My husband and I sat down to plan a family holiday recently. We were both a little jaded from the monotony of life and wanted a ‘ break’ . Thanks to the Internet and so many travel portals, it did not take us long to finalise a destination and a package suitable to our budget. It was quick, easy, and like most things in our lives these days, highly sorted.
Planning a holiday or looking forward to one was so exciting as a kid. I was 14 when I took my first flight. All our family holidays till that point involved train journeys. And what fun that used to be.
It would start with appa finding out our examination and holiday schedules months in advance. One weekend he would go to the railway booking centre and get the reservation forms. The next weekend, he would wake up early and head out to the reservation centre, to be the first in line. Amma would safe-keep the tickets.
On the day of the journey, we all had our roles defined. Appa would be the one walking ahead to find the platform on which the train arrived and locate our coach and seats. I had to watch the porter who carried our luggage. My brother had to hold amma’s hand and not let go till we reached our seats; appa had told him that it was his responsibility to take care of amma when father was not around. It was easier to get the seven-year-old to adhere to discipline this way.
Once inside our coach, amma would decide which piece of luggage went where. The bag carrying the carefully and meticulously prepared food for the journey would always be kept on top of the lower berth. It had to be kept straight, lest the curd and rasam spill. She would then begin her bargaining with the porter. My brother and I would use this time to begin fighting for our seats. The window seat was most coveted, if it was a chair car. It was the upper berths in sleeper class. Because my parents would be busy organising the luggage and such, our fights would invariably come to blows and tears. At this point, one parent would intervene and the saga of blows and tears would continue, only this time both my brother and I would be at the receiving end.
All would be forgotten once the journey began. The first pull of the train when it left the platform was most exciting. I would put my nose to the window and watch the train leave the platform and a hoard of emotions behind; the disappointed banana-seller, the tired luggage porter, the families bidding goodbye to their loved ones, the nonchalant beggar trying to catch a wink in the corner, people waiting eagerly for the next train to arrive, the book hawkers hurriedly re-organising their stack. The platform was its own little city.
Within minutes, we would eagerly await the pantry boys. Amma would refuse to give us food till it was actually time for lunch or dinner. Though we never finished eating anything we bought, we always harassed appa to buy us everything — tea, soup, vada, upma, chips, you name it. He preferred to buy us what we asked than go through the embarrassment of screaming kids. Once we got bored of the food, we would harass him for stories. Sometimes we would play board games. If my parents were lucky, we would read books or colour something and stay quiet. There would also be the family conversations. It always started on a humorous note and ended on a serious one, like how my brother and I should focus on studies.
It would then be time for dinner. Newspaper sheets would be spread on the seat. Disposable plates, spoons and glasses would come out first. Amma would unpack the food boxes. She would first serve us all and eat what was left. Food would also be offered to co-passengers: her preparations were always conversation-starters.
Post-dinner, we would change into night suits. While most adults would be getting ready to sleep, my brother and I would just be beginning our silly conversations, followed by non-stop, insane giggles, much to amma’s annoyance.
Waking up to bright sunshine and shouting pantry boys was my least favourite thing. Somehow I felt daylight always broke early in the train: 6 a.m. never seemed so bright in my room! I also never understood why people would want to wake up early on a holiday. Amma would be ready with her hair neatly coated with oil and perfectly pleated. Jasmine flowers would always find place on her hair, whether at home or during a journey. Her beautiful and radiant face also meant she had washed her face and powdered it well. My father would be reading the newspaper, much like the other men in the train. My brother, somehow, always blissfully slept through it all. Amma would catch me peeking down from my middle berth and remind me how I’m troubling other passengers by not pulling my berth down. Appa would put my berth down while I would find Amma’s lap to lie down on and complete my sleep.
Oh how many memories I have of such train journeys. Today I board the flight with my husband and son for our holiday. As I put my nose against the window, I see beautifully and perfectly laid-out concrete on the runway. Huge spaces with no sign of human life. I turn around to see my husband sleeping and my son watching an animated movie on the iPad. My fellow-passengers are immersed in the magazines. As the aircraft readies for take-off, I wonder what we have lost to gain time.