“Hey Arun,” I stopped my nephew who was making his way back to his room with a healthy snack of strawberries, “do you remember the piece of bedding luggage families would carry when travelling by train?” Blank look. “The bedding thing that had pockets for pillows on the sides and . . .” Blank look.
Suddenly it occurred to me that it was a thing of the past, something that had been phased out of our lives.
But what was it called again? I interrupted my dad’s shower, knocking on the bathroom door, and yelling, “Daddy, what was that bedding thing we used to take on the train?”
“Oh-ho, that was . . .”, he paused for a moment to think before saying “holdall.” Of course it was the holdall.
It was a common sight in the crowded stations, during my childhood years. Every family had one, and the holdall literally held all—pillows and bedsheets for the whole family and much else besides.
You needed some skill to pack a holdall. (It tickles me to write this as I feel like an all-knowing sage.) You roll out the empty duckback-canvas holdall on the floor. Two-dimensionally, it is slightly narrower than a single bed with large pockets at its head and foot. These pockets could fit a couple of pillows each. But before you put the pillows in, you would spread out all your bedsheets and blankets flat along the entire length of the holdall, from inside the head pocket to the inside of the foot pocket. Then you put the family’s pillows into the pockets on either side. At this stage, as a child I remember trying it out like a bed. Of course after a while, my head and neck hurt because, for one, two pillows were too high for comfort, and two, as the head and foot pockets often had other pockets on them which were also filled up with stuff, these hurt my head too. But I can still smell the canvas in my memory, associated with the exciting prospect of travelling by train.
Rolling up the packed holdall needed skill and strength. It was moderately easy to fold the lumpy head flap in and the lumpy foot flap in, packed as they were with pillows and whatnot. The last fold of the holdall was a tricky roll manoeuvre, where you needed to roll the two lumps into each other. You would then require a combination of adult knees and child bodies to keep the holdall from unrolling, while you quickly used the leather or canvas belts, which now materialised from under the holdall, to fasten the roll together. You then sat on the holdall a few times to shape it. The holdall had a leather or canvas handle, attached to the belts, to carry the holdall efficiently.
Typically families would pack their toilette bag in the holdall. Train travel in those days could be awfully long. I remember travelling to Madras from Calcutta every year, and the journey each way was nearly three days. Three delightful days, I tell you, meeting all kinds of interesting people and watching the scenes change as the train made its way across the face of that great country. I usually ended up with tiny particles of coal in my eye from the steam engines, but it was no big deal. How people ate their meals on the train could make for another post, so too could the description of the berths—all very exciting, save for the appearance of the ubiquitous cockroach.
I was saying that train journeys were long, often involving more than one night on the train. The toilette bag with the toothbrushes and toothpaste was needed around the time you were putting away the bed things, which is why it was often placed in the holdall and put away on the top berth till it was needed again at night.
If I may add my pet peeve here, it is about the return journeys. The holdall had in one of its flaps all our dirty linen from the last couple of days. For some reason I thought it was a nasty idea. Maybe I was emotionally out of balance, because I was already missing my grandmother, uncles and aunts, and cousins. Maybe the thought of holidays being over was too much. But I do not remember being annoyed for long. The thought of the new school year always filled me with joy and anticipation— new books that needed to be covered with crisp brown paper; I usually got a new pair of shiny black school shoes too.
Even as I was writing this post I found another article entitled Holding on to Rare Sighting of Holdall by R.V.Rajan published in the Indian Express on 16th July 2014. Although I am loathe to admit it, it is a better article than my post and worth reading.
The Internet is devoid of good pictures of holdalls. The only one I found was this Clasf ad: A brand new holdall (bisterband) to carry bedding while in India.
I loved your article about the holdall- for the past three hours I have googled variations of holdall, called family and friends and no one could remember. I was just going to give up when I saw your article. Fabulous! Bought back so many happy memories. I am talking about many moons ago when the world, through my eyes, was such a beautiful place.
I am so pleased I stumbled across your journey.
We went by train from Shillong to Bangalore and by the end I seemed quite happy to never see a holdall again. But so much fun!
Chanced upon your comment after another epoch has passed us by.
Loved reading your piece!
I am looking for a pic of a holdall to show my kids!