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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Chp 816. Journey to School


While I was writing my previous blog update - The Long Train Home about Chennai Mizo Welfare Association (CMWA) sending home a train full of Mizos back to Mizoram, I felt nostalgic about the good old days when we too used to travel by train on that same Kolkata - Chennai railways track.

However, I didn't want to dilute the content of that post with my personal experiences, especially since the CMWA had done such an outstanding and commendable job. And so here is a separate post on some of our "train experiences" with my school seniors :)


I did my schooling at Montfort, Yercaud, Tamil Nadu, from 1993 to '99.

It was a popular destination for Mizo students back then because the institution was run by the same branch of Catholic Brothers who also ran St. Paul's High School in Aizawl, Mizoram. And so, every year, there would be around 7-10 new Mizo students joining at class 11 in Montfort, since St. Paul's didn't have class 11 and 12 yet back then.


It felt good to have quite a sizeable number of Mizo students every year as it took away some of our homesickness and loneliness. However, there were only just a handful of us Mizo students at the lower level classes.

Back then, one of the things I used to dread the most was going back to school after coming home to Mizoram for a brief vacation. It wasn't much of the being at school part or the missing my family part that I hated, what I really hated was the journey between school and home.

Yup, travelling between Tamil Nadu and Mizoram was a harrowing experience, because those days, air travel was out of the question as it was a luxury most of us couldn't afford. Only the uber rich schoolmates and children of politicians used to travel by air back then. Hence, for the rest of us plebeians, we had to endure that long-ass bumpy ride on a passenger train for many days and nights.

Back then, Chennai was still Madras, and Kolkata was still Calcutta. Most of us would catch a train to Madras from Howrah station, Calcutta.

[image source: iamrenew.com]

Ah I can still smell that musty, humid, suffocating odour of Howrah railway station, the moment we stepped out of the cranky old ambassador taxi near the entrance gate.

It was just us students, with no parental supervision. We always travelled in a group, and my school seniors of class 11 & 12 lead the way.

Sometimes we would hire a coolie, and then we would follow that coolie like a mini-train within the congested railway station in one single file, slithering past the sweltering crowd until we found our platform, and then from there it took us a few more minutes to find our coach.

[image source: telegraph.co.uk]

We usually booked our tickets for "Coromandel Express", as it was the fastest train between Calcutta and Madras back then (maybe now too, I don't know).

There were also times when we didn't get tickets for that train, and so we used to take the "Howrah Mail" instead. Now I don't really remember how much faster "Coromandel Express" was compared to "Howrah Mail" or any other trains for that matter, all I remember was that it was the fastest train in that sector.


The best part about traveling in a group with my seniors was that we used to occupy an entire compartment or two by ourselves, and so we could sleep or sit anywhere we wanted. Once we had placed all our luggage beneath the lower berths and on the upper berths, being the youngest, I was always put on guard duty to sit inside our compartment and guard our luggage, while my seniors stepped outside on the platform to buy water bottles, snacks, magazines etc.

And soon, the Loco Pilot, which is what a train driver is known as here in India, blew a whistle and waved a flag, and the train slowly started moving out of Howrah Station. Chug, chug, chug, chug…


Looking back at all that, I can't help but wonder how much confidence we used to have in each other! Because when the train started moving, there were always members of our group missing. But none of us used to get worried or concerned about them, and soon enough, those missing members would turn up, talking about how they managed to jump into one of the coaches at the end of the moving train and then walked all the way to our coach.

I mean, if it was today, we would be frantically trying to call them up, or sending them WhatsApp messages in bold letters, "WHERE THE EFF ARE YOU, THE TRAIN HAS STARTED MOVING!!!" Right? :D Ah those good old, carefree days. :)

Everybody was just expected to be responsible by themselves, nobody was looking out for a particular person to see if he made it to the train or not.

Once the train started moving, there wasn't pretty much anything to do except stare outside the window at the monotonous landscape changing in similar patterns over and over again.


