This Train - Culture
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Train journeys in India were once defined by food, brought by passengers from their homes and purchased from vendors like this one. Passengers shared food with each other, exchanging stories and family histories, and sometimes striking new friendships that continued beyond the journey. But with growing availability of packaged food on trains, that culture is slowly dying. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption
Much like armies, train travelers in India march on their stomachs. And this was certainly true when I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, in the southern city of Chennai. My most vivid memories of summer vacations are of overnight train journeys to Hyderabad, to visit my maternal grandparents. The trips were defined by food.
A vendor sells fried snacks on a train in northern India. Food vendors are a regular presence on most trains, jumping on and off trains at various stations, offering passengers a welcome snack break during their long journeys. Dhiray Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption
All that aside, food and the sharing of it on these train journeys also turned complete strangers into friends. To me, growing up in a conservative south Indian city with few opportunities to try other cuisines, the food of other Indian communities was a revelation, one that I embraced with wide eyes and open arms.
Hardly an hour after the train had pulled out of Chennai, the matriarch pulled out a complicated set of steel boxes and plastic covers brimming with the basic ingredients of a dish, including crisp puffed rice, fresh vegetables and chutneys.
I think back fondly of these times during my rare train journeys these days; like many in India's upwardly mobile middle class, I have mostly switched to the convenience of air travel. I was especially distressed when recently, my husband held out a box of homemade cake to a little girl on the next seat, only to be rudely ticked off by the mother, who then lectured her daughter about the dangers of accepting food from strangers.
Dalal carries this forward to train travel. These days, he says, passengers hesitate to even talk to fellow passengers. "Food was an incredibly communal thing till about 20 years ago," he says. "Plus, there were large families living and travelling together, the mothers and grandmothers taking care of the food. That has also vanished."
Take for example, the chicken cutlets made by the pantry of the Gitanjali Express, a train between Mumbai and Kolkata. Even though there is a faster train between the two cities, Dalal says he knows a number of people who prefer to take the Gitanjali just to enjoy its famous chicken cutlets.
But the culture of carrying home-cooked food on trains hasn't entirely disappeared, Dalal assures me. Despite the popularity of air travel, the number of Indians traveling by train has only grown in recent years, he says. That's because a growing number of Indians in rural areas are traveling to other parts of the country in search of better education and work prospects. Most can't afford to buy food on these long train journeys. "I have seen that most of them bring their food," he adds.
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