If you were an 80s or 90s kid, you would have experienced this at least once in your life: A summer vacation promptly, spent with the extended family in one’s native place which included a long-distance train journey lasting at least a day.
That’s how we spent most of our summers growing up. Our parents would
- Apply for leaves well in advance
- Book the train tickets: A complicated procedure in the pre-internet era
- Buy city gifts for everyone
- Pack pack pack at least 2 suitcases per person
- Cook cook cook. Because outside food was not to be trusted
- And last but not least, fill the jumbo-sized Milton Water Cooler
And thus, we would embark on The Journey back to our roots – our Native Place.
The ‘Native Place’ invokes a rural setting with fields and livestock, the postman on the cycle, and several well-wishing sundry people from the community. It is also where our forefathers hail from, our roots. The family headquarters that we had to check into.
The Summer Vacation begins in April
That’s when kids would begin their summer vacations. From the child’s perspective, it all starts with the pre-journey sleepless night when the excitement is at its peak. We just couldn’t sleep and would ensure our mothers pack our favorite comics and toys. It was cars and/or toy guns for the boys and dolls for the girls. Finally our parents would coax us to sleep by telling us that we might miss the train if we overslept.
The elders would pack with the kids out of the way. We would wake up to a day of maddening rush.
Mad Dash to Catch the Train
There was this phase of leaving the house…did you take the keys, did you turn off the gas, did you switch off the geyser, did you empty the trash, did you take your wallet, did you take the tickets, did you take the keys, did you take the locks for the luggage and so on. These questions were repeated and answered for reassurance several times for the first few hours of the journey.
Once we reached the station, which would often be a good couple of hours before the train arrived, us kids would be tempted to buy some snacks from the station cafeteria. I remember especially eyeing the cream rolls which I never got because of the extra garnish of flies. To this day, I haven’t tried that from the railway station.
Once the train arrived, it was hiring a coolie to carry our luggage and make a mad MAD dash to the designated compartment. Our mothers would excitedly yell, ‘HURRY! before the train leaves us behind!’ . The elders would check the lists outside for our names, pay the coolie, load the luggage and us into the trains and make way to our seats.
Once there, us kids turned into monkeys climbing and jumping from one berth to the other while our parents tucked away our luggage under the seats, locked them with chains. The water cooler was promptly set up on the table between the two windows.
It was only when the train began to move, gradually leaving the platform that we all would heave a collective sigh of relief. YES! We made it in time and didn’t miss the train. Sometimes we would see the unfortunate latecomers running and getting into the train as it moved, very last minute and thanking god we were not late.
The Journey of a 100 miles begins
Of course, not all journeys were a hundred miles, some were more and some less. The journey would range anywhere between half a day to three days depending on where you were headed.
We would excitedly chat with fellow passengers, most on their summer vacation themselves. Somehow, we would all be very hungry and so began with the first round of home-cooked train meals from the multi-tiered tiffins and paper plates. Everything tasted delicious when on a train. Once done, we all were free to relax.
To pass the time, we would play cards or even a few rounds of Antakshari where several fellow-passengers would join in. Antakshari is the great Indian pass time that tests one’s knowledge of Bollywood songs from the latest and old films. We would divide into teams, note points, countdown with the tic-tic 1-2-3, and just have fun. It didn’t matter if you had a terrible singing voice, it was ‘fastest song first’.
We would look out the windows, take several naps, play games, read books, make new friends, refill our water bottles at designated stations, look out the window at the speeding scenery spotting cows dotted on fields that zoomed by.
There were no phones, no worries. The train journeys of this generation were simple yet extraordinary.
Summer Vacation Phase 2: We have arrived
And greeted by a few uncles and cousins who have arranged transportation for us. Happy reunions that happen once a year if followed by the next leg of the journey by road. Depending on the distance, road and vehicle condition, it would take a couple of hours, give or take.
Us kids couldn’t help just looking out the window at the strange but familiar landscape while the adults chatted excitedly. It seemed like a role reversal where we would be the silent ones.
Once outside the house, we would be greeted by a gaggle of aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, grandparents, neighbours, and so on and so forth. It would be an exciting welcome where we were invited to sit on the traditional cots or khatias and offered cool water from earthen pots followed by a hot meal.
Us kids would run around the house, familiarizing our new surroundings for the next couple of months and bumping into one relative or the other.
There is something amazing and fulfilling about going back into the cauldron of our community, our roots. It’s an experience that simply cannot be recreated in the absence of our extended family.
Family and Community
Each day is filled with new adventures and we would wake us with the rooster’s crow and be all over the place, climbing trees, getting the water from the well – a fascination for us city kids, feeding the cow and petting her calf, drinking fresh milk and eating delicious foods.
While the adults gossiped away and the women-folk spent time making pickles, we would try to teach and learn new slang words from other kids, follow frogs, drink coconut water, and play a ton of games, some old some invented. The other cousins and kids had just as much fun with the fascinating and strange new things taught by the city kids. It was as much their summer vacation as it was ours.
We knew we wouldn’t get scolded much by our parents because we had our grandparents to protect us, even when we would destroy pillows in pillow fight matches.
Every night, after dinner, all the relatives would play card games with the inexplicable need to cheat. We would even play ludo (and cheat in that too). This would go on for hours.
Once a week, we would crowd around a TV set and watch a film, either in the regional language or in Hindi.
We dreaded the question ‘Do you remember who I am’. We learnt to feign recognition and call everyone uncle and aunty or didi and bhiya depending on the age.
There really was no personal space or privacy. Five people squeeze into a three-seater rickshaw, six kids cram into a bed meant for two. But it was never uncomfortable. Quite the contrary, somehow the lack of resources got us to adjust with each other and just be happy about making do.
Summer Vacation is Now Nostalgia
With increasing workloads and shorter travel times, the summer vacation experience has changed to international holidays and 5-day vacations locally. There is a sort of disconnect between the urban and the rural. The green fields and the fresh air have turned into memories of a distant past. But for us lot, those memories are a treasure trove of FEEL GOOD moments.
The rich experience of visiting one’s roots, one’s native place remains a magical nostalgia, the satisfaction of which cannot be recreated today. It is a gratifying experience where we would make do with what we had, we spent quality time with ourselves and others and we understood what being social really meant.
Summer vacations were not just a vacation it was a journey back. We always returned home. And it did feel like home because of the warmth of family.
We grew up in different times, and the summer vacations were the best time of our lives.