Trains That Whistled in the Night, 2
Remember the railway journeys of your childhood?
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,
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
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