9/1/07 - 10/1/07 - Maddy's Ramblings

Sep 28, 2007

September 28, 2007

Diamonds and Curry

by
Diamonds and Curry
Bored and trying to find some Indian food during a business trip, I met Chimanbhai Patel at the Murugan. Readers would naturally assume that I was somewhere in Chennai or some other Tamil town, but well, it was many thousand miles away, in the picturesque canal city of Amsterdam. It was and is not a vegetarian or south Indian restaurant, but a Punjabi restaurant. Located on Rozengracht, it is close to the famous canals and in the tourist district. The hotel itself was a little garish as most Indian restaurants places overseas are, usually, with a bit of red wallpaper on the walls and dim lighting…with Kingfisher beer proudly on offer.

It was then that I chanced upon Chimanbhai who was there for some food as well. Though it was bright and sunny outside, the time was dinner time, about 7PM, and there were nobody at the Murugan except for the manager /owner - a Punjabi lady and us. She appeared to know Patel, I did not, but soon enough he struck up a conversation. I was looking at both of them forming my own impressions in the meantime. Patel was a short, stout, darkish guy with unkempt hair, slicked to a side and a hair line moustache. He wore metal rimmed glasses and was dressed shabbily. A shirt of obvious Indian origin, tailored many years ago showed the paunch that had come about much later at the tighter fitting midriff where the button was furiously wrestling with the button hole for freedom. The paunch rested over a low slung pair of bespoke trousers, tere-cotton, Raymonds 70’s vintage and which was once black. The shoes had not seen polish for many a month or year. But Patel had one thing going for him, a cheerful countenance and a ready smile, plus a booming voice. I thought, well here was a classic Desi, still stuck in a time warp, no improvement even after he landed up in Amstrerdam…the Sardarni, however was just the opposite, well dressed, in a silk Salwar Kameez, she was gracefully attired, wearing practical jewelry, coffered hair, straight posture and a confident look in her face. Obviously she knew how to run the restaurant and her family,and I thought..

It was the Sardarni who told me why and how the Punjabi restaurant got this name, a name that many old timers of Amsterdam recognized. Pundit Nehru gifted an elephant named Murugan (actually the children of Amsterdam requested him for one) to the city and it soon became a beloved animal in the zoo. Children loved it, so did the general populace. Murgan soon became synonymous with India and well, our Sardarji quickly pounced on the idea of naming his new restaurant Murugan. I am not sure if it really helped, seeing only the two of us in the 15 table restaurant for dinner. But wanting good food and not to upset the owner, I did not ask the stupid question.

Patel had been looking at me for a while, and soon he started the opening gambit. Patel was an avid talker, seeing that I was from India, he got down to the basics of people introduction amongst us Indians in rapid ‘machine gun fire’ fashion…. Indian, Where are you from, Do you speak Hindi/Gujarati ….You live here? Are you permanent resident, ah! Vijitor? What is your name? Which company you work for? You are manager? Making good money?

Having got reasonable answers and having determined that I would be harmless to him , he launched into his life story as many lonely Desi’s abroad are prone to, especially on a chilly, fall season evening when everybody else is into their third or fourth drink elsewhere in Amsterdam, trying to square up their lay for the evening...

His travails were pretty interesting – hailing from Surat, many years ago he had started as a diamond cutter in his uncle’s shop. It was eventually a big mistake while cleaving a diamond, that he got chucked out. However hailing from a decent family, he then joined the couriers between Bombay & Surat - the Angadia’s. It was a harrowing time for him, carrying Crores worth of diamonds, looking non-descript & traveling with these riches in second class compartments. Again it was a mistake that made him lose his job. Fortunately it was a very small industrial diamond consignment and as I expected, the bag under his head was taken away by somebody while he slipped into deep sleep. He got kicked out again from the business though the strong arm of the family found the stolen cachet pretty soon. Not losing hope, he convinced another uncle to get him across to Holland and for the past few years he has been a Dutch man, lonely like Murugan the elephant. Even though there were plenty of rich Indians around there, in the hustle bustle of Diamond business in Amsterdam, he was quite a loner and floundering close to the lower rungs of the personnel development ladder.

Patel told me more about Murugan and he told me quite a bit about the diamond business and Angadia’s. As the evening started to get dark and it was time for me to get back and get ready for the next days seminar, I had to say goodbye to the man of the evening.

I never met Patel again…. He remains forever lost amongst the many millions of Patel’s worldwide (Patel BTW ranks second to Singh in Indian family names & foremost in Britain & USA amongst Indians)

Ah well, one thing was clear, there was at least one other Malabari in Amsterdam that day, you see, as it turned out Murgan the elephant was a Malabari (This was 1989).

