Balan - A small story from Pallavur

Chevudan balan chatte, chevudan balan chaatte (deaf balan is dead) …so we gleaned from the high pitched voice from afar, and looking out (we cousins were sitting on the raised verandah and gossiping) we saw the running boy, barefoot, speeding through the raised field embankment or varambu…he was wearing a pair of faded shorts, suspended with straps and showing his bony frame…no shirt due to the heat, I guess. Well, in summer, the heat radiated off the swamimala was quite fierce with hardly a breeze to cool one off, so it did make sense to let the kids run around bare bodied…the boy was screaming at the top of his voice. I don’t know who instructed him to run through the village to announce the news, but he did this with great responsibility and alacrity. Within an hour the village knew that Balan was dead, not that people were bothered by the news. Even womenfolk hardly batted eyelids.

Until then few knew Balan, though many had seen him walk hunched and fearful by the edge of the road, at odd hours, with eyes that were normally unfocussed, talking to no one, though mumbling to himself, lost in his private, silent world. Not did anybody care. Everybody had bigger problems of their own. In the old days, people would have stopped him and joked about his forlorn countenance, but nowadays, he was left alone…the brooding walker braving the busy, noisy roads. Years ago, Pallavur had one bus, but now there were many, then there were the Pandi vaykol (Tamilian trucks that procured the local hay and took then to diary farms in Pollachi or Salem or wherever) lorries that sped by with precariously overloaded hay bales. During school hours, there were the autos that loaded kids from the Chinmaya school, a few taxis that took patients to doctors & hospitals located at the distant Palakkad town, or brought the richer traveler (usually visiting his old parents) from Olavakkot station or transporting boisterous wedding parties to Guruvayur…An odd motorbike sped by shattering the afternoon peace, sometimes it was the Japanese Kawasaki that squealed its way through, with a dull echo from the nearby hill ‘swami mala’, in its wake, breaking the afternoon stillness…or the never obsolete Enfield bullet owned by ‘company Babu’ that chugged by…I describe the peace and the roads to set a normal scene, because it was on such a placid road that Balan fell victim to a sad hit and run accident. Rumor has it that it was some vaykol lorry, but that was just a guess, since the local policy was - when in doubt blame a pandi..

My cousin and others who were interested (most people in Pallavur had little else to do) rushed to the scene. I heard the rest from him when he returned in the evening. He got back after attending the hastily arranged funeral and the mandatory post funeral bath at the pond, to provide us with a surprising account.

The accident had occurred near the Kizhekkethara, the only quad junction in the village. Here the Pallasena-Alathur road and the Koduvayoor –Kudalur road meet, and is the home to the main bus stop for the village and location for the lone provision shop and tea kada. Youngsters usually teemed there in the evenings when the school girls walked back, to ogle and make snide comments. It was also the place where the bored oldies met towards dusk for a long chat on the ills that irk the world these days…

Today, the villagers were crowded around the body, somebody mentioned that KP (Kerala police) constable 909 Ramankutty had been informed. There was a buzz in the air; people were excited, and murmuring between themselves. Most were muttering on whatever little they knew about Balan. Some seemed to know a lot, some provided exaggerated background bios…none seemed to match or make sense, until Keshavan Nair turned up.

Keshavan Nair is a retired army officer (rumor has it that he was not really any officer but a cook, but I always thought he retired as a Havaldaar or a Subedar – an NCO or a non commissioned officer) and even at the age of 70 carried himself ramrod stiff, his body healthy, though a bit wizened, leathery and gnarled by age. His countenance was graced by a full moustache, dyed rarely, but usually brown as the dye wore off. The moustache was coiled up ‘rajapat rangadurai’ style (I don’t know who this duari is, it is a usage at home –as usual implicating a Pandi king). KN had the loudest voice in the village. He was the lead folk singer for the local festivals. People listened to him, because it had always been like that, when he talked, others listened. In the old days the army man was the strong one, much traveled and respected. He usually regaled the village with his stories of brave encounters with the enemy…usually tales which were much embellished fiction based on very small figments of truth. Sometimes choice friends and listeners were rewarded with a little peg of (army ration) rum, which he always shared. Anyway KN arrived, pushed the crowd aside and looked. He did not utter a word. He spent over five minutes staring at the dead body, before he spoke his first words, not in his usual booming voice, but in the voice of a broken old man. He said ‘You may not know, but here lies a brave man’. With that comment he walked off from the crowd and sat under the nearby tree, head on knees drawn to his chest and hands drawn over them. Surprised people remarked that this was the first time that KN looked forlorn and showing his advanced age.

