Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Rough Travel in India during the sixties : Kaisar Ahmad

Family vacations in the '60s had to be constructed from a menu of choices and trade-offs. We had the rich historical and scenic tapestry of India around us and there were friends and relatives dotted all over the country who could be counted upon for hospitality. But in a country of India's size travel costs were a constraint. Air travel was expensive, particularly relative to the take home pays of those days. Car travel was one option that allowed, say, a group of friends in two cars to travel with children. Although the road system did not include modern highways, traffic was light away from the major urban centers. In the early '60s the countryside had not yet fallen prey to the lawlessness of later years. Within a four hundred mile radius of Calcutta there were a number of destinations offering attractions that included forest sanctuaries, seaside locations, the spectacular Sunderbans Delta region and lonely dams nestled in basins of picturesque hills. For accommodation, there were networks of bungalows belonging to various Government departments and it was not difficult to locate one within easy reach of these attractions. The Public Works Department, the Forestry Services, The State Electricity Boards, the Fisheries Department and other Government agencies maintained these Bungalows in remote areas for visiting officers on their rounds of routine inspection or project management. They spanned a wide variety of architectural styles. Some had large rooms, spacious grounds and were hard to reach. Others were spare, utilitarian and near or on the main roads. Some were decrepit and might have been built for an earlier generation of British Government officials doing their rounds on horseback while others (like those of the Electricty Boards) were of a more recent vintage.

The bungalows were available to the general public at inexpensive rates when not being used by the officials concerned. They were staffed with cooks and servants skilled at turning out meals at short notice. Recently I came across a nostalgia cook book published by the Taj Group of hotels which includes a section on bungalow cooking. It mentions the readiness of the cooks to respond rapidly as soon as they saw visitors approaching in the evening. A chicken would be gathered up from the many scurrying around in the compound and a delicious curry would be available as soon as the guests asked for it. In the book the recipe for taking a chicken from coop to table in a hurry is appropriately titled "Sudden Death". So although the food was basic, prepared as it was with the freshest of country ingredients and shared under starlight in the company of friends, the simple fare was an unparalleled treat after a long day's drive.

There was always the possibility, however, of an unannounced visit by Government officials which meant that we would have to hurriedly vacate - those were the rules. It was part of the game plan to carry some basic rations in the car, particularly for the children, in case we had to suddenly pack up and drive off in search of another resting place, leaving behind the aroma of dinner still being cooked. With no cell phones or other easy communications available, detailed Ordnance Survey maps were essential to guide us to the next available lodging, and days of research and contingency planning took place before each trip.

Then there was the possibility of flat tyres or more serious car trouble. If the trip was to some particularly remote location, it was advisable to travel in a minimum of two cars and carry some basic spare parts such as fan belts, spark plugs and radiator hoses. Those excursions provided a sense of adventure and was an invaluable way for us and our children to retain a sense of connection between the urban commercialised world that was our daily life and the rural expanse that even today represents the essential India.

For travel over longer distances, the Indian Railways offered another exotic option. One of the largest and busiest railway systems in the world, the Railways made it possible to reach the remotest corners of India by train, and quite inexpensively, unless one insisted on airconditioned private compartments.

To take full advantage of the scope of the railways though, required planning as careful as the car trips to remote areas. Although by the '60s all of India's railways had been united under the management of one Government Ministry, this was not always so and at the time of Independence there were forty-two different railway systems in the country. Most were run by private companies, others were operated by the many independent kingdoms ruled by Maharajahs. There were separate railways built to connect coal mines and iron ore sites to the industrial centres, others to facilitate military transport, some just for the hilly tea growing regions. Over a century or more, a system of different junctions and hubs were created to connect these diverse networks. With the exception of trunk routes between the four major cities of India, travel across the country often required frequent changes between various types of trains on rail tracks of different gauges or widths.

There was a publication called the Railway Bradshaw which was a vast encyclopaedia of schedules, stations and their various catering and accommodation facilities. After long planning exercises which sometimes took as long as the trips themselves, we would use the trains as portable hotels. A typical overnight journey would terminate at stations chosen in advance for their amenities and accesibility to tourist sites. Luggage and families would be unloaded and we would take advantage of the Retiring Rooms which provided bathroom and storage facilities. A rest and change would be followed by renting a car and driver for a tour of a temple complex or some other attraction which had brought us there. We would return to the station and depending upon our next train could either eat at the station or, if the train had a dining car, wait till we boarded. Travelling with small children of course meant carrying some basic sustenance for them - cookies, powdered milk, baby food. The larger train stations provided overnight accommodation in their retiring rooms, and sometimes we would take advantage of them if the site required more than one day's stay.

Some of those train journeys would span a day or more. Our fellow passengers in the crowded cheaper compartments would be diverse, and curious about us. Long conversations and exchanges of family lore would take place with farmers and traders. It was of no use trying to protect our privacy - the Indian travelling companion can be very persistent. Besides, it was easier to share with these strangers the circumstances in our life which we would keep bottled up in conversations with our fellow members in the private clubs of Calcutta. As the day wore on and conversation waned, we would just look out of the windows and see the panorama of the country's life pass by. Expanses of flooded paddy fields with the green shoots poking their heads above water, forests and mountains, deserts and crowds, dusty villages and ancient ruins, ugly new industrial townships - it seemed there was not enough film in the world to capture it all. It was a wise man who said that journeys are more interesting than arrivals.

If the train did not have a dining car, the Indian Railway system provided for food orders to be telegraphed ahead to another station which had catering facilities. These meals were adventures in themselves, because one never knew what regional version of a requested dish we would be faced with.

Going to the internet to compare my memories of the Indian Railways with current facts, I found a site that actualy lists railway stations and against each station name specifies a regional specialty food item available there.

For example, at Guntakal station the list invites us to try "Mango Jelly". Mysore justly lays claim to "Dosa" and Hyderabad is coupled with its nationally famous "Chicken Biryani". Perhaps less invitingly, Surendranagar apparently takes pride in serving "Tea made with Camel's milk".

There are stations mentioned on that list that I have never visited and dishes that I have never eaten. The list represents a whole magical itinerary of discovery, a gastronomic adventure that I must surely try and experience before my digestive processes are disabled by age.


Mridula said...

A very interesting account of travel when I was not even born! So did you ever face the arrival of the official and had to vacate the government guest house?

Kaisar Ahmad said...

Yes, Mridula indeed ! Fortunately there was always a dhaba somewhere to provide food and another bubgalow an hour or two away.

If you do check out the railway website I mentioned, it would be interesting to learn your views on the food oferings.

ishani said...

One such Forest Bunglow in what is now the state of Jharkhand, provided the spectacular backdrop for Ray's film Aranyer Din Ratri!

ishani said...
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