It’s that time again. The heavy-duty suitcases have descended from their perch in the attic. We keep filling their bellies with stuff from our daily shopping sprees. Lists are being made, items added and struck out, and the excitement in the house is palpable. We’re preparing for a trip that my friend, very rightly, calls a pilgrimage. It’s our biennial trip to India. We’re going home.
They say it’s all about the journey, not the destination. But thinking about undertaking a 19-hour journey with a toddler strapped in that tiny box which is the economy class, makes my hands tremble in trepidation. I’m certainly not a pioneer in traveling solo with a toddler. Many women before me have done it. They might have pulled their hair out, they might have been reduced to tears, but they made it.
Just like my mom did. I see her in my mind’s eye, her forehead lined with worry and anxious eyes scanning reservation boards and platform allocations. 700 miles by train during the peak of Indian summer with two little kids was no joke. And I’m talking about India in the early 1980s. She was on her own. She must have been a few years younger than I am now. Visiting her father every summer was her pilgrimage and nothing would stop her, even if that meant changing trains, from broad gauge to meter gauge tracks in the wee hours of the morning.
I loved trains as a kid. That love hasn’t diminished even a tiny bit in all these years. I remember the gush of cool air on my face and the smoky smell of burning charcoal as the train shunted off. The platform slid out of sight giving way to open rail yards strewn with gigantic metal beams. The city made a brief appearance before melting into acres of green farmland interspersed with little, one-horse towns from where kids would wave to us as the train sped past them. Despite my mother’s warnings, I loved putting my hand out of the parallel bars of the window and feel the wind pushing against my palm.
I never looked forward to changing trains, though. Meter gauge train compartments were smaller and crowded. We almost always had ticket-less travelers occupying our seats. My little eyes brimmed with admiration for my mom when she calmly woke them up and showed them our tickets. She sometimes had to call the ticket collector to get the stubborn ones to vacate our seats.
She particularly remembers one summer when she raced down the steps to Platform #3 at Arsikere Junction. Her sleepy eyes tracked the coolie’s red turban as he rushed forward with three suitcases balanced like a tower on his head. Her cotton saree was pulled up to her ankles to help her run without tripping. A brown purse containing a good amount of cash was securely tucked under her arm. My sister’s hand was in hers and she held me, then a 6-month old baby, in the other arm as she tried to keep pace with the coolie.
A delayed connecting train meant that she only had a few minutes to change platforms and board the next one. She was halfway there when the train groaned and started chugging away from the platform. Panic gripped her like a tight corset. “Stop the train!” She yelled. “Somebody pull the chain!”
A young man sprinted from behind her, also making a mad dash for the departing train. He turned around to face her. “You have to let me hold the baby. You’ll not make it to the train otherwise.” But giving her baby to a stranger just so she wouldn’t miss a train? How could she?
“Madam, you have to trust me.” There must have been something reassuring about his voice. She handed the baby to him and immediately regretted it. But there wasn’t time to think.
He sped ahead with the baby and jumped on to the train. She ran behind him as fast as she could with my sister now in her arms. The train was slowly picking up speed. “Somebody stop the train!” she cried again. She had handed her baby to a complete stranger who was on the moving train! What if she never saw her baby again?
Thoughts raced around in her head at breakneck speed. She was still running when she realized that the train was decelerating. When it ground to a halt, she saw the young man standing at the door with her baby. “Quick, hop in. I pulled the chain.” She almost cried when he handed her baby back to her. I guess sometimes in life, you just have to put some blind faith in strangers. I’ve heard this story a million times before, but it always gives me goosebumps. What would I have done, had I been in her place?
As the date of my trip draws near, I keep telling myself that if my mom could brave Indian Railways with two kids in the 80s, I can certainly make that 19-hour plane journey. I’ve traveled this route before (without kids, though). If I keep the Ipad loaded with Peppa Pig and some treats from the Dollar Store, how hard could it be? I just need to keep calm and channel my mother. It’s going to be okay.