My cousin sold insurance policies, so he knew almost all of the few hundred who lived in Pallavur. He sat next to KN and asked what the matter was. It took a while for KN to open out, he waited till all had left and they were alone, the two of them, KN said his voice very much that of a broken soul ‘did you know that Balan was also an army man? We were in the same regiment; He became deaf during the Indo-China war. That was a miserable war; we lost so much in that war, pride and personnel. We had each of us just 50 rounds of ammunition for the 303 rifle we carried plus the bayonet when we were sent to the front lines, nobody in the high command expected the Chinese to come on and well, Balan managed to survive the onslaught, killing a few of the enemy in the bargain, saving just one round for an eventuality. If he had got cornered, he had planned to kill himself. You see, we were friends back then. During the action, I retreated, as ordered by our CO, as soon as we spotted the Chinan’s, knowing that we had no chance, but Balan did not think that way. We both survived the war, an exploding mortar made Balan deaf, and I got back to the lines and lied that we had returned after a vigorous fire fight, taking credit for many kills. Balan knew I was lying, but he did not utter a word. In the course of time, I got promoted to Subedar, but Balan got waylaid, eventually retiring as he was when he started, a foot soldier-a Sepoy. He added that Balan actually belonged to another village, some 10 miles away, but had married years back and settled down here.

KN continued, ‘our relationship had long since soured, were never talked to each other after that. I have never slept in peace nor did I try to make peace for fear that my horrible secret will get out. I have always known that some words from me to the HC (high command) could have got Balan a promotion and a pension from the army. Seeing this dead body now, I wonder what ill waits for me in future’?

Subedar KN then pulled himself to his feet and hobbled off home. No family around to notify, no friends around to help. The villagers waited for KN to lead. KN would not. KN stated emphatically that Balan was living alone and that they should hold his funeral ASAP, before the hot and humid weather turned the body putrid. PC 909 Ramankutty confirmed that a funeral could be carried out, since they had no idea if or how the hit and run lorry could be traced. Balan would never have known what hit him, deaf in both ears, he would probably have felt the lorry bearing down, too late, but would never have heard it…The pyre was lit in the presence of a few on the Malampuzha water canal varambu, and with that the last traces of Balan left for a heavenly abode.

My cousin being the inquisitive type tried to find more answers. So after narrating the tale as you read it, he went again to KN’s house, knowing that KN was the only source for more information. He remembered that Balan was married to somebody in the village, what happened to the family? KN had tracked Balan’s life for a while out of fear and saw the misery that followed Balan wherever he went, doing nothing to help though. Yes, he agreed, once in the past, Balan had married, but his wife left him soon after and was rumored to have moved to Madras, marrying a Pandi hotel udamai. That was all he knew. A search in Balan’s hut provided nothing, but for a trunk with a service uniform, and some meager belongings… there was no other pointer to his sad days..

There is not much more to add to this sad tale, but the words from the ‘Queen’ song ---Another one bites the dust…

The villagers did not see much of KN after that event, It is believed that he is bedridden, searching for answers in darkness, waiting for the final summons from up above. ..A work of fiction – hardly any truth- mostly imagination - but for the location…

I mulled a long time before I posted this. Years ago I used to write many more stories of this type, i.e. stories rather than the shorter blog format, anyway I decided to put this up, mainly for a change and to see how it goes..
Some of the events, e.g. the China war story was told to me by Subedar Ram Singh, who fought in that war and who presently cooks at the Niti's restaurant at Temecula.

Apro bawaji Zubin …

I remembered him when I saw his felicitation on US national TV, a few weeks ago. The picture is interesting, Zubin (and the great Andrew L Weber) does not honor the pledge with his hand over his heart…..I don’t blame him, after all he is the guy who whips out a packet of crushed dried chillies (grown in his own LA backyard) from the small silver box out of his pocket and adds them to bland western dishes doled out to him during ceremonial dinners. (Like my friend Alka who carries a bit of crushed ginger for her tea, wherever she goes….) On further checking I read that Zubin still carries an Indian passport!!!