I mean, the Howrah-Chennai route was a pretty boring route; there weren't any mountainous scenery or sea view or romantic bridges or anything like that to pique our interests.

We also didn't take many photos at all, and this pic is apparently the only photo I have of us travelling inside a train from my old photo album collection.


The reason is because, back then it was expensive to own a camera. It wasn't just the cost of the camera but the various expenditures incurred in purchasing new roll-films and developing them and printing copies etc., that made it a luxurious device, whereas today, any Tom, Dick and Harry carries a 16 MP phone camera with +64 GB storage space to click unlimited photos and videos.

One of my favorite pastimes was to stand by the door next to the toilets and feel the speeding air hit my face and body, while gripping the handle tightly so I don't fall out. :P

[image source: telegraph.co.uk]

Other than that, I usually spent my time lying on the upper berth and reading a Sidney Sheldon or Robin Cook novel, as I didn't quite fit in with the conversations of my seniors. I ended up reading a lot of novels on those train journeys because we didn't have mobile phones back then to chat with friends or play games.

In fact, this was the only hand-held "console" we had back then :D


Believe me, it takes a lot of skills and patience to play this game! In fact, guys who had played this game are known to be great husband material because of their ability to understand and bear their wife's naggings and complaints! :P

And then of course we had those "Walkmans" to entertain and quench our musical thirst. Though the name walkman specifically referred to the portable music device manufactured by Sony, pretty much like "Xerox" or "Band-aid", the name "Walkman" became a common noun.


And all walkmans would be incomplete without the accompanying Reynolds pen!


Yup, Gen Z won't understand the meaning of the two combination above :D. Back then, we had to conserve the AA batteries running our walkmans (because they were expensive), and so if we wanted to rewind or fast-forward our cassette to a particular song, we used a Reynolds pen instead, as it fits perfectly inside the cassette reel, and then we would wind it manually, hence saving up on battery life :D

Back then, people would treat you like Royalty if you happened to own a "special" walkman, for example, a walkman with TWO earphone jacks, or one that rewinds or fast-forwards to the next song automatically. Man, those were extremely innovative inventions back then :D

Another favorite pastime was to indulge in playing cards, and since we had the entire compartment to ourselves, my seniors would play various card games (dawl inchuh, dost patti, rummy etc) right there itself. We never played for money, but instead, the losers had to drink a jug of water, lolz. Yes, people who lost frequently had to pee all the time. :D

So that was how most of us would spend our time in the train, as our body grew accustomed to the never ending shaking and jerking of the train wagons. There were a couple of stops we used to look forward to on the Howrah-Chennai route.


Kharagpur - They served the BEST alu-puri I have ever tasted :) And since the train used to stop for a long time on this station, having their alu-puri from the many vendors on the platform is a must. Also, it felt great to walk on the longest platform in the world and boast to our friends about it! It was only many years later that I found out the longest platform in the world is actually Gorakhpur in UP, not Kharagpur, lolzzz. All those years of false glory and pride! :D

Vishakapatnam - This was where the train engine head was changed and we started moving in the opposite direction. Every time, we would fool the first time travellers among us (those who joined in class 11) that we were heading back to Howrah, just to see their expression and shock :D

Vijayawada - We usually stopped here for a long time too, and all I remember was that it had a very industrial structure, with factories and smoke coming out from the surrounding chimneys etc.

And in between these stops, there were also certain places where a group of transgender used to enter our coach, clapping and singing while demanding money. I used to be terrified of them because they wouldn't leave you alone until you gave them money, and if you ignored them, they would harass you and even grab your private parts! Man, thinking about that now, that was actually not just a form of sexual abuse but even child abuse, as we were all juveniles back then.

Waking up to the sound of tea and coffee vendors shouting "Chai chaiii, kaafi kaaafi" was a pleasant experience. Nothing felt better than a strong cup of hot coffee after a sleepless night of rocking back and forth, especially when you finally managed to fall asleep, only to be woken up rudely by the loud rattling noise of the train running over a bridge, lolz.

