A train load of memories

S Balakrishnan
“Baaam!” The enchanting hoot of electric locomotive is clearly audible from my house, followed by the rhyming dhadak-dhadak rolling of the bogies/wagons. Nostalgic childhood memories of steam engine pulled train journeys well up within me.   But it is more than a year since I travelled by train, not even by metro or local suburban train. All the blame and curse goes to the various avtars of Corona Virus. To chase it away, I shouted ‘Go, Corona, Go’ and banged my eating plate so hard that it got dented badly which in turn resulted in my wife rapping so hard with her knuckles that my skull got dented!
As children we used to travel by train from Madurai/Thirunelveli to our native village (Thiruthuraipoondi) as soon as the final exam was over. Even before the journey started, we three would start quarreling about who would occupy the window seat, if at all we were lucky to get one in the unreserved 3rd class compartment. At the end of the 5-6 hour journey, there would be tiny coal particles/specks all over our head, body and even in the eyes. Our joy knew no bounds when we learnt we would be living by the Madurai-Rameswaram rail track; but that was only for a year. Initially we were disturbed by the thundering sound of the trains but later snored through the night as if it was lullaby. Counting the number of goods wagon was never tiring; maybe that is why I am still strong in counting! And it was with curiosity that I watched North Indian devotees travelling by these trains to Rameswaram wearing their unique attire, especially the Rajasthanis/Gujarathis, though they were all North Indians for me as is the notion that all South Indians are ‘Madrasis’.   
We would crane our neck to watch the loco driver throw the signal ring and receive with knack in his arm a new one in no-stop stations. Drinking water starved villagers would flock to collect boiling water from the engine. In junctions, railway staff would run on the train top to fill the toilet tanks which would overflow and pour into the compartments as well; the steam engine’s tank would also get filled up. During summer, to quench the thirst of passengers, staff would push around drinking water trolleys with big earthen pots covered with coconut fibre rope to keep the water cool and long-handled tumblers to scoop the water. As most of the kids, I too fancied becoming a steam engine driver or a guard. With an all-white uniform, guard’s job was my secondary option. Later I used to wonder how lonely the guard’s job would be, more so on goods train.
If you have a window seat, preferably a side seat, what more you want ! It is like a throne. You can watch the world whiz past, read book, or get immersed in your own thoughts. I prefer ordinary non a/c class because the open window lets me enjoy the sights & sounds of the world outside and click, if necessary. This is much true of hill trains. My desire to travel on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway never got fulfilled. For that matter, my bucket wish list of train journeys is endless – the Nilgiri Mountain Railways, Delhi-Kalka route by Fairy Queen, Konkan railway, North Eastern States, Palace-on-Wheels.
Despite the fascination for train journey, booking a train ticket was so troublesome; the online booking not only brought transparency but also put an end to the touts. I once had a bad experience at Howrah by losing money and then travelling all the way to Madras playing hide-and-seek with the TTEs. With online booking, I wonder if Out Agencies still function where there are no rail services, like in Gangtok, Sikkim. These Out Agencies issued combined & confirmed tickets for both bus and train services. As time rolled past, the red shirt-cum-turban wearing porters almost disappeared from the scene; they were both a necessity and nuisance. The arrival of suitcases with wheels and then trolley bags put an end to their hegemony.
A visit to the rail museum in Delhi was both informative and interesting; we bought a model of my favourite steam engine. Since then I have been planning to visit the Chennai Rail Museum but ... We have indeed travelled a long way from the first train that rolled out on Indian soil when the naïve villagers either prostrated by the track side or ran away scared by the thundering massive engine that breathed out smoke like a giant.                                         The writer can be reached at krishnanbala-2004 @yahoo.co.in/ 9840917608 Whatsapp