Zubin Mehta, the maestro who has spent his adult life in the U.S., Canada and Europe, writes in his autobiography, “I have never really left India, you know. It is still today the only place where my dreams take me to. Of course in my dreams there are my wife, my children, my friends, but always they are in Bombay. Every morning of my life I wake up in Bombay.”

To a certain extent Zubin’s spicy palate surprises me; he must be a rare breed of Parsi to like spicy food. Normally Parsi’s and Gujarati’s like medium spicy food with coconut in it and fish. I remember Parsi food - ate it for 3 years as I used to get food daily from a Parsi caterer in Tardeo while at Bombay and I recall the various trips to Bawaji tea shops in Colaba…nice homely tea kada’s with fine wooden chairs and round tables to sit on. The tastiest omelets & buttered ‘pav’ bread were served there!

I liked this guy for so many reasons, but mainly for his Indian’ness even at this western summit he is on…and I
admire him for his hatred for Indian bureaucracy found in our various embassies, something that I myself have been through…"Whenever I return to India, I know that I belong there," the lively 70-year-old conductor says. Since his 18th birthday, Mehta has visited the land of his birth only every couple of years, usually to put on concerts with an orchestra. Like every Indian, he follows Cricket ‘like crazy’ you know, and buys the UK paper ‘Times’ wherever he goes, just to follow the cricket scores

We have heard about the Tata’s, we have heard about other great Parsi’s who did and still do so much for India like Homi Baba, Farook Engineer, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, D Naroji, Nusli Wadia, Godrej’s, Persis Khambatta, Freddie Mercury.…but today there exist only a 100,000 Parsi’s…most of them who only gave to India and who sweetened it, never taking anything away – as the raja had stipulated many years ago when he granted asylum to the group who came from Persia.

Located between Mumbai and Surat,
Sanjan is a legendary place in the history of the Parsi community. When the Parsi’s first landed on the port of Sanjan, it was the kingdom of Jadi Rana. The King, apprehensive of tall, fair and warrior like foreigners sent a bowl full of milk, implying that there was no place for the Parsis in his kingdom. The leader and High Priest of Parsi community, Dastoor Neryosang Dhaval added sugar to the milk and sent the bowl back to the king. This action implied that just as sugar mixed with milk added taste and flavor to it, Parsi’s will mix with the local people and be an asset to the kingdom – Some say he dropped his Gold ring in the milk instead of sugar signifying that they will only add to the wealth of the kingdom, and never take them away..

Warning: Do not try this at the US border post - Try dropping sugar or your ring in the milk of the US immigration officers coffee (Also, I have never seen one drinking milk) and see what happens, he or she will bawl ‘security’ and you will be counting bars and answering FBI, CIA, DHS etc before being bundled in the next flight back…

Zubin Mehta was another such Parsi – our own Zubin bawa - Apra bawaji Zubin in Gujarati, from Colaba Bombay. The genius went on to conduct orchestras and charm millions in Austria, Germany, USA and Israel, not to mention the scores of other major cities he conducted at… Zubin Mehta, a chap who should have ended up a doctor in Mumbai if he had completed his studies in India. Instead he studied music in Vienna and blossomed rapidly to go on and conduct the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra when he was 23. He left India in the 60’s. Born on the day the Bombay orchestra, India’s first orchestra completed its first anniversary in 1936, an orchestra founded by Zubin’s father Mehli Mehta. An amazing, energetic, flamboyant conductor whose biography first got written at the age of 30!!! But he can be quirky too, it is rumored that he once walked out of his concert because someone coughed!! And that he and his group walked out of Ashok hotel N Delhi after seeing a cockroach! There is so much more written about his musical exploits, but Google will provide you all of that with a click..

I have always wondered the meaning of those sharp flicks of the cane with the wrist performed by both orchestra conductors as well as band conductors. While a band conductor’s actions are I guess, mostly for show on a parade ground, the conductor’s baton dictates the scores of an orchestra. Then I wondered, have the orchestra not practiced precisely what to do and when? Why should it be conducted? Because a major orchestra like this has over 80-100 members who have to work in total unison!! I decided to check up – Here is what
Wikipedia has to say and anybody who wants to follow Zubin’s footsteps can perhaps start here.

