Train journeys are like stories within stories, and ours begins when we decide to follow the music. If you’ve journeyed on Indian trains, you’d have encountered the ebullient group of youngsters or the large family playing Antakshari along the journey. Or the silent romantic who sat by the window seat and played scratchy oldies on his phone. Chasing this story, we find ourselves following the music on this unusual journey with India’s first folk rock band, Indian Ocean: the energetic beats and clear voices, the laughter and comical desi lyrics… yes, we have arrived!
The band members of Indian Ocean are immersed in the singing and shooting of The Symphony of a Rail Journey. Between shots, endless cups of cutting chai are passed around as they engage with the crew and visitors. Soon, we meld into a cheerful bunch—a big group of artists, writers and filmmakers sharing our memories of train journeys. Anyone who’s ever travelled on the Indian railways—with families, cousins, on school trips or getting back home on college breaks—has a story to tell. That makes ALL of us.
Memories of train journeys are woven with the aroma of delicious food mixed with the grime and dust of faraway railway stations. They’re memories of watching father refill bottles at the pyaoo and return with fried bhajiyas or a sweetmeat wrapped in newspaper; of mother passing snacks around to co-passengers, of siblings fighting for the upper berth and college groups singing Bollywood songs unmindful of the hot air blowing in from the windows. Memories of watching distant farmers, making new friends and tasting unusual foods shared by co-travellers as the blue serpentine train hurtled through the early morning mist carrying us—a diverse group of people bundled together in one coach, on a train, travelling towards a shared destination.
Nostalgia struck the band members of Indian Ocean - Rahul Ram, Himanshu Joshi, Amit Kilam, Nikhil Rao and Tuheen Chakraborty - during the making of the soundtrack for Station Master's Tiffin. The song, The Symphony of a Rail Journey, composed and sung by Indian Ocean with lyrics by Swanand Kirkire, brings back the good old memories of travelling by train in India. As it turns out, a lot of their memories of the train journeys they'd taken involved the talk of food.
"Remember the tomato soup, that delicious hot soup served in Rajdhani and Shatabdi!” quips Ram, the Indian Ocean bass guitarist, and everyone lets out a collective sigh. Because which one among us has not secretly desired a second helping of the piping hot soup “served with a blob of butter and two soup sticks in a paper jacket,” laughs Joshi, finishing what’s on everyone else’s mind. The tomato soup seems to have changed the mood as the stories tumble out like snacks from a Gujarati traveller’s tuck. For the next few minutes, the conversations are a mix of mimicry and impressions of vendors one encountered on railways stations. The intrigue of “kharrab chai, sabse kharrab chai lelo” on the Northern and Eastern railway, the piteous call of the tender coconut seller holding up “Yelllneeroooo” as you left Bengaluru; the “idli-wadae-idli-wadae” with fresh chutney on trains to Hyderabad.
"Indian Ocean has spent many long train journeys playing Bridge," says Ram, one of the founding members of the band. He recalls visits to the pantry car as a little boy, travelling with his father, and being fascinated by the heat-dust and action in there. While the pantry food earns no brownie points, seasoned travellers are well aware of the limited food options available when the train is in motion, many families continue to pack tiffins of homemade food and snacks before setting off on a train journey. "That's what I remember the most," says Joshi, who lends vocals to Indian Ocean, "Different people opening their dabbas and sharing. The real fun of experimenting different cuisines was in the second class. The whole meal used to be a melange of different items from everyone's dabba. Achaar from someone, daal from another person…"
Tuhin Chakraborty, the band’s Tabla player, recollects the time, right after graduating from college, when he was travelling to Mumbai from Delhi and the coach had passengers from different regions. "People from Ajmer, Gujarat, some foreign nationals…," he recalls. As the journey progressed, out came the dabbas and soon everyone was sharing the food. "My mother had packed karela considering they would last through the journey. At first, everyone turned up their noses, but then one person tasted it and passed it around and before I knew it, the dabba came back to me empty," he says, laughing.
Gourmets who wish to experience the diversity of Indian cuisine should hop on to a train of the Indian Railways. Of the thousands of railway stations across the country, each is an opportunity to taste food from various pockets India. For drummer Amit Kilam, this is one of his favourite things about train travel in India. "Whenever I am travelling by train, I look forward to the different stations that the train is going to halt at because there is something different to eat at every station," says the drummer for Indian Ocean. His favourite? Aloo puri! "I don't know how aloo puri became famous at every station but I'm glad it did!" For lead guitarist Nikhil Rao, a train journey when he was eight, sealed his love for wada sambar. He was travelling with his family from Hyderabad to Tirupati. "I had wada sambar at every station all the way up to Tirupati! I must have had 40," he laughs.
Tea was primarily popularised across the country by the railways. Today, numerous stations have their special chai, and some even have Kharab chai, a great marketing tactic employed by the humble tea seller! On his train journeys, Joshi recalls looking forward to kulhad-wali chai at every station. This piping hot masala chai served in tiny clay cups is indigenous to the country, particularly the northern regions. "My father would break the kulhad and throw it away after drinking the tea but I carefully collected them," says Joshi, “so I could break them all at once, one after the other," he confesses with child-like mirth.
The Rajdhani Express has always occupied a pride of place for Indians, it is faster, and serves piping hot meals and snacks by the hour! Rao testifies with an anecdote, "I had a friend who would visit me in Delhi from Roorkee. My mother would ask him what he’d like to eat after his train journey," narrates Rao, "and my friend would say, nothing, I travelled by Rajdhani and they put food in your mouth the moment you open it," says Rao, laughing, "You can be sure to get a good seven meals on a six-hour journey. It would take four hours to just recover from the Rajdhani food!"
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