All Aboard The Choo Choo Train

Remember the magic of the mighty Indian Railways that most of us experienced as kids. The joy of looking out of the window as the countryside whizzed by. Or even racing to take the upper berth, making it a house of sorts for the long train journey ahead. Somewhere along the way, we grew up and the destination became more important than the journey. Almost all of us would choose that short, time-saving flight over a long train journey. Shyma Rajagopal writes about rediscovering the magic of train travel through the eyes of her 4-year-old. 

Amma can you wash my boiler too,” asks my four year old as I bathe him.
Where is it, I ask.
“Here right behind my head.”
As the water splashes on his feet, he sweetly says ,”Thank you for cleaning his wheels”

What’s all this about, you may think? Well, that’s his alter ego speaking. His soul currently is an engine. Not any engine, mind you, but a Train engine.

Thomas, James, Gordon, Kevin, Percy, Mavis….. no, not the names I had considered for my son at his birth. But today my 4-year-old is all of these. These are characters from the very popular TV show Thomas & Friends, the story of a bunch of trains based in the Island of Sodor (for the love of God, I have no clue where that is). And just when you think, this is it and you have no more choochoo business to face, you are introduced to Koko, Wilson, Brewster, all characters from the popular show Chuggington. This is Yohan’s imaginary world, his Universe.

books about trains why not
A peek into Yohan’s train-loving universe

Yohan’s fascination with wheels began a long time ago. As a two year old I took him to the park every day where I was practically an “outcast”, as my son found more joy playing with the wheels of the cycles parked at the gates. I never could indulge in mommy talk or chat with anyone as I was always on watch outside the park rather than inside. Bicycle wheels, car wheels, trucks … anything that could go round and round was now part of our vocabulary and daily life. No prizes for guessing what our favourite rhyme is.

While bringing up my train-obsessed son, I often thought back to my own childhood fascination with trains. All my childhood vacations were spent in Kerala. What I remember most about those times is the journey. In those days it took us precisely three days and two nights from Bombay to Thalaserry. Train journeys came with their own set of rules. We could snack as much as we wanted…  icecreams, vadapav, chips, everything was allowed. Climbing the berths, making new friends, it was like discovering a whole new universe.

Now, decades later, I wanted the same for my son. But of course technology has changed the pace and reduced the distances. Nevertheless when opportunity knocks, you grab it with both hands. So we embarked on our first train ride, when Yohan was 7.5month old. It was his first overnight train journey with his ammama (Grandmother) and me. He was a complete sport and totally enjoyed it. Waters tested, I now knew there was no looking back.

More journeys followed not just on board the train but through countless flights and many roadtrips. Our ever accommodating son, fuelled this adventure further. From short trips to Goa our horizons expanded to Bangalore, Trivandrum and of course maximum city Bombay.

Finally, through all the flights, express train journeys and roadtrips we moved base to Bombay. We were living in Colaba while my parents lived in the northern suburbs of Borivali, a distance that was about 50kms by road and 30 kms by the local train. And that’s when the next phase of our train adventures began. Visiting the grandparents was a must, and on most occasions it meant Yohan and me hopping onto a train zipping through across Bombay. These journeys changed his imaginary world into a fascinating reality. Thus began an even stronger love for the locomotive. Every mention of ‘let’s visit grandparents,’ came with a big affirmative “Yes”. On some occasions I took it a step further and travelled to the station by the local BEST bus. Yohan’s day was made! Not only was it a cheaper commute, but also the most fun for both of us. The railway platforms became his new playground. The announcements, wading through crowds holding my hands tight, the engines, the colour of the coaches, the vendors selling different wares, it was like opening a huge treasure chest. If you are a smart traveler you know what time of the day to pick so the train is not too packed. We soon found ourselves a comfortable routine – get on the bus, buy the ticket, pick the best seat, drink some juice, and when hungry, eat some dosas. He would also carefully take off his shoes and just lie down on the seat if it was empty. Narrate some stories and get lost in his magical world. And the icing would be if we had our DDLJ moment. He loved it if we ran to board the train (obviously stationery). He loved the thrill of racing to board his train.

Most recently we had another overnight train journey on board the Netravati Express from Thalaserry to Mumbai. I don’t think I have seen him enjoy more. The sights, sounds and watching other trains whizz by, he was in his own La La Land. When my brother got a bunk bed made for his two kids my son dutifully renamed it the Netravati.

Now based in the Nilgiris, there’s that one train ridethat we are yet to embark on. But I’m sure when we do, I’m going to see someone grinning from ear to ear and it will all be worth it.

Full-time mother to a four year old, Shyma Rajagopal also moonlights as a freelance producer when time permits. She is currently cooling her heels in gorgeous Coonoor.

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