A recent relatively short train journey was an unexpected eye opener. When we were young, travel meant long train journeys. This was a much-planned programme, and one of the highlights of a vacation whether it was the annual summer holiday at the family home, or a Diwali get-together at the home of a close relative.
It was a while since I had travelled by train. I was looking forward to re-experiencing the small things that had characterised those train journeys. One of these was the sampling of ‘speciality snacks’ of different stations. Almost every station traditionally had something sizzling—being deep fried in large cauldrons on the platform, and wrapped steaming hot in old newspaper or banana leaves, depending on the region. Between stations there was a constant stream of hawkers calling out their special wares—from masala peanuts to the fruit of the season to the ubiquitous “chai garam.” Another ritual while starting a journey was the buying of ‘filmy’ magazines and comics from the cluttered AH Wheeler stall—a treat that marked the mood of a textbook-free month.
Buoyed by these memories I embarked on my journey. The first disappointment was to not find a single newspaper vendor around. There was no AH Wheeler stall on our platform, and the one on the platform across was shut even though it was not so early in the morning. So no “time pass” magazines or newspapers. Disappointment two was the food scene. No sizzling pans and oily bhajiyas and puri bhaji. Every station had the same looking stalls with their array of packets of chips, chips, and chips and similar packaged snacks in the standard multiple ‘international’ flavours—ranging from schezwan to barbeque to French onion! Oh yes, they all had a small pile of cold stale bread pakodas and vada pao that no one seemed to want. What a homogenization of the rich, savoury and distinctive flavour of railway platform culture, and a sterile tribute to an age of rip, crunch, munch and throw-away culture.
In the train itself the story repeated itself. I think I learned a great deal of geography simply by looking the passing landscape, with my father pointing out to the different crops that were growing in the fields, the changing appearances of the people and the houses, flashes of birds, animals or trees as the train rushed by. This was supplemented by a railway timetable that listed the names of the stations en route, and comparing the arrival and departure time of our train with what was scheduled as per the time table. Even the names of different stations had their own stories and histories. Till today, I can travel for days by road or rail happily gazing out of the window.
This time it was a bizarre sight to see every person in the compartment—old and young—glued to the small screens of mobile phones as the wonderful 70mm mega screen scenery flew by unnoticed. Children whined and complained of being “bored” when they tired of whatever it was they were watching on their phone, and were presented with yet another packet of chips or frooti drink; not one parent looked up to point to the window and say, “why don’t you look out?” I watched helpless and sad…What a sad waste of opportunities.
Perhaps the ultimate blow came when some of the passengers ordered food online, which was delivered at the notified station. One young woman stopped watching her third movie on her phone only long enough to alight at the next station to pick up her order of Domino’s pizza!