Who can ever resist watching a train thunder across the countryside? At 77, I still can’t. Trains have enchanted me ever since a May evening in 1950 when I gaped in awe, clutching my father’s hand tight, as the Tuticorin Express majestically steamed into Trichinopoly junction, clanging and hissing, and screeched to a halt. It was my first introduction to the Railways — and it made my heart race.
To me, the steam locomotive epitomised brute strength and unmatched power. Everything about it fascinated me. In particular, what attracted me was the way the tracks vibrated tremulously as the locomotive bulldozed its way into the station, spewing smoke and drowning out all other sounds. Sometimes, I would glimpse a blazing furnace with a sooty-faced fireman shovelling coal into it, or the engine’s control panel with its bewildering array of gauges and levers.
Soon, I began to envy the engine driver, his head wrapped in a bandanna, standing proud in the doorway in soot-stained overalls. And if he happened to be Ollie Rozario, our neighbour, I would be overjoyed. For, he would wave out to me gaily, making me swell with pride at having been singled out from the crowd on the platform. Indeed, the massive, barrel-chested steam locomotive dwarfed Uncle Ollie; I often wondered how so slightly built a man could control such a behemoth!
Unsurprisingly, the glamour of engine-driving rubbed off on me. Smitten by the ruggedness of the steam locomotive, I dreamt of piloting a train into Tiruchi junction some day, someday, amidst the clamour of passengers and vendors milling about on the platform, not to mention the awed gaze of children.
Once, seeing us wistfully eyeing his locomotive, Uncle Ollie hoisted me and my friends aboard to our utter delight. In fact, we overstayed our welcome, badgering him with countless questions and nosing around inquisitively. Someone flung open the furnace door, letting out gusts of searing heat. Another fidgety tyke tugged a lever, releasing a sudden whoosh of steam. And when I — not to be outdone — mischievously sounded the hooter, it was the last straw. Uncle Ollie promptly herded us out.
Besotted with steam engines, a train journey enthralled me no end. Travelling at night, there was always an aura of mystery about the little, dimly lit wayside stations that flitted past. Fighting off drowsiness, I would watch, with bated breath, as a train thundered past in the opposite direction; or I would wave to the white-uniformed station master holding aloft a green light, or to the signal-man perched high in his cabin — never mind if they didn’t wave back! And sometimes, when the train negotiated a curve in the tracks, I would spot the smoke-belching locomotive furiously speeding along — a sight that always enchanted me.
Alas, I never became an engine driver. For, by the time I grew up, the steam locomotive had gracefully chugged into oblivion.
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