Thursday, February 3, 2011
The Punjab Mail-Memories of a Summer Afternoon
(now Mumbai) bound Punjab Mail is passing slowly over a small bridge, the wheels drumming rhythmically against gaps in the rail joints which, in turn, transmit the vibrations to the steel columns. The locomotive driver leans out of his cabin. The station is in sight. He tugs at a steel wire above his head and the engine lets out a rasping hoot to warn people standing on the platform of the approaching train….. Bombay
“Igatpureee”, the driver announces.
It is the summer of 1968.
We-my younger brother, my mother and I- are on vacation at my grandparents’ home in Matunga. Lunch is over. Mother and grandmother are relaxing and indulging in desultory conversation. Grandfather is away at office and the aunts in college. My brother and I are playing in the balcony of the flat. It is early afternoon and Vincent (now Dr Ambedkar) Road is quiet save for the occasional rumble of a bus or the honking of a car.
My brother is perched on a high stool and is leaning out of the balcony. He is the driver of the Bombay-bound Punjab Mail. The train has just chugged into Igatpuri Station and the steam locomotive will be replaced with an electric one. The driver puts his lips to the web of his thumb and index finger and blows. The engine hoots again and draws slowly away from the train.
I am the fireman of the locomotive. I have been shoveling coal without pause into the firebox without a pause so that the driver is able to maintain a full head of steam. The shovel is a skillet tied to one end of a long bamboo stick. I bend, gather the coal in the shovel, straighten, turn around and toss the coal into the firebox. I repeat this action over and over again. It is backbreaking work. But the train must not run late and the driver is a hard taskmaster.
I don’t like the job. Actually, I want to fly a Boeing 707 (without my brother, of course) to
. But mother has decided that the fireman’s job is more important for the sake of the driver’s safety. The driver must not be allowed to lean too far out. Tokyo
For the time being, my ambitions are put on hold.
My brother, of course, is driving the electric engine that will pull the train to
. The hoots and huffs and puffs will gave way to a loud horn and a brisk clackety-clack, cackety-clack as the train speeds to its destination Bombay
The electric locomotive has been coupled to the train. The driver checks that job has been properly done and makes doubly sure by using a rope to fasten the leg of his stool to the balcony grille. He jumps onto his perch .With a loud, bass “oooooooomp”, the Punjab Mail sets off from Igatpuri on the final leg of its journey.
The fireman has become the electric loco driver’s assistant. The driver gives me a green towel which I must wave as we pass the stations en route to
. The train must reach on time and my brother does not want a red light to hold him up. Kasara, Titwala, Asangaon, Kalyan, Bombay … he announces the names of the stations as they whiz past. Thana
“Daaadarrr…”, the driver calls out and, satisfied that he has completed the journey, prepares to leave the engine. I stop waving and rub my arms. They are hurting.
My brother jumps off the stool and runs into my mother’s arms.
End of journey? Wasn’t the train supposed to go up to Victoria Terminus? Did the driver forget? I suppose we will never know.