It’s summer. This is when so many of us use the holiday season to criss-cross the country back to visiting our favorite (and not-so-favorite) relatives. The oft-repeated saying at the airline terminals across the country nowadays is that the queues have started resembling ‘railway stations’. For those of us of an earlier vintage, we know exactly what that means. Growing up distinctly middle class in a Socialist era with one airline meant that I took my first flight at the age of 10. By that age, I had already journeyed thousands of kilometers across the length and breadth of the country carried by the railways. There was the annual summer 40-hour dash across Central India from Pune to West Bengal, a whole tour of Southern India undertaken mostly by train and a few train rides on the magically named Deccan Queen and the ordinarily named Deccan Express. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than sticking my face against the window grill trying to catch sight of the locomotive, as the snaking train approached a bridge over a mighty river. And there is no shortage of mighty rivers in the country.
The mightiest river in the country is undoubtedly the Ganga. By the time, it reaches the town of Allahabad, it is a swollen body of water, prayer and myth. The journey to West Bengal was always undertaken on the ‘Howrah Mail (via Allahabad)’. The train number was never important. Allahabad was an extremely important pit stop on the second night. As the train thundered over the iron bridge, you could hear tiny metallic sounds as people threw coins from the train windows as an offering to the river, also a goddess. For me, as a young, excited, train-loving kid, it was also the time to look forward to dinner. It would be hunger, the experience of eating something other than home-cooked food, and it could be that the taste of chicken curry and rice served at Allahabad railway station stands out in memory: An annual food experience from 30 years ago still imprinted in memory.
A Table for Three food experience on the railways takes me back to 1996, when Ani, Priya and I were at the National Youth Festival in Ranchi representing Mumbai University. The journey back from Ranchi was a long two-night affair that involved a lengthy wait in Rourkela. Little did we know that Rourkela railway station was a treasure trove of well-cooked delicious food representing the intersection of eastern, central and southern influences. Fluffy white idlis, thin dosas cooked to perfection, masala omelettes stuffed between good old white bread toasted on a pan, we didn’t miss out on any of it. The three of us confirmed much later in life that our love for all things edible was actually an obsession. But that evening was an early marker. We had double helpings of almost everything, especially the masala omelette and the puri aloo, eaten to the accompaniment of countless trains arriving and departing.
If there was ever a national dish of the Railway platforms of India, it has to be puri aloo. From the brown atta (wheat flour) puris of the west to the white maida (refined flour) puris in the east, from the aloo with thin curry in the north to the dry mashed and lightly spiced potatoes in the south, there is no major station in India that will not have a puri-aloo stall. The puri is fried in front of you, the aloo is piping hot. Depending on your location in the country of estimated 7000 to 8000 railways stations, the dish is served to you wrapped in a newspaper, on a paper plate, a katori made of sturdy broad saal leaves or even in a small basket.
A particularly mad journey comes to mind. All 44 hours and almost 2000 km of it, from Ahmedabad to Calcutta. A friend of mine and I decided that the only thing we would eat would be puri aloo.
Starting with the typically Gujarati version in Surat, we ate puri aloo every four hours or so. We tried some in dusty Akola and had several rounds of them in Nagpur early morning. It was the thing to do. Since this epic trip followed after the trio had sampled the delights of Rourkela, I managed to rally the troops for another round at said station. It’s a pity Raipur was passed in the dead of the night. I would have loved to know what the Raipur puri aloo tastes like. But that journey was not enough. Having caught up with friends and family in West Bengal, I decided to complete a triangle on the map of the country by heading back from Calcutta to Ahmedabad via Delhi.
It was bitterly cold in the last week of December, and I was travelling sleeper class to Delhi on board the Poorva Express, exposed to the freezing winds that blow across the plains at that time of the year. The chaiwallahs were doing brisk business as everyone tried to keep warm. As evening fell, the train arrived at Mughalsarai, a very large railway junction. Places like Mughalsarai, Itarsi, Guntakal are imprinted in our minds as railway towns. They are important junctions where millions of us would change trains. That evening in Mughalsarai, a thick fog hung in the air. Winter was all around us. We could barely see the indicators on the platform and every walking figure seemed like a ghostly figure appearing out of nowhere. Loud station announcements notswithstanding, the only sounds one could hear were locomotive whistles and the collective chattering of the teeth of a thousand travellers.