Yup, coffee was a welcoming sight indeed. But opening the window to enjoy the morning view wasn't, because there would be scores of people lining up outside along the railway tracks taking a dump! Some of them would even grin and wave at us while they squatted, lolz.

In the midst of enduring this long, monotonous, noisy, uncomfortable journey with unbearably hot and humid climate in a second class sleeper coach, at least the fun part was that we were in one group. Sometimes it would be even more fun when other Mizo students studying in Kodaikanal Public School, St. Peters Hr Sec School, Kotagiri Public School, etc., were in the same train. :)

But there were times too when it wasn't possible to book tickets together due to different reopening dates, like when Stephen and I were in class 9, it was our seniors James and Franklin who chaperoned the two of us all the way from Aizawl to Yercaud. We stayed for a night in a hotel in Chennai. Oh we were so cool back then :D :P

 

We even found the time to quickly chill at Marina beach in Chennai before catching our connecting train to Salem.


So yeah, once we reached Chennai, it was another 7-8 hours or so train journey from Madras Central to Salem junction. We would usually take a short break and book a room at one of the hotels opposite Madras Central to regain our strength.

Since we weren't staying for the night, the hotel owners usually allowed all of us to book just one room. There were usually around 10-15 of us Montfort boys including a few girls from our adjoining girl's school Sacred Heart Convent, Yercaud (SHY) like Dorothy, Maria Grace, Joy, Becky, Christina etc. Maria Grace and Joy were infamous for drinking toilet water, as they reminded our "Yercaud Mizo" WhatsApp group about that many times :D :P

From Chennai, we would usually take the "Kovai Express" as it stopped at Salem junction for the longest duration. It was a "Chair Car" train.

Below is a picture of Salem junction when I was in class 10, where my seniors Hruaitluanga, Margaret Khuma, Mildred and I were trying to figure out how to transport our luggage to the opposite platform because there was a long freight train blocking our path, lolz.


We eventually passed our luggage one by one between the carriages to the other side. Here is Hruaitluanga Ralte and me posing with our coolie (who was reeking of alcohol by the way). I was so extra even back then :P


From Salem Junction, it was another hour's drive by taxi, climbing up the winding Shevaroy Hills with 20+ hairpin bends and precarious cliffs. Your body better be accustomed to the quick change in climate as that meant moving from a hot and humid Salem which lies at 300 metres above sea level to a really cold and frigid Yercaud at 1500 metres above sea level!

Before entering our school, we would usually chill one last time at the restaurants nearby, as once we were inside, we weren't allowed to leave the campus. Hotel Murugabhavan was one of our favorite restaurants, and their "Kothu Parotta" was to die for!


And so that was our long journey from home to school, and believe me, it was extremely tiring! In a way, it really made us look forward to reaching school as quick as possible, lolz.

The most memorable travel experience I had between Howrah and Chennai was when I was in class 12. I was finally one of the "seniors" leading the other juniors back to campus, so I was no longer the designated luggage guard :D :P

It was fun because I was with my Mizo batch-mates (who joined in 11th standard) and we all stayed in Mizoram House, Salt Lake, for the night.


What made that journey even more precious was that our dear friend Francis Lalhrilhtluanga was still with us then. Oh those happy times! :(


Even though the journey between school and home was terrible, at least doing it in a group with friends and seniors was a silver lining.

Today's generation is really fortunate because the price of air travel is quite affordable now and there are so many Mizo students going back to their hostels in South India or North India on a direct flight in a matter of hours. I just feel a bit sad though that they would never experience what we did as kids, as those were memorable moments and they gave us something to talk about even till today. :)

So adios for now, my friends, hope you find this short train journal experience of mine interesting, and let me know if you too had experienced anything like this when you were little in the comment section below. I'll see you again in my next blog update.

Cheers.


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