Puffed Rice with a Slice of Coconut

Growing up in Trivandrum and visiting Kolkata once a year, I’d romanticized the city for as long as I can remember. Every summer, we made a month-long trip to Kolkata. Kolkata, the city of joy. Kolkata, the city in which my parents grew up and fell in love. Kolkata, the city which held my loved ones, in a warm embrace.

Our annual trip to the hometown was a much celebrated affair. We took the train – a 50-hour journey from the southernmost tip of the country all the way to the east. Train tickets had to be booked 60 days in advance. We counted backwards and marked this day on our calendar well in advance. On this day, my father would wake up early and make a 20-min drive to the reservation office, where he’d find his place in the queue sharp at 7:30 am. Even a couple of minutes’ delay could sometimes derail our plans, and he’d then have to repeat the ritual the following day, pushing back our annual trip by just as much.

With the ticket in hand, our countdown would officially begin. Five days prior to the trip, my mother would commence her packing. She first started with my clothes, then her own and finally moved on to the food items. Past experience had taught us that a 50-hour train journey through myriad states and cultures, while exciting, didn’t offer the most delectable choices. And so we packed a bagful of food. Perishables like parathas and such were to be consumed on day 1. On day 2, we’d rely on the food on offer at the stations, coupled with biscuits and chips to be safe. By day 3, we’d be close enough to the hometown to make our peace with the offerings.

The eve of the trip always thrilled me – my mother shuffling around the kitchen closets, my father just getting started with his packing, me following them around trying to be of use. It was the one night of the year that we stayed up late together – an honour conferred only to Kolkata.

The next morning would be even busier. Someone would be appointed to watch over the house while we were gone, who’d invariably be late on the day of. The same person was also tasked with taking our car out for an occasional spin to keep it running. Plants had to be watered, instructions had to be given to the maid, keys had to be passed on, goodbyes had to be said to our neighbours.

The train from Trivandrum started around noon. I’d promptly grab the window seat while my parents accomodated the luggage, carefully securing each piece with a long, metal chain. My whole life, I’ve rarely felt the ecstacy I did in the moments just following the train pushing off from the station.

Of course, this joy was unsustainable for three days. In my younger years, I sought out kids my age to keep me company. In my later years, I learned to climb the ladder leading to the upper berths, entertaining myself for at least a few hours. When the novelty of that wore off, I played video games, read comics, played word games with my parents and wrote stories. 

Early on, my parents inculcated in me a habit of reading. As a family, we never traveled anywhere without our respective selection of books. So on train journeys, my father held a competition to judge who could finish their book first. I always won. I never got anything, except a lifelong love for the written language.

My mother and I spent a lot of time looking out the window together and talking about what we saw. On one such train journey, we spotted a group of children playing by the tracks as the train slowed down. I asked my mother why they were playing there. And she narrated a story. Their houses were by the tracks. They were allowed to go only as far as their mothers could keep a watch. Maybe there was no electricity in their homes, and maybe their favorite play area was currently occupied by another group of children. Or maybe they just really liked trains. 

We then saw a woman carrying dry branches on her head. She was hurrying home to cook a meal for her family. She’d use these branches to light a fire. And this became another ritual we’d share.

As the guardians of a single child, my parents knew every trick in the book to keep me engaged. My mother once asked me to write down the names of every station we passed through. If I could note a station at which we hadn’t stopped (but had sped through), I’d get extra points. 

We passed through several cities in Kerala, uniformly dotted with tall coconut trees, before entering the state of Tamil Nadu. In Chennai, the train switched its engine and proceeded to move in the opposite direction, alarming me several times before I got used to it. We passed through Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, where my parents had an absurd fear of losing their shoes, through Vishakhapatnam where the train refilled its water supply and switched its engine again, and Bhubaneswar, which marked the countdown to our destination.

On day 3, we woke up to the familiar calls of hawkers selling jhaal muri, a spicy mixture of puffed rice and condiments. A slice of coconut on top made it extra special. They’d be accompanied by sweetmeat vendors, and we could be sure we’d entered Odisha, the neighbour of our beloved state and one that shared much of its culture. It was a matter of only a few hours now until we were home.

Deboarding at Howrah could’ve easily been an assault on the senses for many. I, however, was always drawn in by the commotion. Coolies vying for our attention. Raggedy kids running around collecting plastic bottles. Fruit sellers hawking their goods. An odd beggar singing for alms. Hand-pulled rickshaws hollering for customers. The incessant honking of black and yellow taxis adding to the harmony. Hordes of Bengalis just going about their daily lives. Kolkata was music in the mundane.

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