Just the other day when one of my friends was discussing her holiday plans, she started this conversation about how she would be doing a hotel booking at a hill station during her son’s summer vacation. The mere mention of summer vacations brought back school memories when summer vacations were the ultimate holiday experience that we had in the whole year.
Sweltering classrooms, exam tension in the air, vacation excitement; the first week of April used to be filled with all of these mixed emotions. Every passing day taking us away from the early morning/late night revisions and closer to happy vacation days ahead.
The last exam paper used to be the toughest to concentrate on. We knew at the back of our minds that at home, Mummy would be packing our bags for the long vacation at Delhi. My brother admitted to leaving a few of the last questions unanswered to reach home early, for which he received his dues from Mummy. It used to be a moment of exhilaration returning home to have a quick lunch and leave for the railway station to board the Jhelum express.
As soon as we boarded the train, the first of the 2 eternal fights ensued, the fight for the most sought after window seat! I used to win this one comfortably as there were always some goodies that Mummy had, to pacify my foodie brother. The window seat has somehow been very special to me be it in the BEST buses or local trains. I always felt more comfortable just looking out of the window and soaking in the views rather than striking a conversation with people traveling with me. To be truthful, it is much easier for me. The rhythmic movement of the train, I feel, is a healer in some way and when it is coupled with silence and a window seat to look out at the world go by, it creates a strange sense of equilibrium.
During the journey the train used to zip across picturesque locations like large farmlands, huge mountains and riversides. The sound that the fast moving train used to make when going over long, covered bridges used to be a little scary. Every time we crossed the Chambhal ghat we expectantly looked out for a GabbarSingh like daaku riding on his horse. And then there were the occasional tunnels which caused a temporary blackout and an inevitable scream from my brother.
The meals in the train were special. Mummy used to pack her famous ajvain ki pooriyaan and aloo ki sabji complete with aam ka achaar, and some sweets for later, which we relished during the travel. It was always something else having a meal in the train, spreading a newspaper on the seat, neatly placing the food tiffins on it, paper plates, plastic spoons et al. And when one family starting arranging their spread, uncannily it used to be the global lunch time, with other families too reaching out for their lunch boxes. So it used to be like this big, moving lunch!
The other attraction was the vendor who walked through the compartments with a huge steel bucket filled with chilled bottles of Pepsi, Coke and Fanta, a welcome treat in the hot afternoons. Then there were the vendors at each of the stations who used to walk around with their characteristic shouts for selling their wares. Each station had something special or famous, so to speak, to offer the travelers. The large geographic stretch saw the kanda bhaji, vada pav snacks in Maharashtra transforming to the moong daal pakodas and aloo tikkis moving up north, all of them equally delicious. Daund station had the famous omlette-pav, Itarsi and Jhansi had the tea in the earthen cups, Agra had the pethas, Mathura had the milk barfis and Faridabad…well Faridabad had the best to offer. It meant we were minutes away from our destination, Delhi!
On reaching Faridabad, the other fight began as to which side the Delhi station would come on. By then, most of the times, the people of the compartment would be like an extended family and my brother and I used to be on opposite side windows with our heads glued to the window bars to catch a glimpse of the approaching station. A jubilant cry - ‘This side!’- would cause a momentary feeling of defeat in the other, which was soon forgotten, as the other, more interesting, game began. There were always, not one, but at least 3 people out there at the station to receive us and it was an unforgettable competition to spot them first in the crowd from the moving train.
I suddenly came back to today from this distant memory. So much had changed in all these years. The engaging train journey took almost 29 hours which was now reduced to a 2 hour flight. The poori-aloo ki sabji was replaced with club-sandwiches and cappuccinos on the flight. More so the yearly Delhi trips were replaced with resort bookings. Not that I am complaining, but for a moment I couldn’t help but compare the stark contrast of the holiday season that I had experienced and that my daughter would soon experience.