A couple of years ago I was sitting on a bench at Gaya station waiting for a train to Kanpur. Suddenly the sight of a coolie carrying a heavy load on his head caught my attention. He was carrying on top of a suitcase on his head the ubiquitous holdall! Remember the one which used to be an important baggage that our parents and grandparents carried with them when they embarked on any long-distance travel by train.
The things the holdall could hold was really amazing. It was a kind of bedspread made of khaki-coloured canvas 6ft long and 3ft wide and had provision for tucking the pillows or anything else that the passenger thought fit, on both ends. In the centre of the oblong unit were flaps on either side that could be wrapped around the dress and other material including the bed sheets needed for daily use, so that they don’t spill out of the baggage.
Anything that could not be accommodated in the steel trunk, which was also another mandatory travel baggage, would go into the holdall.
There were pouches of varying sizes to hold knickknacks and items like toothpaste, tooth brush and soap.
The task of rolling up the holdall and tying it with a leather belt with buckles was a strenuous job that needed considerable muscle power and skill. Because, while you could manage to roll up the holdall to a shape with great difficulty, it unrolled involuntarily when you relaxed your hold even slightly to insert one end of the belt into the buckle. At this point the children would be called to lend a helping hand. Their job was to hold on to the holdall to prevent it from unrolling, while you tried to work on the belt and the buckle.
When everything was nicely packed and ready for transport, a sheepish call from your wife that she had forgotten some item meant for the holdall would make you go into fits. After screaming at your wife, you would reluctantly unpack and repack the holdall, all over again. Fortunately the children were more than willing to help because for them it was a fun activity.
The holdall had a leather handle attached to it on one end, used for lifting and placing it on the head of the coolie. The children would take turns to try and lift the holdall which was so heavy that instead of the baggage getting lifted, they would fall over it. For them it seemed like some kind of a game.
Once you were settled inside the compartment and the train moved the holdall would be unrolled on the reserved seats—it would transform into a bedspread throughout the journey. Those were the days when the Railways did not provide bedspreads or pillows. The holdall was a multi-tasking companion during long journeys.