Rediff Logo Travel Banner Ads
Find/Feedback/Site Index

November 10, 1996


Trains That Whistled in the Night, 2

Remember the railway journeys of your childhood?

Anvar Alikhan

If I spent my childhood on trains, I suppose I also grew up on them -- in more ways than one.

By now I was at boarding school -- and the first taste of independence one had in life was on the train, travelling from home to school and back, unsupervised and unhampered by grown-ups. It was in those brief two and a half days between Calcutta and Ajmer that we, aged 11 and 12, first began to emerge as men of the world. Seasoned, swaggering professionals, who knew all the ins and outs of train travel.

The distinguishing mark of such a traveller was a huge, old fashioned khaki bedding roll -- the bigger the better. As soon as you boarded the train the routine was you unrolled this onto an upper berth -- upper berth, mind you -- so you'd be undisturbed by the masses. Then you changed immediately into a loose, striped night suit (no matter what time of day or night), and occupied somebody else's window seat. You were now equipped to savour every pleasure of the coming train journey, to the fullest....

Chief among these pleasures was the act of getting off at every wayside station and swaggering aimlessly along its platform. Then, as the train began to move (and this was the real objective of the exercise), you'd run alongside, and board it at the very last moment possible -- swinging yourself on board with studied nonchalance, and thereby causing admiration and envy among fellow passengers. Another mark of the maestro was an intimate knowledge of the specialities of every little station along the way; the tea at so and so place, the pakodas at such and such place. This was a business of esoterica,and you had to steer clear of the merely commonplace. There was no premium, for instance, on knowing that Allahabad was famed for its guavas -- any fool amateur could tell you that much.

Then, of course, there were the good old A H Wheeler stalls that played such a significant role in our adolescent lives. We'd buy all our James Bond books there -- sources of much inspiration for our man of the world act. (Ian Fleming was still alive and writing then, and there'd be a new title out every summer holiday: Rs 3.50 if you bought the Signet edition, Rs 2.50 for the Pan edition). I remember, too, all those other books -- the Perry Masons, the Carter Browns, the Mickey Spillanes, and the Neville Shutes. But that was not all, for it was courtesy A H Wheeler & Co that we received our early, but fairly well rounded, sex education...

It would happen like this -- at the very first large station the train stopped at, we would all troop out to the A H Wheeler thela. There, after close scrutiny and much whispered consultation, we would finally decide on one of the sexual manuals on display in a corner. We would then contribute equally towards the price of the book, all four or five of us, and the transaction would be completed. What followed after that was a copybook example of public school discipline and ingenuity...

Once back in the compartment, the book would be ceremoniously handed over to Amit, who, aged 13, was the seniormost of us. He would start reading it -- and every time he finished with a page he would quickly tear it out. This fluttering page would then be passed down the line, boy to boy, always strictly in order of seniority, until it reached young Devapriaya, the junior most, whose duty was to read it and then immediately fling it out of the window. Thus when we reached our destination it was always with a considerably enriched general knowledge, but, more importantly, not a shred of incriminating evidence.

On one occasion, however, we came to grief. Two young army lieutenants sharing our compartment took it upon themselves to confiscate our book. They claimed we were too young to be probing the secrets of the Kama Sutra; we knew the real motivation was that the bastards couldn't wait to get their hands on the book themselves. It was finally surrendered to them with much reluctance and ill will, and we sulked and muttered darkly, I remember, all the way back to Calcutta.

Many years have passed since then; too many years, perhaps. Adolescence slowly gave way to adulthood -- which is now giving way to incipient middle age. A loss of innocence has turned to full-blown cynicism at the world and its affairs. There have been many transitions. Many journeys, too, but less and less of them, I find, by train. The pace of life is different now...

I sometimes sit and think to myself that what I'd really like to do one of these days is to take a nice long train journey, once again. It does not have to be to any particular place; anywhere will do, as long as it's far enough. And then I shall travel like the true professional I once was -- with an enormous, old fashioned bedding roll, a loose, striped night suit, a surahi and a couple of vintage Perry Mason novels (where can one find them nowadays, I wonder?) I shall get off at all those little wayside stations, drink tea and eat pakodas on their platforms. And then, as the train begins to pull out, I shall climb back on at the very last moment -- with as much nonchalance as is still possible. It's the only way to travel, really.....

Sketches: Mario Miranda

Back Continued