Conducting is a means of communicating real-time information to performers. There are no absolute rules on how to conduct correctly, and a wide variety of different conducting styles exist. The primary responsibilities of the conductor are to set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen and shape the sound of the ensemble

He lives not far from us in Temecula, somewhere in Irvine or Aliso Viejo…in close by Orange County. Maybe I will run into him someday…and we will talk about Cricket and food and Bombay and Embassies and NRI’s….


Did you know that LP Laksmikant Pyaralal’s Pyarelal used to train with Mehli Mehta in the Bombay chamber orchestra??

Zubin made a
movie – ‘On the wings of fire’ about Parsi’s in the late 80’s

A lovely article on Parsi’s

A majority of the people, who left the shores of Persia, were from the province of Fars, or Pars, hence the name Parsi.

We have a fire temple in Calicut, next to the Bata on SM Street!!! I have always wanted to see it, but it remains locked.
Once home for 300 families, only one Parsi family, the Marshall’s live in Calicut today.

Zubin due to his awe for her, was reluctant to take the stage after an MS
Subalakshmi concert in Moscow!

He loved his visit to Kerala, but 5 days together with his wife was strenuous – A very nice interview….

The Talkative Woman

There is no dearth of restaurants in Carlsbad (they claim it to be the golf capital of the world) where our office is located. There is Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Irish; all the usual fast food places like Mac, Jack in the box…….but no Indian food. On some days, when the mood suits it, I drop into the French Bakery and order a nice bowl of soup. They make some really good cream of Broccoli soup, something I discovered by chance, as I have always stayed well clear of that vegetable these years. This place always made it fresh and served it with thinly sliced French baguette and butter…

Carlsbad itself has nothing much to do with its namesake in Czech Republic. It became popular for similar reasons though, as Karlsbad CZ is a health spa. At the end of this note is a small bit of history for those interested.

So here I am at the French Bakery off Carlsbad village road, sitting and waiting for my soup to be delivered. It is a non descript place, but does remind you of France, and movies like Casablanca… with piped French music from the 60’s, the walls have French scenery…The people who frequent this place are not the ones who walk in on a whim, mostly regulars. The girl at the counter, a very pleasant Spanish girl, knew many of them by name and knew what they regularly ordered or ate. So it was indeed homely and I enjoy sitting there, watching people who walked by, mostly into the nearby liquor store or the Albertsons…A few came in dusty overalls to pick up home remodeling equipment from the hardware shop on the strip…most others were washed out characters, typical of those who frequent beach towns in California.

Today was different. The hotel was undergoing remodeling post New Year. There was a guy putting a new hardboard panel in place, step by step. I was enjoying his meticulous handiwork when the lady from the next table asked…

‘Not many offices around here is it not so?’ I was startled, normally people out here don’t talk to strangers, and this one just did. I said ‘yah, you are right…this is a beach town, very few offices’. Well, I guess she was just waiting for the opening. She continued on, about the fact that she had been living in San Diego County for all her life and had only seen San Francisco and LA other than San Diego. I was surprised and took a good long look at this character. Decent sort, looked neat and a bit on the plump side, tired eyes though, and she has no smile on her face. Quite well dressed, must be 30-35 I guessed.

She was remarking about how this place compared to some others in Diego and I had to tell her that I was pretty new in California. When I said I had just moved in from UK, she seemed amazed, but then her face sagged. She said, ‘look I have always wanted to go see places, but nobody in my family, I have so many relatives all over USA, invites me over, you know that?’

I was starting to wonder what direction this conversation was taking and when my soup was going to turn up. The tummy started rumbling and I had tons to do after getting back to office.

I said ‘travel is interesting’ you can go on your own to Las Vegas or some place, she said ‘you see I get depressed and others also told me to have a change and go some place, but I cant get the courage to board a train or a plane. Once I purchased a ticket to Spain, but then on the last day I cancelled because I could not find money for hotel in Spain and mainly because I did not have the courage to leave here’. Initially I was surprised, but then I figured it out, She was like so many Americans, caught up in their little world making hardly an effort to do something different. Eventually it becomes too late.

I was observing the panel fitter as well, but his job was nearly done and dusted so I had to turn my full focus to the talkative woman..

