Railways and I

The letter ‘C’ has been very important in my life. I am a self-confessed addict of Carnatic music, Cryptic crosswords and Computers. The sport that I watch most is Cricket. My most favourite food is Curd-rice and favourite snack is salted Cashew-nut. I graduated from CEG (College of Engineering, Guindy) Among the railways that I worked, my fondest memories are for CR (Central Railway). I was born, brought up and settled down in (briefly fed up with) Chennai.

My first two books were on Carnatic music and most of my free time is spent in pursuing the three Cs mentioned earlier. So when Harsh and Mayank (Harsh Kumar, ED, Railway Board and Mayank Tewart, Director, National Rail Museum) asked me to write about Indian Railways I was hesitant since there was no C. Of course it is a familiar subject and I had also taught the history and organization of Indian Railways to the officers during my stint in Railway Staff College. I thought I would try for a few days and if the topic interested me sufficiently I would write the book.

Just a day surfing the Net was sufficient to get me interested and three days saw me getting addicted. After five days, I could not think of any other topic. It was then that I realized that Career continues to be another important ‘C’ in my life. You may take a railwayman out of the system by retiring him, but you can never take the railways out of a railwayman.

It is said that 19th century belonged to the Railways: 20th century to the Automobiles and the 21st century to Telecommunications attached to computers. This may be true of the western world. But in India, Railways have been playing a significant part for the last 150 years. And words are never adequate to describe this great organization called Indian Railways (IR). The story of IR is not just a saga of mundane statistics. It is the glorious tale of a pioneering institution which, along with the Army and the postal department has united India. Be it the mountainous terrain or the long stretches through the Rajasthan desert or the plains or the mighty rivers, IR covers the vast expanse of the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumar and Kutch to Kamrup.

From the windows of a train on IR one is served a varied platter of changing topography to changing crops, vegetation, people and their ways of life. It is like the lilting but ever changing rhythm of a Ragamalika, a type of composition in Carnatic music in which the tune changes for every stanza.

Gandhiji was told that the only way to know India was to travel on Indian Railways in Third (now second) class. Well, I have traveled on IR extensively from Kanyakumari in the South to Rishikesh in the north and Dwaraka in the west to Lekhapani in the east though rarely by second class. My safar on duty and leisure have mostly been pleasant though I did suffer a few times. In this preface I propose to share some of my experiences on IR in general and trains in particular.

The first train journey that I remember was to my village when I was about four. The memory of the journeys by jatka vandi (tonga in Hindi) to Madras Egmore and by bullock cart to my village are stronger than the train journey. My first long distance journey was by Grand Trunk Express to Delhi from Madras in 1967 for an interview. I (a fast eater) took over 15 minutes to chew the pooris served in the train. The engineer in me still remembers those pooris which would have made a chewing-gum maker proud. Later I questioned one of my relatives who worked on Southern Railway and who was one of the dining car managers on GT about the ingredients in the pooris which gave them the magical plasticity. In this journey, I also saw for the first time two items of luggage which many train travelers used to carry in those days. The first was a hold-all which apart from bedding held everything and hence the name. The second was a Surahi, an earthern vessel used for carrying water. Of course this was used in the north while the south had kooja, a stainless-steel container with a screw-top and a handle (it was originally made of brass which was costlier and was replaced by the cheaper stainless steel). There was also a third item carried by train travelers which was the steel trunk. We also had a trunk in our house (though not used for train journeys). Today you rarely see the hold-all, surahi and kooja though you may still see the steel trunks.

The next journey that I remember right from the time I got my first railway pass is from Delhi to Chennai in 1970 after my training as IRAS probationer at Mussoorie Academy. When we reported to Mussoorie in July 1970, we had not been allotted the services to which we were to be posted. A few days before the end of training, seven of us came to know that we were joining IR as Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS) probationers. We were the centre of attraction in the Academy when a supervisor from Oakgrove School, a public school run by IR came to give us our passes. Though the pass was from Dehra Dun to Chennai, I traveled from New Delhi to Chennai in October 1970 in First Class for the first time in my life.

The two years of probation saw me traveling extensively in the ‘Home’ as well as ‘Foreign Railways’. In case you wonder how I went abroad as a probationer, let me hasten to say that these are quaint Railway terminologies. Home railway is the one which pays your salary and all the other railway zones are Foreign Railways. One of my most unforgettable journeys and one which made me happy to have joined IRAS was when Ashok (Ashok Chawla) and I were received by Mr. U.V.Acharya, a senior officer in Trichy with lunch and by another senior officer Mr.B.C.Balasubra-maniyam in Madurai with coffee. Talking of probation, I must tell about one of my colleagues in Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) who thought highly of himself. Once as a probationer, he and his colleague were sitting in the sofa in an Assistant Engineer’s office when a friend of the AEN came. To his query about the probationers, AEN replied that they were probationary officers of IRTS. Obviously the friend was ignorant about IRTS. My friend was about to rise up and enlighten him about IRTS when he was brought down to the earth with a thud by the AEN who said,”Jo IAS mein reject hote hain, wo IRTS join karte hain.” (Those who are rejected in IAS join IRTS). However much one may be offended, it is a true statement about the central services.

