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!!!


John P Matthew said…
Hi Maddy,

This is good. Even I remember those days of Kalkari vandi as I used to travel from Bombay to Kerala. I would be black all over with the soot.

But Indian Railways have improved. Lallu has made it profitable and introduced upgrades and online booking of tickets.

Great writing here!

Yes maddy great to see u back! I still remember those days when I used to enjoy those rides from Gujarat to kerala in the first class compartments!when we reached Trichur, we would be almost unrecognizable with all the coal on our bodies!
Venkatesh said…
Maddy boy,

Good to see you in action again. Interesting experience annotated in this blog.I am sure, you know well that the buzz word in Indian Railways now is Lalu's magic!!!. I don't entirely agree on Lalu's claim for success but the World seems to view it differently. When I read this article I remembered the Natural History Museum in London. May be you can write a piece on that.

Bhaskar said…

Great piece. I too remembered my first visit from Mangalore to Madras (as it was called then) in West Coast Express. First time I had seen the train and what a thrill it was. I also remember that fall I had from the top berth on to the holdall kept below. Food in train - simply unforgettable experience. I could not get to understand "Feroke" though.

Keep writing.

Maddy said…
John, thanks a lot - it would have taken what - 3 days from bombay to cochin by jayanti janata? i recall that ride started from cochin terminus not ernakulam..

Pradip, keep coming...& as usual i enjoy your songs..

Venka - nice to hear from you from the warm climes....the money spinner?

Bhaskara - welcome to my blog, look around - something to remind you about namma uru bangaluru as well..Pradip has done an excellent Rajkumar song - check it out!!

Techno malayali - Geeta, great receiving your comment - hope your book is doing well, I will look for it when I am in India next..
S. Ganesan said…
Hi Manmadhan,
Yes, your writing does stir up my memories not only of the steam locomotives but also the life in railway quarters in general. The railway colonies, as they are called, are possibly the last reminders of our colonial past- palatial bungalows, tree lines streets, churches, club houses etc. They are often typical peaceful English townships amidst otherwise chaotic cities and towns of India. The downside- too much coal soot getting deposited all over the house, especially on the wet clothes left out for drying.

I do fondly remember the colonies in Trichi, Podanur, Madurai, Egmore....

Hey, good writing, keep it up.

Maddy said…
Bhaskra - I forgot to clarify - Feroke is the stop station after Calicut even though Kallai comes next. So in reality it is an error in this story, should have been Koylandi which is the one before Calicut...

Ganesa - Thanks - was planning to put in more on railway colonies in part 2. Englebert H I guess lived in one.

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