I grew up in Pune, India before moving to the United States in my mid-twenties. My extended maternal family lives in Mumbai which is about 170 kms away (~106 miles) and many school holidays I took the train to Mumbai. The days that passed were a blur of the the chugging Deccan Queen passing through fog clad hill-stations of Lonavala and Khandala and taking me to the land of beach and sand castles, playing cards, frolicking fun with cousins, and welcoming extended families. I have also traveled to other destinations in India by train and trains have always held a special place in my heart. Recently C & I planned a culinary adventure in Mumbai and I jumped at the opportunity to complete this trip by train. We booked a ticket in general (~economy) class since that is where the vendors are; vendors selling varied wares are a highlight of Indian train journeys. My preferred seat is the window seat but since we booked tickets at short notice we got aisle seats on the journey from Pune.
I have great memories associated with the window seat of Indian railways. The general class is not air-conditioned; the windows are mostly open unless it’s raining. As a child I was so short and scrawny that I could sit on the window ledge and fit within the window frame. Thus I sat and read comics. As I grew bigger I squeezed myself close to the window and read or stared at the trees and villages passing by. I always had muddy elbows from putting them up on the rusty, dusty, seldom washed window ledge. My forehead and face would be smeared from pressing up against the window bars. I loved it when the wind blew through my hair, entangling and knotting my curls. I looked like a hooligan at the end of the journey and my mother dunked me in water as soon as we reached our destination.
C & I planned to take the Deccan Queen at 7 am to Mumbai; it was an ambitious plan and we were able to board it by running all the way from parking lot to station platform. We had hardly seated when the horn blew and the train started chugging along. We grinned at each other; it was exhilarating to be among the blue cushioned, musty ‘metallic’ smelling compartment. The train was full of office-goers as it was rush hour on a weekday. The train soon pulled out of Pune and I peered around C and the man next to the window to look at malls, factories and then villages passing by.
I craned my neck for vendors as people around me bought salted peanuts, oranges, idlis (type of South Indian savory rice cake), tea, coffee, cold-drinks and the ubiquitous wada-pav (popular fast-food in the state of Maharashtra, India made from fried potato filling sandwiched between bread rolls) among other things. The railway pantry staff coming to take breakfast orders caused a fresh wave of nostalgia. I remember happily devouring omelets or vegetarian cutlets or cheese sandwich or sabudana wada (deep-fried snack made from tapioca sago) prepared by Indian railways for breakfast. The hot food came wrapped in aluminum foil and was the highlight of my train journeys. I was on the verge of ordering but C reminded me (to put it mildly) of the day ahead and I resisted.
Not everything was as beautiful as I remembered; the trash that people threw out the windows kept annoying me. I noticed just one woman caring enough to walk to the trash cans. Also the seats were just a long bench and too narrow for 3 people to sit comfortably; 2 people sit in the same space in AC class. I had the aisle seat and C was sandwiched between me and the man next to the window, and we all kept bumping into each other. The journey is thankfully short and soon we were excitedly getting off at CST to begin our big gastronomical adventure.
Imagine my delight and C’s consternation on seeing a window next to my seat on the return journey. I relished the opportunity to relive my childhood in the next 4 hours. I peered out of the window and sang with the running trees. I bought and read the comics I loved when I was 10. I ate the famous, piping-hot, crunchy wada-pav at Karjat, a station between Mumbai and Pune. As the train passed through the clouds and waterfalls at Lonavala, I munched on some freshly made chikki (sweet prepared from crushed peanuts and jaggery) and jelly sweets. It was all very crunchy, beautiful, nostalgic and exactly like coming home; I soon yearned to meet my toddler S after 2 fun-filled days.
I most recently traveled by Deccan Queen to Mumbai, India in January 2017