My first of the numerous journeys to Baroda (which later became Vadodara) was in December 1970 from Madras (which is now Chennai). Since there was no direct train, I traveled to Bombay (now Mumbai) and changed trains. Though it was my second visit to Bombay, I was seeing Churchgate (and Bombay Central) for the first time and was amazed by what I saw. From Baroda, we traveled for the first time by a special carriage of Railway Staff College (known as Saloon) to Rajasthan.

The next memorable and frightening railway experience was when we went to Calcutta (now Kolkata). Ashok was by now married. He, his wife and I went to Calcutta and we were provided with accommodation in Seadah. The year was 1971 and Sealdah was full of refugees from East Pakistan and we were really scared to stay there. So we opted to go to Bilaspur and at a station en-route I was appalled by the petty corruption that I saw. The Ticket Checker was standing at the station gate with both hands outstretched and people were dropping tickets and/or change in the hands which he was periodically depositing in his coat pockets!

There were many more rail travels in 1971 and the first half of 1972, all of them pleasant in the company of my batchmates, Ashok, Sneh (Sneh Bijlani) and Maya (Maya Sinha). I was mesmerized by Churchgate, Dadar and VT stations of Bombay during the peak hours when I spent three weeks there in May 1972. I like checking my weight at the machines in railway stations. It was good value for 25 paise at that time. In 1972. when I checked my weight in VT station, the ticket said.“You are good in judgment and logical reasoning." Right below that in big bold letters was printed: DO NOT GO NEAR OVERHEAD ELECTRIC WIRES. If I’m good in judgment, why would I ever do that? The self-service cafeteria in VT was one of the best eateries at that time providing value for money.

All good things have to end and it was with a tinge of regret that we viewed the end of probationary period. And somebody in the Railway board did not seem to like my name. A week before probation ended, Ashok was retained in Southern Railway and I was posted to South Central Railway. That was the only time in my life that I regretted joining IR as I had earlier declined the offer from State Bank of India to join them as a probationary officer in Tamil Nadu circle.

I was off to Solapur in Maharashtra in May 1972 for my first posting. I was to get married in January 1973 and I applied for 45 days’ leave, My immediate boss asked me to curtail my leave as I was to be promoted. But Mr.Varadachari, who was Financial Adviser & Chief Accounts Officer told him,”I’ll sanction the leave. He’ll get many more promotions, but this will be his only marriage.”

We had our honeymoon for a month and traveled a lot. In Ooty, Fernhill Rest House was about 2 kms away from Ooty station. Every morning after breakfast, my wife and I would walk on the track to go to the town and return the same way before dark. In Trivandrum, we were surprised to see the crowd in the Vegetarian Refreshment Room for dinner. Later we learnt that almost all the ISRO employees and anyone who wanted raw rice (in all hotels, only boiled rice was served at that time) would come to he railway station.

My wife and I reached Solapur with just about 10 pieces of luggage which has now grown to about three truckloads. This is a problem for all railway officers as luggage expands to fill the space available in big railway bungalows. The total strike in 1973 by the employees demanding merger of the division with Central Railway was an important event. As a young officer, I went to the bank on my scooter and withdrew a lakh of rupees (which was 200 months’ salary for me) for meeting the expenses in connection with the strike and also manned the telephone exchange during the day. Throughout the strike the employees were very good and even while picketing at the gates would always give way whenever I came by scooter. They said they had no quarrel with any officer. While in Solapur, my wife and I went to Bombay which was her first visit to that city. Two memories of our journeys in the suburban trains stand out, The first was when we wanted to go to Dadar from VT. I’d assumed that all trains from VT would go to Dadar. We boarded a train at VT and there was no sign of Dadar after 20 minutes. Then only I asked another passenger. He looked at us and said ,’ ye harbour line hai (This is harbour line)’ I had no idea what he was saying. Then he advised us to get down at Mahim and go by a Western Railway train to Dadar and added,’ Yeh first class hai. Pakad jayega tho baari padegaa’ (This is first class. If you’re caught, it’ll cost you a lot’). The second experience was in the evening peak hour at Churchgate. My wife and I were to get down there at 7.00 PM. As people normally do, we were standing near the entrance ready to get down. Just before the train entered Churchgate, a co-passenger tapped on my shoulder and gestured that we should follow his actions. We were puzzled, but we moved three feet inside the coach and stood facing the partition wall with our backs to the on-rushing crowd. We are eternally grateful to that gentleman as otherwise we would have been admitted to the hospital due to the assault by the ‘briefcase brigade’. Getting in and out of a Mumbai local during peak hours takes knack, speed, agility, strength, perseverance and concentration.

We were quite happy in Solapur and so I was shifted to Vijayawada in October 1974. was a pleasant 20 months for me (and only about 8 months for my wife) in Solapur. We had still not collected much luggage and so we sent it by the diesel rail-car that had come from Vijayawada for movement during the strike. I spent a mere six months in Vijayawada when the post got upgraded. The main rail-related memory is that whenever we came late from ‘line’ (which is another quaint railway terminology – on line means away on duty), my smart peon Venkat Rao would get my carriage hand-shunted and placed opposite our flat. He would wake us up at a suitable hour with coffee.

To be continued

August 2007

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