Like most people of my generation train travel occupies a special place in my heart, especially the food. From the homemade poori-aloo-pickle packed neatly in steel tiffin boxes, to pantry made not-so-hot meals served in foil casings, to the piping hot samosas and cutlets that arrived fresh at every station – it was the food that made the sleeper class, cross-country train rides of the my childhood special.
My reason for travelling from Tata to Calcutta in a non-ac coach this morning is the same: food.
I was introduced to this route, and its food, on a similar morning fifteen years ago as a new bride. Tired and famished from the wedding mayhem, I had gorged on the food all throughout the 4-hr journey, while my new husband had indulgently looked at me. Fifteen years later, the husband may longer be indulgent, but I am still famished.
The most interesting thing about this train is that in a short span of 4-hrs, it crosses two states and some important stations. Each one of them – the state and the stations – has its own specialty. Take Ghatshila for example, known for its rasmalai and milk cake from a shack close to the station. Legend has it that the train used to make a brief stop in front of the shop only so that the passengers could run and get their sweets. Then there is Kharagpur. Famous for nurturing intellectuals at IIT, and nourishing the travelers like us with the most delectable luchis and aloo sabzi. The tiny luchis, served in portions of four, are fluffy and soft, and the potatoes spicy. The highlight of the dish however is the single piece of dum-aloo perched on top of the stack of luchis. (No, you cannot bribe the seller to give you more than one of those.)
Apart from Rasmalai and Luchi-aloo, there is also Vegetable and Potato Chop, Jhaal Muri and Ghugni, Samosa and Coconut Water, and the Railway special breakfast of Bread, Butter, Omelette and Bread, Butter, Chicken Cutlet on offer. In short, being on this train is like being in a picnic on wheels.
I am lost in thoughts of food, wondering how long would I have to wait before the first installment of food arrives, when I hear a familiar call. It is the nasal sound of the chop-seller, who carries hundreds of perfectly fried veg-chops in his wicker basket wrapped in a red cloth. The crispy vegetable chops, which are a personal favourite, are served piping hot on a dried leaf accompanied with cucumber and onion salad, green chili, and a drizzle of black salt. No sooner than I dig into the first one (I have three), do I see the hitherto elusive pantry guy. Dressed in grey uniform with a strip of paper and a pen in hand, he is taking orders for breakfast. Almost simultaneously, the jhalmuri & the ghugni sellers also get on to the coach. As more and more vendors start streaming into the coach, I know my long awaited picnic has finally begun.