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November 10, 1996


Trains That Whistled in the Night

Remember the railway journeys of your childhood?

Anvar Alikhan

I was born into a railway family. My grandfather used to be on the old Nizam's State Railway -- and that meant I grew up in a large, high-ceilinged railway colony bungalow, pervaded by the faint, gritty, blue-grey fragrance of coal dust. Where a vintage HMV gramophone played Juthika Roy and K L Saigal. Where the dinnertime conversation was about such all important matters as the 327 Down and the 106 Up. And where I would wake up in the middle of the night to the long, sweet, slowly dying call of a train's whistle, as it rushed down the nearby tracks, and away into the darkness.

It was the theme sound of my childhood...

Some of my earliest memories revolve around going on tour with my grandfather in his railway saloon. Or "going on line", as it was called. The saloon itself was a rather grand affair, with a kitchen and a pantry (where Abdullah, my grandparents' cook, presided), a bathroom, complete with a full length bath tub, and -- what fascinated me most -- a huge, old fashioned valve radio in the living room, with a "magic eye device", and the names of exotic faraway radio stations written across its bandspread (Nanking, Batavia, Alexandria, Bucharest, Leopoldville...

Only slightly less exotic, I suppose, were the names of the places we ourselves visited when we "went on line". Names like Bezwada and Dronachellam, Vicarabad and Kazipet. Some of them held secret, hidden meaning for me. Like Guntakal, it always seemed to me, was the sound that a train makes as it pulls slowly out of the station. (Guntakal-Guntakal-Guntakal). And Kachiguda was the same train, having picked up speed. Kurnool, meanwhile, was clearly the sound of its whistle. (Thus, Kurn-o-o-o-l!)

My memories of those early childhood train journeys are, at best, arbitrary. I remember things like the taste of hot toast, as it can be made only by railway caterers, slightly blackened, and tasting deliciously of the charcoal fire it was toasted over. I remember the old signs in railway compartments, warning you against accepting food, drink or cigarettes from strangers, as they might be drugged (an edifying thought, that). I remember the privilege of being taken by my grandfather to inspect the engines of trains, and being introduced to the engine drivers -- men, invariably, with tattooed arms and large sooty handkerchiefs knotted on their heads. And then there was the even greater privilege of being allowed to wave a guard's flag for him, to signal the train to start. (At age five, I recall, it gave me a sense of vast power to have an entire train move -- or not move -- at my personal whim.)

I also remember man-eating tigers.

Or to be precise, a man-eating tiger. Its snarling head graced my grandparents' dining room wall: it had been shot by my grandfather, apparently as a public service -- his role as a freelance shikari on the occasion being merely an adjunct to his duties as a railway official out "on line". That was the kind of world it was.

Sketches by Mario Miranda