‘The Eiffel Tower is very happy where it is and I am very happy where I am, so why should I make the effort to go and see it? The meeting will only inconvenience me and not make any difference to the Eiffel Tower!’
‘The whole world goes on vacations and your father wants only his laboratory and his tennis and his chicken stew at night. As if there is nothing else in life.’

This was an oft heard argument in our house when we were growing up. And may I add that this was one of the few from which my father emerged victorious. We lived in Bombay, as it was known in the good old days, and our vacations were limited to the annual trip to Calcutta where all our relatives lived or Allahabad where my maternal grandparents lived. Not that it mattered to us. We were perfectly happy and looked forward to spending the entire two months with the cousins and an assortment of aunts, uncles, dadus and didas whose only aim in life was to spoil us silly. Childhood was indeed bliss.

Given this kind of an upbringing, you will understand if I tell you that we did not grow up to be the fearfully adventurous kinds who would think nothing of tearing off to climb the Himalayas. Or go diving with the sharks, go canyoning through ravines & waterfalls and go swimming with the dolphins in the Azores.I would never dream of going hiking in the Balkans or go cycling in the Czech Republic. Though, the Czech Republic did beckon me because I had read that beyond Prague’s maze like suburbs of the Soviet era, lie stunning sun warmed valleys speckled with pastel-colored Bohemian villages.I wanted to go there and paint, not cycle!

So every summer vacation would find us traveling to Kolkata or Allahabad. The sameness of the destinations never troubled me and I looked forward enthusiastically to the last paper of my exams. Every time I thought about the vacation, I would have that funny feeling inside my stomach…..you know the kind that gives you joy of the pure, unadulterated kind and brings goosebumps all over!

Packing our bags was the first exciting step. ‘Traveling Light’ was not a concept that my mother approved of. For a vacation that was to last two months, fourteen pieces of luggage was the bare minimum that she would even think of traveling with. If you think that my father’s protests were a hindrance, then you are very wrong. And I am talking about the times when bags were not merely suitcases or backpacks, but they were trunks. And the bedding had to be carried in bedding rolls. I still remember our food basket. It was a humungous affair made of cane and easily accommodated two large stainless steel multi potted tiffin-carriers, places for bread, butter, jam and an assortment of cutlery and crockery and starched napkins. Those were not the days of disposable paper products. Thus packing was a very elaborate affair and was every bit as exciting as the vacation itself.

We travelled by train and the journey from Bombay to Kolkata by Bombay Mail took thirty five hours. But for all this to make sense to you let’s start at the very beginning. Which, as the famous song goes, is a very good place to start. Our household has always been a very disciplined one. There was a time and a place for everything and everything had to be in it’s place.Routine was the mantra and woe betide us if we ever, even for a single day ever thought of breaking that routine. Transgressing that routine was an idea that was not even allowed to enter our sub-conscious minds. Where nutrition and the well being of his offspring were concerned,my father had very definite ideas about what was good for us and what was not and he could not be budged even a millimeter from his position.

So, train journey or no train journey, our routine had to remain in place. We boarded the train at night and after the fourteen odd pieces of luggage had been appropriately and adequately stowed away and the porters having gone away looking visibly relieved, began our life over the next thirty five hours in our ‘home away from home’. My father changed into his starched kurta pajamas and I can still see him folding his sleeves just so, in my mind’s eye. Dinner was spread out…..and I mean just that. Spread out. Delicious soft maida luchis, Begun-bhaja,Salad, Aloo Phoolkopir shaada chhenchki and Chicken dry curry. Finished off with a Mishti or two. Generally two! Dinner done, plates etc washed with detergent brought specially for that purpose, the beds were made. Starched sheets, covers all laid out to pristine perfection. Off to a deep slumber made even deeper by the accompanying rhythm of the turning wheels and the whoosh of countryside racing past. With not a care in the world! Why has that kind of sleep eluded me ever since?

Breakfast had to have the mandatory glass of milk, the mandatory corn flakes,the mandatory boiled egg, the mandatory slices of bread slathered with butter and jam, the mandatory portions of fruit. Yes Sir! And how do you get a glass of fresh boiled buffalo milk in a running locomotive traveling at a speed of 60 km per hour average? Well, you don’t. But what you do is carry a tin of Amul milk powder, a stirrer, hot boiling water in a stainless steel vacuum flask and chocolate powder. It is as simple as that. Not drinking milk twice a day was an option that was not even considered for it to be discarded. And I forgot to add sugar but that was a very tiny item compared to the other heavy weights. You may add it.