She went on, to talk about her sister Laura and her little son (forgot his name) and all their family problems. Obviously there was no husband in the picture. I did listen patiently, but in my mind, I was wondering what next. She was wondering how I venture about so far away from home and to strange lands, how I manage languages and things like that. She must have felt that I was some strange guy in comparison…like I define myself, a modern day Nomad…

The soup came, the conversation (more a monologue) continued. The broccoli tasted awesome. I noticed that the lady just had a coffee for lunch. She probably came to the place for some talking company, I assumed. Neither of us introduced ourselves or asked direct questions. Americans are strange, they have no problems about opening out there personal lives in public…A little strange to people like us, but it is so in the West. If you want to meet up with people, go to a bar in Europe, in the US it is any place bar, hotel, bus, plane. You meet, you talk, then you go your way ….As the world becomes modern, there is less and lesser time for deep friendships, all you have at the end of the day is many acquaintances, but very few good friends…

In between all this I remembered RK Narayanan’s ‘Talkative man’…This surely was one talkative woman, but I hoped she did feel happy having found somebody to talk to. I have to admit that I listened patiently during those 30-40 minutes. It was time for me to get back, so I excused myself and wished her the best. She did seem sad that I had to leave but thanked me for taking time & listening…The talkative woman here had plenty to say , but well, this listener had to leave…

I hope she finds courage to accept changes and see places. I hope she gets rid of her bouts of depression and I hope she finds happiness in life..
Talkative man – RKN said "I had planned ‘Talkative Man’ as a full-length novel, and grandly title it, 'Novel No. 14'. While it progressed satisfactorily enough, it would not grow beyond 116 typewritten sheets, where it just came to a halt, like a motor car run out of petrol. Talkative Man, the narrator, had nothing more to say."

Carlsbad owes much of its early renown to a sea captain, John A. Frazier, who came to the area in 1883 and settled on a government homestead. Frazier drilled two wells by his home and struck water at just over four hundred feet. Frazier soon decided his well water had remarkable curative powers over his chronic rheumatism. As a small village called Frazier's Station grew around the railroad depot for the California Southern Railroad (later Santa Fe), Frazier offered his water to railroad passengers traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego. A huge water barrel near the depot boasted a sign inviting travelers to "alight, drink and be happy. But as the "elegant, commodious" Carlsbad Hotel opened in late 1887, the real estate bubble was bursting. The special excursion trains brought by real estate agents to Carlsbad ended. Land prices slid throughout San Diego County. The Carlsbad Hotel continued to draw tourists and "health seekers," attracted by the fine beaches, easy railroad transportation, and, of course, the water. But in 1896, the hotel burned, some thought by arson. The community survived, well-served by its mild climate and magnificent setting. And the popularity of Carlsbad water continued for decades as bottled mineral water was shipped throughout the West. Today, the site of John Frazier's original well is preserved beneath Alt Karlsbad, a replica of a German Hanseatic house, on Carlsbad Boulevard

Those were the days – Train rides - Part 1

I was riding on the airport link between Portland airport and Lloyd’s centre in downtown Portland, today. The train was one of those light rail transit services serving the city much akin to the Frisco Bart, though a considerably smaller network. It had no character, there were just three jokers in my compartment including me, all looking equally bored. And I remembered days traveling on our Indian railway system. How eventful they were!

When it comes to statistics, IR stands tall, serving many a thousand mile, largest network, longest tracks, largest freight haulage…..least revenue collected, biggest loss maker…whatever. But for me, it all started way back in the early 60’s.

The first time we got introduced to them was the very first lesson in the first standard.

Koo koo kookoo theevandi, kooki ppayum theevandi
Kalkari thinnum thevandi, vellam monthum theevandi...

Every child dreamed of traveling on a steam locomotive mugging those lines and my first rail ride was not far away...sitting in the meter gauge passenger between Calicut and Shornur, enroute Olavakkot (now Palakkad Jn) a choclate brown colored second class bogey with yellow wooden seats. I did not remember much of the train or the journey, but I can approximate it all now…

