In 1995 my parents were still working in Bangladesh, a young republic situated at the mouth of the confluence of two large rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal.1 The Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta is one of the most fertile regions in the world, but despite such riches the country is largely defined by socio-economic disparity and wide-spread poverty.
At the time I had just finished 9th grade (the highest offered) at the small Swedish School in Dhaka, the buzzing capital home to millions of people. My parents were staying on for another year to finish their work term. Instead of going back to Sweden for school I would spend a year in India, just like my older brother had done before me, and our mom before us (when her parents were working in India). Hebron School is a boarding school in the Nilgiri hills in southern India, in the state of Tamil Nadu.2 More precisely it’s in the town of Ooty, a hill station above 7,000 feet of elevation.3 The school was founded by Protestant missionaries in 1899 and carries the motto “Deo Supremo” (“God First”). A British curriculum is followed and a large number of the teachers are Brits. Many of the students are children of missionaries from different countries working all over Asia, but not surprisingly there is also a large contingent of Indian students. The school is co-ed, but the boarded girls and boys live on different campuses.
Ooty gets fairly cold during the winter months so there is an extended Christmas holiday which allow students to travel back home to see and spend time with family. Arranging travel itineraries for students around breaks and holidays is a major undertaking by the school administration. During my stay at Hebron, a large group of students with accompanying teachers typically made the journey up to Calcutta, with students then traveling on to their final destinations from there. A fairly large part of this group went on to Dhaka just like myself. The trip to Calcutta went by railroad, while the final leg to Dhaka was by plane on Bangladesh’s national airways Biman.4
While the flight from Calcutta to Dhaka takes less than an hour, the railroad trip to Calcutta is a multi-day affair. A faster route would of course be to fly straight to Calcutta from Bangalore or some other larger city in the south, but we always took the train. I suppose it was a lot cheaper, and we had time to spare.
The first step of the journey is to take a 2 hour or so bus ride down the Nilgiri mountains to Coimbatore. From the Coimbatore train station the journey first goes to Chennai (Madras) on the coast, where a change of train is required before the long trip up to Howrah Station in Calcutta on board the Coromandel Express.
There are many different classes of accommodation available on the long distance railroad services, with varying degree of comfort. We would typically travel in the sleeper class or the 3-tiered air conditioned class. The sleeper class is also 3-tiered, just without any air conditioning. The air conditioned class also has a 2-tiered variant for even more comfort.5 The number of tiers just indicates the number of berths on each side of each compartment: the sleeper class has 6 berths in the main compartment. On the other side of the aisle there are an additional 2 berths. In the air conditioned class there are drapes that can be used to block view from the sometimes busy aisle, good for general privacy and for an improved sleeping experience. Sheets, blankets and pillows are also kindly provided to passengers.
India is an immense and bustling land, perfectly epitomized by its railway system. It runs from the south to the north, from the east to the west, constantly crowded, moving and pulsating with energy. At noon or the middle of the night, it does not matter. Passengers come and go, load and unload their baggage; merchants pass through the railway cars selling foods, coffee and tea, sweets or other goods. If you are in the mood for a cup of coffee with milk, listen for the tea salesman. If you are on the lookout for a few large samosas wrapped in newspaper, don’t let your guard down, keep your ear close to the ground. As a long distance passenger you can also order breakfast, lunch and dinner served by the train service. Foil-wrapped boxes of hot foods are handed out at the appropriate time. Eggs for breakfast perhaps, and rice with curry and naan bread for dinner? You can never really be sure what you will eat, and needless to say, you do so at your own risk.
The train is not necessarily always traveling at high speeds, and makes frequent stops along the way, some planned and others not, some that can last for hours, and not necessarily at a station. Whenever the train does stop at a station it is unclear just how long it will stand still before continuing on. A game develops. Do I have time to go for a walk on the platform? Perhaps even buy some fresh fruit? Maybe I have time to order some hot food from that stand just around the corner? Where is my car anyway? Should I just jump on here or keep running along the train to find my car? Better get on before the train completely leaves the platform! The train car doors are open most of the time, allowing such last second rescues. Access to open doors during travel also provide great views of the moving and passing country landscapes, or the dirty suburbs as the large cities approach.
Traveling on long distance trains in India is an experience not to be missed.
From where my family was living at the time in Dhaka, Ooty can be considered fairly remote. Being away from home for the first time also added to the sense of distance. Since the Internet was not yet widely available, our main way of keeping in touch was the weekly letter that had to be written and mailed out. I would get letters too. Other than these written words there was no regular contact.
Trying to adapt to a new school system and using English full-time also added challenges. Donning the obligatory blue and grey uniform, while comfortable enough, created a sense of detachment from home. Being late for breakfast earned you a lap around the kitchen building. Break the rules, and get ready for kitchen duty. Each day was fairly regulated with common mealtimes in the main cafeteria, a day filled with classes and then a prep-session after dinner with more school work.
My boarding parents were kind but with a no-nonsense streak of order and regulation (probably needed). Each week the entire dorm would have a common meeting to be informed of anything of importance, or to discuss any new developments of general concern. We would sit around in the common area, some in the available sofas, others on the ground where space could be found.
In one of these meetings I was sitting on the floor and didn’t pay too much attention to what was being said. I grabbed a random magazine that was laying around and started flipping through the pages. It was an Indian sports magazine (The SportStar, published by The Hindu, 27 April 1996). Growing up playing tennis I naturally stopped at an article with a photo of tennis players. I recognized the players in the picture. But I recognized something else even better!
Yes, there was a picture of tennis players, but they stopped interesting me. Instead I looked beyond the players and well into the stands in the blurry background. There, on a single row, sat most of my family!
I always thought it was an interesting incident. My family was miles and miles away, at best we only communicated via written letter once in a while. As I’m sitting in southern India in a remote hill station at a boarding school, I see my family through a view in a magazine.6
Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. ↩
The Nilgiri means the blue mountains ↩
Ooty is the short and sweet name of the town. The proper name is the mouth-full Udhagamandalam, or sometimes Ootacamund. ↩
There is naturally also a first class option for those so inclined. ↩
It turns out the Swedish Davis Cup team was playing India in Calcutta. My family (some of them at least, along with friends) decided to take a quick trip over to India to see the games. And that’s how they turned up in my magazine in Ooty. ↩