Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Punjab Mail-Memories of a Summer Afternoon

Dang..dadannng…..dang…danng,  Dang..dadannng…..dang…danng….

The Bombay(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…..

“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 Tokyo. 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. 

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 Bombay. 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

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 Bombay. The train must reach on time and my brother does not want a red light to hold him up. Kasara, Titwala, Asangaon, Kalyan, Thana… he announces the names of the stations as they whiz past.

“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.


Sriraman Ganapathi said...

The Protogonist is Impressed at the recollection of the Childhood days. Yes, Knowing my facination of Trains like our Father, I am quite sure I would have done all the above at that age of 3 years. I do vividly recollect many other Train related activities at the age of 5 and above.

It goes without saying Trains still hold enormous amount of Facination for me, more so peeping out of the window when it takes a curve or steep turns. Now a days of AC Travel, this can be enjoyed from the Door only , though not very safe.

AjayD said...

While most of Mumbai has undergone radical changes, Vincent Road still retains some semblance to those olden days. In fact, Matunga on the whole must be the part of the city which still has retained its quaintness, in spite of the concrete jungle spreading all around. :-)

SRINAYAN said...

Thank you, Sriraman and AjayD, for visiting my blog.Our lives were considerably simpler-and Mumbai much quieter-40 years ago. And, as children, our dreams were uncluttered.Keep writing in.

Sriraman Ganapathi said...

I also remember asking Either You or Dad whenever he accompanied us as to whether the Engine was Diesel or Steam Locomotives. We also used to peep out of the window to check that out.

I remember trying to imitate the Diesel Locomotive horn a very typical sound, which I cannot now imitate.

It may also help to know that even now sometimes I do wonder as to why I was not a Locomotive Driver. In fact in my dreams and imaginations, I used even rename the Driver to " Locomotive Engineer ".

All said and done, nothing beats a Train Journey in the beautiful country of ours

Laxman said...

Came here via Sudhagee's link. Railways fascinate me. Loved this post. Brought back childhood memories.

SRINAYAN said...

Thank you, Laxman. Love for the iron horse runs in my family. My brother and father would talk trains endlessly. Please keep visiting this site.Your comments are appreciated

Anonymous said...

Today's AC coaches and Air travel completely shuts us out from knowing how vast our land is and how beautiful.Our frog-in-the-well grows fatly ignorant. Steam trains were certainly more picturesque; they used yo come home with us in our hair. sreeraman's mother knows what trouble his hair was after every journey. This is better than the politician and the municipality. Nostalgia is better than today's reality with 17.85% inflation. Hello! i forgot to introduce myself. Ramaswamy,kolkata.

SRINAYAN said...

I miss the liveliness of non-airconditioned travel.Trains were the only option for long distance travel and becoming an engine driver was one of the few career ambitions for a child!
Thank you for writing in and please keep visting

Sudha said...

I think no other form of transport evokes so much nostalgia, love and innumerable blog posts, fan pages, etc. etc.

Loved your post.

SRINAYAN said...

The pompously named Directorate of Audio Visual publicity(DAVP) was spot with its commercial for the Indian Railways. It is impossible to grow out of our obsession with trains.

zedon said...

If your in traffic, and someone decides to starting coming over to your lane and have a train horns, you can give a friendly honk, or you can let them know you don't play games