The first thing that hits you is the smell of the station and the sounds. Grime was everywhere and the floor was full of black dust from the coal. The Jutka (horse cart) dropped you at the entrance of Calicut station and as you would see today a red shirted (was he red shirted then? I don’t recall) coolie or porter comes rushing towards you. For a few annas he would hoist your suitcase (Long journey’s meant lugging another bit of baggage called holdalls where you packed your bed & pillow). The Calicut station has changed little from those days, it was quite the same, high ceilings, big British made ceiling fans turning slowly, hardly a wisp of air generated. People from better families traveled second (government officers and very rich Settu’s were the only first class travelers) and others traveled third. The coolie takes one look and then automatically directs you towards the second class waiting room. The children run out and along the platform, taking in the huddling passengers, the shops selling good books in English, newspapers, banana chips, red and green slabs of the famous Calicut halva waiting to be sliced and devoured or oil paper packed for presenting to relatives in distant locations (i.e. if you have forgotten to buy from Maharaj’s at SM street). The shops had Perry Mason, Tolstoy, Woodhouse, Conan Doyle….Days old Indian express or the Hindu and the daily Mathrubhumi and Manorama newspapers ( the Hindu was delivered from Madras by a Fokker airplane to the Tenhipalam airstrip much later!!). Then there were those trolleys that had fresh cooked food (the elders always asked us to stay well clear of them, unhygienic, adulterated, made by lesser classes…) that beckoned you to try them out – Bajjis, bondas, Vadas, Pazham pori….or if it were closer to lunch or dinner, curd rice, biryani….My mouth waters as I think of all this, and then the din created by the tea and coffee sellers with their chaaaaayeee, chaya chayyeeeee and kopi kooooopi kooppppi echoing all around.

Almost always there were a few military Jawans or officers with their steel trunks waiting to board and go somewhere. The policeman walked around majestically with his stiff starched shorts and patties and boots and peaked caps, swinging his bamboo lathi and maintaining a semblance of order. They fitted well into uniforms those days and were the hefty rough sort, not like the thin emancipated or potbellied lot that floated in the uniforms since then and made a mockery of the police force.

Then of course there was the trolley with the ice fruit and multi colored sodas..the soda bottle was opened with the vendors dirty thumb pressing down on a marble..or it was a small wooden opener and it would go “biiiiish’. How we kids wished we could got one. I must have tried a few on blue moon days probably; in any case I never got hooked on sodas or drank them since then. My dentist is still in awe looking at my teeth, the dental hygienist asked me, I heard you don’t drink soda’s how do you manage without one? No wonder you have good teeth…Have you ever tried one? Is it religious something? I had to smile hearing all that…

You could smell fish – they transported fish baskets in the goods compartment, Beggars were everywhere, singing beggars, guys without limbs all begging for a paisa or less (today they want many rupees – that is inflation for you). I darted to the edge of the platform and looked down, all kinds of rubbish on the tracks and a few rats bounding by…before I could observe further I was pulled back by my uncle. But by then I had found a bit of coal on the platform edge that I pocketed with gusto.

Pretty soon a rumble sounded, the floor vibrating to announce the arriving train. The train was past Feroke, people said. The first bell was sounded by the smartly attired station master (oh! We all wanted to become station masters or engine drivers after that first ride) which meant the train was due to arrive soon. Some time late he sounded the second one- a double bell which meant the train was imminent on the platform. He would in the meantime conduct a conversation (or morse in those days?) over the wind up phone to the next station. We saw the jet black smoke and the steam clouds before the giant lumbered in…The SM ran up to the beginning of the platform (in bigger stations an assistant did it) and as the train steamed in got the key bamboo yoke/ring from the engine driver and handed over the key to the next station (or whatever it was) all in one fluid motion.

The kids strained towards the train, the elders held them back with rough hands, the coolie (nowadays referred to only as porter) was the first to board and we trotted along with the train till it stooped. The porter had in the meantime located seats for us and we all clambered in…exited chatter, who wanted the window seat, who wanted to go see the toilet….arguments, much crying and cajoling took place for the window seat…

The engine, you should have seen it, it was awe inspring. Bellowing steam all around and making the characteristic noise, pistons pumping furiously – all working in unison and controlled by the great engine driver who had his hands on the throttle and commanding the shrieking whistle. All the while the boiler firemen kept shoveling coals into the furnace…if I recall there were three or four able bodied men in the engine. All of them looking as black as the coal that went in and glistening in sweat from all the tough work. But when the boss man looked out, head craning along the platform and pulled the whistle cord…boy o boy – that was it, I wanted to become an engine driver from the first day.

