying nostalgia in their functioning.
One that stands out most for me is the on-board caterers carrying a big steel jar full of sweet milk tea and calling out “Chai Chai”. This is still the first thing you hear in the mornings on any train journey in India. Of course, now there is coffee, cappuccino, and even soups before meals! But, once you are on a long-distance train taking you through various states of India, it is imperative to be introduced to the specialties of each region.
As the train enters southern India, you are greeted with medu vada and sambhar. Kerala offers her scrumptious pazham pori (fried bananas). In Karnataka, these are replaced by bondas (deep-fried potatoes, sweet version). Enter Maharashtra and you are introduced to vada pav (deep-fried potatoes with bun). If you are heading to West Bengal, the constant call of mishti dhoi (sweet curd) will grab your attention. So, the railways introduce you to the signature dishes of a region that are staple, cheap, and enjoyed by people from all walks of life. It is like a little crash course in the local food culture of the state!
Food has a way of bringing people closer. There is no better place to experience this, than on trains; where people from various parts of the country belonging to different cultures and traditions travel together. A conversation may be struck simply by the smell of home-cooked food, sharing a snack, or buying tea for fellow passengers. I might never meet the old woman who shared her meal with me again, nor might I hear the same chaiwallah call out in his sing-songy voice. But, no matter what, the memories shared over meals, and the time spent on wheels will always make such journeys memorable.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Sumana. She is a 37-year-old pursuing an M.A. in Psychology from IGNOU. Nature has been her solace and writing, her soul. These are two gateways through which she understands herself and the world around her.
Image credits: Sumana.