The year was 1999.
I was a restless 5-year-old with no idea about what a train was. From what I was told, it could be alternatively referred to as Chhuk chhuk gaadi.
Like most Indian families, my parents had planned a summer trip. We were headed to Jaisalmer for the holidays. It was the era preceding the age of internet and my father had to queue up to get tickets which he protected like a piece of his own heart.
The day was here and I could not contain my excitement to travel on a train for the first time. I spent an entire night asking my parents all about it but now that I think of it, their words couldn't possibly capture the experience that it was going to be.
It started right from the moment we arrived at the railway station. As we stepped into the station, I felt an excitement tinged with chaos. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere with the embarrassing amount of luggage they were carrying. And well, we were also one of those people.
After we reached the platform, I remember begging my mother for a packet of chips from one of the stalls. However, she was more interested in a fashion magazine she had picked from the book stall. There were vendors selling chai, a cup of which my dad bought for himself and mom. The lady announced that our train would arrive shortly and the noise from the horn only added to my excitement.
A couple of minutes later, the train arrived. Getting on it was one hell of a task for my parents, more than me. The luggage with two kids and a whole lot of people-pushing was no less than a Roadies task. Nevertheless, they emerged as winners! We had completed the task of managing the luggage while looking up to figure out our seat numbers. Once we were seated, my dad stepped out to get some goodies.
When I looked out to see him buying the chips I wanted, I realized the train is moving. First, I was quite disappointed that trains move slowly but my mom told me they get faster. Now, that new piece of information gave me a little heart attack because it meant we would leave dad behind! Pushing a couple of people aside, I saw him emerge from the crowd. He handed me the junk food I had been craving for. My daddy was the best, after all.
I gave up my restlessness once the journey started. The view outside was quite intriguing. I stared outside the window, wondering how the trees managed to move along with us. By the time I turned to ask my mom about it, she had already taken out the paranthas. Turns out, all the mothers in the coach had decided it was lunch time. The whole coach was flooded with fresh food aroma. As the smell of sambhar mixed up with the smell of aloo parantha, my tummy did a somersault in demand of some South Indian food.
And like she had heard my little monologue, the girl eating idli sambhar offered me some. As our mothers exchanged smiles, a few friendships were forged.
The girl's mother gave me a colouring sheet and some crayons while she went through my mom's fashion magazine in exchange of her food recipe book while the men of the family got busy with a detailed discussion about an Indo-Pak match.
With all the chatter, laughter and fun we were having, afternoon turned into night and it was time for us to sleep. Now, before Kasol and Triund came into the picture, a quintessential Indian child's idea was largely concerned with reaching the top berth in the train.
And so my ascent started and helped mostly by my daddy, I reached the top berth to sleep. I wasn't quite as sleepy and for the longest time, I just kept looking down. For once, I was on top of the world. College students were playing antakshri, uncles were playing board games, my father was still talking to my new friend's dad and the excited kid in me saw it all, before my eyes shut down.
Photo: Steve McCurry
By the moment I woke up, the other family was already gone. I didn't even get a chance to ask my friend which school she was in. But her mom left toffees for me! My folks were getting ready to get off too. Dad helped me get down from the berth and put on my shoes.
I was dirty, tired but still as excited as when I was when the journey began.
My first train journey lived up to all the hype my parents had built around it. The compartment was my playground, the passengers became my friends, we pretended the tunnel was a giant eating us, mom's request to keep the hand away from the window became a warning and the TTE uncle's stern look turned friendly. A lot changed during that journey and I came out a different person.
I wonder how many young children have looked at the trains with glimmering eyes, receiving a million memories of family vacations, school trips and college plans from the majestic Indian Railways.