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The train going home

The train going home

Photo for representational purpose only. - File photo

KM Bali

COCHIN, my first posting as a civil servant, and my hometown Shimla were at opposite ends of the country. Flights were not only few but also an unaffordable luxury. It was the durable Indian Railways that annually brought me home. For me, the sweetest sound of the year came over a PA system: ‘Train No. 2625, Trivandrum-to-New Delhi Kerala Express, will be arriving on Platform No. 1 shortly’. As the waiting passengers craned their necks, the Kerala Express made a stately entry. The journey began, as did the music of the train wheels that came out in soft cadences and also in a restless rap. Stations, with gradual changes in people, language and food, from Trichur to Coimbatore to Salem, onwards to Vijaywada, Warangal and Nagpur, and finally the home stretch from Jhansi to Agra and Mathura, kept slipping by. Two full nights and days were spent on the train.

Time was plentiful and one could observe fellow travellers, read, look at the changing scenery, stretch one’s imagination to believe that the liquid in the paper cup was coffee, consult the Railway Time Table — that essential almanac — or just laze. There was a whole world around the tracks, big railway colonies in unheard-of places, trains from distant corners catching their breath at wayside platforms, the railway patois in which WDP on a loco meant it was for broad gauge, ran on diesel and hauled passenger trains.

Emerging at last from the cool, soft shade of the coach, the passengers were met by the searing heat and the blindingly bright light of a New Delhi summer afternoon and by a throng of incredibly pushy porters and autowallahs. I would head to the Old Delhi station to deposit my luggage in the cloak room. The Howrah-Kalka Mail, the one the Viceroy used every summer to shift from Calcutta to Shimla, left only at night, giving me ample time to roam around Connaught Place and generally feel on firm ground after two swaying days. The Howrah Mail, comfortable but somehow always shabbier than the Kerala Express, would reach Kalka by 6.30 am, an ungodly hour, made bearable only by the nearness of home.

Moving quickly to the narrow-gauge platform, I would procure a ticket for the railcar and gulp down coffee before it moved. The 16-seater railcar with the driver sitting inside, like a mini bus, was the prima donna of trains running on that track. It halted only at Barog, for breakfast. Spic and span, always looking freshly painted, the Barog station was perhaps a favourite child of the Railways. Its neat bathrooms had fittings that bore forgotten names of manufacturers in Birmingham or Liverpool and the walls carried stern, terse commands. I remember, though never obeyed, a particular one, ‘If you cannot improve the silence, keep quiet’. Liveried waiters served cornflakes, toast, cutlets and coffee in monogrammed chinaware. A bell would be rung five minutes before departure so that no one had to wolf down breakfast in undignified haste. Finally, 72 hours after I had left Cochin, the railcar would round a bend, revealing bright, beautiful Shimla.


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