Once upon a time, though it seems so far away now, it was 1978 and I was a child. My father was an officer in the Indian Railways and was presiding over the phased withdrawal of steam and its eventual replacement by diesel and electric. Narrow gauge lines were being dismantled in favour of broad gauge, which meant a standard five feet width so that express trains could gallop past at alarming speed. The old locomotives were being sold as scrap, or put into museums or made to decorate the entrances of railway colonies, stations and offices.
We were in a small town in Bengal, so small that no one knows its name save for the fifty or so railway officers who lived in red brick bungalows in its tiny nineteenth century colony. The bungalows had front gardens, lily pools, back gardens, summer houses, green houses, Bougainvillea trellises, Rangoon creepers over the wooden balustrades and large tin baths in enormous bathrooms, under which lay coiled snakes as they glided in for shelter on a hot summer day.
As we played amongst the sunflowers and tamarind trees, the smell of Railway mutton curry drifted in from the kitchens, prepared by the station cook in fiery chilly sauce. And in the evenings one set off for the Club, with its wooden ballroom where the moms and dads played rummy and sipped beer while the children scrambled around the badminton courts and gardens playing ‘catch’ or ‘Red Rover’ or the exciting “Wolf and the Lamb”.
It had been a terrible year for rains and flash floods had suddenly left us all marooned. My father was in a terrible state because all the lines had been flooded and train movement ground to a halt. Passengers were stranded, it is true, but the more serious trouble was the movement of freight.
When Lord Dalhousie built the first railway lines it was less for passenger movement than for the quick movement of troops, raw materials for industries and freight movement across the country. And so we put ourselves into a saloon car and travelled as far down as we dared while my father supervised flood relief work and I, cut off from my school in Calcutta, could enjoy three weeks of wondrous confinement in a train.
Oh, what a time I had! We baked in the saloon car by day, because there was no air-conditioning and the slatted shutters had to be pulled down. In the evening the carriage went for a spot of shunting and I hung my head out of the window as we wandered up and down branch lines, backward and forward, backward and forward till we were put on the ‘up’ or ‘down’ siding. And all the while our steam engine puffed and panted and whooshed, screaming a thin tinny horn as the wheels went jhuk-jhuk-jhuk and the carriage clicked and rattled.
Once every three days another steam engine would ponderously pull up alongside ours with a tremendous whooosh and the driver would give me a wink and tug at the horn as his mate shovelled across coal from his engine to ours for. . . . cooking, for the saloon kitchen had no gas range but a mighty coal-fed chula upon which meals were cooked. And yes, the sunny-side-up for my father’s breakfast was perfectly done.
We were the last Romantics! Alas, steam was out by 1980! Never again would I ride on a train pulled by a steam locomotive, with its tugging, jerky movements and its tremendous hissing and spitting as it breathed fire and brimstone and hurtled headlong into the night. I have travelled far and wide on clinical trains that pull noiselessly in and glide gently out, but never felt the thrill of that first tremendous tug as the wheels pulled and the doors slammed and we could smell the smoky air and had to dust the soot from the seat before settling in.
The British Raj took much away from India but gave some things in return and the Railways has been one of those things that has given so many of us life, sustenance and memories.
Is it any wonder that Bhowani Junction has always been one of my most favourite novels and movies? I lived in the last of the Bhowani Junctions.
I miss them.