On that bleak winter evening, the other lights visible were the feeble glows of the fires of the food stalls on the platforms. The nearest one to my compartment was selling…puri aloo. And did it taste like heaven! The round bloated puris were served hot, accompanied by a slightly thinner curry with simple spices and the proverbial floating green chilly. It was insurance against the cold, and the taste was one that I remember to this day. If that was not enough, he also had a steaming bowl full of hot gulab jamuns to provide the perfect dessert. That meal pretty much put a smile on my face till we reached New Delhi the next day.
For sheer speed of dispensing with delicious food items in the shortest possible time, the gold medal must go to the vada pav sellers of Karjat. The station is an important stop on the Central and Southern-bound lines from Mumbai linking to Pune, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. It is a stop where the train prepares for the steep climb up the mountains into the Deccan plateau. Locomotives used to be, and probably still are, attached to the rear end of every train to push them up the incline. It is also the station where every traveller helps himself to the famous Divadkar batata wada, a coated deep fried dumpling of spiced potatoes. And while the snack is ubiquitous across Maharashtra, the special taste of a Divadkar vada pav had travellers jumping out of their trains in the Eighties to bring back a few hot and spicy ones wrapped in newspapers with the special chilli and garlic powder that kicks up the spice level. I remember my father ensuring a supply for some for us while I would be nervous that train would move without him having boarded the train. From a humble single stall in the Eighties, to now employing an army of sellers on every platform of the station, Divadkars has come a long way. Nowadays, they board the train at the station, serve you, collect the cash from you and hop off in less than 5 minutes, McDonald’s efficiency done Indian Railways style.
The stations of India are clearly trying to keep up with the times and now you have “food courts” and “fast food counters” at various stations. Yes, it’s modern and clean and all that, but for me the magic of the railways lies in the platform food, the hawkers on the train who can rustle up amazing snacks in a minimal space. One of the most remarkable specimens of creating a snack from scratch is the “jhal muri” seller on the trains of eastern India. Jhal muri is puffed rice, garnished with chopped onions, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, coriander and a concoction of spices that is every hawker’s closely guarded secret. All these are mixed with pungent mustard oil. It is spicy, your two choices are do you want your taste buds to experience a zing or have them totally singed. A thin slice of coconut goes on top to cut out the spice. It is wholly inadequate in that purpose. What is remarkable is how this whole mix is prepared in front of your eyes in the narrow corridor between the rows of berths or seats in your train. A homegrown contraption is hung from the jhal muri seller’s neck. A large old-fashioned biscuit tin forms the base and is filled with the puffed rice. The top of the tin is encircled by smaller containers, which carry all the other ingredients and sometimes the little paper bags in which the jhal muri is served to you. This whole combination of 1 large tin + 10 small containers is welded together and then tied to a towel which the seller hangs around his neck. The contraption is a marvel of home grown engineering, the taste is simply a marvel. As you battle the sensations on your tongue, you stare out the window and watch the green Bengal countryside. Little paddy fields, rivers, thatched huts and palm trees which sway with the wind. A magical feast for the eyes to go with your jhal muri.
That is the magic of the railways. All that you eat, all that you share, is accompanied by beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside as it rushes past your window or an equally dramatic scene of teeming humanity and rushing trains at a major junction. You could be witnessing a golden sunset at a small station, the fading lights turning the dark brown mountains in the distance to black, the last rays of sunlight reflecting off rails that carry the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians every day. The perfect completion to that scene would be a chai in an earthen cup and some crisp kachoris to go with that. But that would entirely depend on the location of this small station. The kachori could be replaced by a wada pav, an aloo bonda, jhal muri, a samosa, fried banana chips, idlis, boiled eggs, fried bhajias, or bread omelette. What would not change is the near certainty, that if you so desired, you would find puri aloo to accompany that view.