The train was a powerful machine, pulling bogey after bogey, crammed with people. It would take hours to traverse those hundreds of miles, sometimes days. The newer steam engines pulled express trains that got priority and traveled faster. They stopped often on the tracks with some problem or the other. Never have I reached any place on time those days. But I would not trade that travel to a faster bus or a car trip and I still travel by train when in India. Such was the power of that first experience.

Fifteen to thirty minutes later, the train pulled out from the platform. And I took in the compartment and the occupants. Two three seaters, and two single seaters separating the aisle. Two fans droned on the ceiling, the other two were stuck and required some guy’s comb to restart it. Above the seats were luggage racks. But many more than three sat on the three seaters during rush days. A mandatory visit to the toilet or lavatory as they call it revealed a hole on the floor showing the tracks speeding by. My uncle stood guard outside with the door open to ensure I was not terrified. Back to the seat, there was a Gujrati trader and his family on one side, soon they started to unpack one of the smaller bags to pull out a tiffin carrier containing pooris and masala and other dishes that I had no clue about. My mouth watered, I looked with pleading eyes at my Valiamma, and she sternly issued a warning with her eyes for me to look elsewhere. My drooling continued, the food smelt heavenly….A little further sat a Brahmin family, and they started consuming their pungent smelling curd rice & lime pickles. A Koya across dressed in his checkered Lungi, half sleeved baniyan and massive multi pocket money belt over his pot belly opened his Biryani packet, much to the Brahmin family’s disgust..(those days they did not have the train ‘meals’ service, but they stopped for more time at stations)

I was in tears, even though I had finished an early lunch at home before boarding the train, I felt terribly hungry, I wanted something even if it was a portion of the kaka’s biryani. I tried eyeing the Gujju’s wife, she seemed more pliable, yes, it worked, she offered me a poori with some rolled in masala. I greedily accepted it before my Valiamma even knew what was going on, and munched on. Valiamma looked down and was livid, I got a cuss over the ears and she apologized to the Settu family…he just ate lunch, you know…Ah! who cared, train hunger satiated, I was looking out of the window at the rushing fields, the kids sitting on the embankments, the houses on the track side, wishing I was living closer to the tracks as well, like them – I could then see trains every day. Now what, I am thirsty, Valiamma, I want something to drink, she took out her bottle and gave me a tumbler of bright red Chukkuvellam which I sipped. And then I slept, in her warm lap…waking up now and then, as we passed stations, mercifully without any signal stops or mechanical failure stops…My eyes smarted with coal dust that came in through the window, my hair was sticky and dirty with the grime..

Olavakkot, at last- I was tired groggy, moody and sleepy, We had finally reached our destination.


For an Indian, the train always evokes powerful memories, not necessarily those of Lallu.
Starting from the first trains that started to ply from various cities in India during the Raj, to the new locomotives, little has changed. The first train ran on 16th April 1853 between Bombay and Thane…Today 11000 trains run every day, 7000 of them being passenger trains over 108000 track kilometers. The department employs 1.54 million personnel and covers 6853 stations. 13 million passengers use it everyday! The Indian railway history is well
documented and supported by rail enthusiasts at the IRFCA. Development of the IR after 1853 was pretty rapid and Calicut was connected before 1900 if I read it right.

There are some who still remember the train sounds from real life or later day mimicries. If you really want to hear a great recording, download & play this
link (won't play by just clicking). It is not actually from an Indian train, but they sounded the same and so, thanks to the owner D Bailey…

The backbone of the railway was the
Anglo Indian…remember Adoor bhasi in Chattakari? I remember staying at my engine driver uncle’s house at the Railway quarters it Mint – (Washermanpet) Madras, they had their share of Anglo’s and naturally for us adolescents, the girls were the cynosure of all eyes -pretty, bob cut haired, skirt clad girls you would never see anywhere else, English speaking boys who played the guitar and dreamt of going to Britain (my brother’s friend Joe did exactly that – he is an engine driver somewhere in the UK now).

But all of that and much more will follow in Part 2 detailing my experience of riding in a Diesel engine of the Madras Mail with my uncle.

The Kerala Express has the longest daily run time. The Kerala Express has daily service and covers 3054km in its run (in 42.5 hours). In second place is the Mangala Exp. covering 2750km in 52 hours

Calicut Railway station has a cyber café now!!

By the way readers, Wish you all a happy & prosperous new year!!!