Sunday, May 24, 2009

A train journey loses half its charm

Recent travel to Delhi and back brought home to me the sad changes in Indian train travel. I have always loved trains, as I am sure many people do, and the twice yearly pilgrimage to Kolkata have always been the high points of my year. It was an amazing experience which changed as I grew, of course, but never quite lost its magic.

It was a heady mix of many emotions. There was the “thank god!” of vacations; the anticipation of seeing much loved cousins and friends; looking forward to all the “aador”, the typical Bengali feed-her-till-she-bursts brand of love, from the numerous aunts, uncles, grandparents, great uncles, great aunts, and so on. All in all, a trip to Kolkata was great in and of itself. Add to this the kick of train travel, thirty six hours of it at a time, on average, and holidays were a lot of fun.

Trains were exciting and interesting. Normal rules were relaxed and there was much to see and do. We always preferred to travel “sleeper class” or “second class” as it was still called way back when, because it was a lot more interesting. You met more interesting people, people moreover, who were willing to talk and get to know you, from varied backgrounds. All one did on a train was eat junk, listen to the talk, look out the window, and occasionally…sleep. Staying up pretty much all night to see each tiny station the train stopped at, making lists of when it came into and left them, laughing at the most inane jokes that only me and my brother understood, oh it was a grand, grand time.

These days though, things seem to have changed a huge deal. People are less friendly, almost positively unfriendly actually, I’m older, and all the fun food is GONE!!! That’s right….the biggest mos fun part of the train trip… all that junk food, the jhaal muri, the vadas, the pakoras, the puri bhaji, the chana chaat, the kheera chaat….its all GONE!!!!!!!!!!! Curse that Laloo! Grrrrrrrrrrr. In the good old days, even though most long distance trains had a separate pantry car, the pantry was operated by the railways, and every station had a range of food options in the form of railways catering carts, private vendors, and little basket-round-the-neck sales wallahs from the city or village nearby.

It was fun sampling practically everything that one could find on the stations --- puri bhaji, roti sabji, dosa, bread-omelet – and every little vendor who climbed on board, selling as much as they could between one station and the next – roasted peanuts, jhalmuri, cucumbers, mangoes, chanas, pakoras, nd so much more!! In fact, the choices were so many that most people didn’t order their meals from the pantry and just ate at the stations instead. After all, not everyone wants to eat dinner at 7 pm, which is when the pantry would supply it. They would just wait for a large enough station around 10 pm or so, and buy food from the vendors on the platform.

What’s changed now is that the Indian Railways doesn’t do its own catering anymore. It’s all been privatized, and franchised. So the pantry food has become more expensive and worse in quality and taste, while the platform vendors, both railway and private, have been shut down in a bid to eliminate competition, force passengers to buy from the pantry, and thus increase the profits of the franchisee.

So all the way to Delhi and back, I ate pantry doled out cardboard and ditchwater, and paid horribly inflated prices for half size meals that were really difficult to swallow…in more ways than one. Which is all very fine for the railways and the caterer…..but makes for one damnably boring and irritating train journey for MOI!

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