After the breakfast, yes? Did I hear someone ask whether bought food could not be had? Of course it could, but I would like to inform you, as was informed to us, that only very very pedestrian kinds of people ever ate station food. And certainly not any ten year olds. And certainly not anyone who wanted to stay in our house. If they did not agree they could go out and look for another house to live in. We always ate healthy home cooked food. Now, if you would kindly allow me to continue, without trying to stem my literary flow. Thank you very much! After breakfast, we had to have our baths. Because for the two nights that had to be spent on the journey, the train had been transformed into a home. The only thing my mother did not carry with her to give it the final finishing touches, was a flower vase filled with fresh cut flowers. So, along with the trunks and the bedding we also carried our bucket and a mug and rubber slippers to wear to the washroom while having our baths. And those were the days when we were good children and did exactly what we were told. So a little bottle filled with coconut oil for the head was an accessory as was talcum powder to keep smelling fresh. Need I add that after we were done, the next people who used the restroom found it spanking clean since my mother did what she would do at home……she cleaned up the place! You have to admit that fourteen pieces of luggage is not really such a ridiculous number, given the number of activities that had to be carried out!! Oh, I almost forgot to add that my father needed his ‘side pillow’ or ‘Paash balish’ to be able to get a good night’s rest. My mother always said he had been spoilt rotten by his parents, my grandparents and he really should have been the Nawab of some kingdom and not a scientist.

Having been used to such royal modes of travel, these days when I fly, the journeys seem so tame. Boring. With none of the excitement preceding it. You are allowed a suitcase which cannot weigh over 23 kgs. Gone are the days of royal looking trunks with padlocks which any self respecting thief would think twice before even thinking of pitting his strength against. Though of course such trunks should ideally have been filled to the brim with gold and jewels. Doesn’t that picture fill your mind’s eye when you hear ‘Trunk’?

You are made to sit straight on an uncomfortable seat. Carry a ‘Paash Balish’?

‘Sir, that object does not fit in with the dimensions allowed for an accompanying hand luggage.’

Can you imagine a Paash balish being put into one of those metal contraptions which is the yardstick for a piece of luggage to be accepted as a carry-on baggage. Poor PB has absolutely no chance of emerging the winner.

Gone are the days of soft fluffy luchis. You have to eat what the airlines dishes out and what they loosely call ‘food’. I wish someone would one day sit and explain to the airlines people what requirements,objects need to satisfy before they get elevated to being termed ‘food’. The first would be that it should be edible and secondly, it should have a modicum of taste.

Well, times change and so must we. I cannot think of traveling to New Jersey from Mumbai by train. So the aircraft never becomes my second home. Nor can I dream of bringing a Guava tree here from Allahabad accompanied by small rocks and pebbles and it’s surrounding soil covering a radius of 5 feet so that it would feel totally at home and decide to bless us all with it’s bounty. Oh! Didn’t I tell you that I had done exactly that with a Guava tree when I was returning from Allahabad to Mumbai with my brand new husband of six months? To say that he had been shocked out of his wits would be an understatement but I must admit that he had taken it in his stride. Yes, even the two huge bags of Allahabad soil which I insisted upon just so that my ‘guest plant’ should not feel uprooted. It is not such a difficult thing once you set your mind to it.

I am after all, my mother’s daughter. Even today, I try to push the allowable boundaries to their extreme outside limits. Much as I admire those slim svelte ladies who travel so elegantly with nary a hair out of place, striding confidently on their 4 inch stilettos and easily dragging a piece of luggage as if it carries nothing more than a few ounces of air, I have sadly come to the conclusion that that particular avatar is not for me to don. So vacation, here I come, with my suitcase bursting at the seams and my tote purse threatening to spill it’s contents all over the Airport floor. They do not weigh purses, you know! The only thing that has remained unchanged amidst the sea of changes is my state of mind. I still get my goosebumps and my gurgles in the stomach at the mention of the word ‘vacation’.

Eiffel Tower, here I come!



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