Murugan (born 23-1-53) from Wynad - Kerala, was presented to the children of the Dutch capital by India's first Prime Minister Pundit Nehru on 25 -11-54. Since his arrival in 1954, the Asian elephant quickly became a central attraction at ‘Artis’ and his biography, edited by zoo director Maarten Frankenhuis, was published in April 2003 to celebrate his turning 50 and becoming the oldest male elephant in Europe. The only thing was that as he was brought in as a lone baby, he never learnt how to mate, and he remained a sad bachelor all his life. The inability to get him to mate led staff to the innovative, but ultimately fruitless, approach of hanging a photograph of a "naked elephant" in his enclosure, ANP reported. Murugan was a mischievous elephant, spraying the public with water, stealing stuff from shops while being taken for a walk, breaking into underground sewer pipes etc. Murugan, ailing towards the end, was eventually put to sleep, on Tuesday June 4, 2003.

A little bit about Angadia’s - Surat has no airport. So, diamonds cannot be exported directly out of the city. Buyers, therefore, fly into Mumbai from where 99 per cent of all exports take place. Surat’s Rs 35,000-crore diamond trade would come to a halt but for these Angadias.
They perfected the delivery system much before India heard of couriers. The Angadias carry Rs 100-crore worth of diamonds every day with a guarantee to pay back the entire value of the consignment if it is lost in transit . Angadias are the reason the diamond merchants of Surat have a competitive advantage in the Industry over anyone cause they make the transport costs so low. Courier costs for diamonds are so high that courier companies are not considered. An Angadia will board a 2nd class compartment in a 'Flying Rani' -- almost a local train from Bombay to Surat carrying diamonds worth crores. As per the latest figures, 11 out of every 12 diamonds worn by the world are cut and finished in Surat. No wonder, the Angadias always have their hands full.. Transporting what is considered priceless; Angadias of Gujarat today carry 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds. Between Surat and Mumbai, the specialised diamond couriers take the stones through the darkness of the night in cars, lorries or by trains. Their promise: Safe delivery.

While on the subject make sure you see ‘Blood diamond’ some time or the other – a great movie with Leonardo DiCaprio & Djimon Hounsou playing great roles in a fast moving story.

And one more thing – Listen to ‘Diamonds and rust’ by Joan Baez

Sep 24, 2007

A time when slide-rules ruled
No! This is not a review about the great Nevil Shute novel with the same name, but a musing about the object itself. The book itself was Shute’s own autobiography, and quite an engrossing one at that. For serious readers, Nevil Shute is always a recommendation, books like his ‘Town like Alice’& ‘On the beach’ standout novels.

I still remember the fist time I saw one of them beauties, a slide rule (not the gals), after I joined the engineering college. I had not the faintest clue that such a thing existed till I saw one and held it in my hands, and the one I saw was a lovely Faber Castell off-white contraption. It took a while before somebody explained how it worked and it took many days before I figured out the rudiments of slide-ruling.

As it was a necessity (until then we had managed famously with the Log tables), I pestered my uncle, a shippie to get me one, and he did. That was how I came to possess a ‘Hope 530’ Made in Japan - Slide rule. Straight away I stuck my name tag on the plastic box. I became fairly conversant with its use after many months of frustration but was never fluent like others who could complete complex calculations in a flourish. Today, after many decades, I saw it in the bottom shelf of our storage room and I wondered, was the calculator that came in the 70’s worth it? The slide rule, working based on logarithms, had by then crossed three hundred years of continuous use!! People like Neil Armstrong & Jimmy Crater were slide rule users. But admittedly, it required much training & it was still very complicated to go past two decimals, only a few had such mastery to get there.

Those were the things that set an engineer apart those days and a little higher up in the hierarchy. We carried the T square (later the mini drafter), drawing instruments (rivaling the medico’s guy’s stethoscope) and the Slide rule in style, confident in the fact that nobody would know what to do with them, and right we were.

The HP and Texas instrument calculators came soon after, the Texas machines had a nice red display and what they called positive sequence keying or something like that (you felt that click after you pressed a button – never to be seen on Japanese machines) while all the others (Japanese) had blue or green displays. Exams were completed faster, and in the early days many a calculator was stolen as they were almost always imported and much in demand.

I pestered my uncle again and he brought me a ‘thundering’ Casio device (FX102) with a blue LED display, not LCD, slightly clunky compared to today’s stuff. Man! That was like a Ford Mustang, did everything it was asked in lightning speed, used normal AA batteries and had 12 digits. And with that the slide rule hit the dust, consigned to the bottom of my trunk.

Today I looked at the relic slide rule with great fondness as it brought back many a college memory, of early teen age days gone by, new friendships, the ragging period, the first days of independent hostel living….remember the Tamil song in ‘Autograph’ Nyapakam varuthe nyapakm varuthe…. Today I can still operate the slide-rule, multiplying numbers for example, while my son looks on bewildered (otherwise he has tons of things to say on how backward we were) and awed…It required acquired skill, it needed no batteries, girls took time learning it, so the boys had ample opportunity getting up and closer training them ….

The slide rule is an extremely clever device that uses logarithms to simplify difficult calculations. It was invented in the 17th century by the British mathematician, William Oughtred. He realized that one could multiply or divide numbers by sliding two logarithmically marked rulers next to one another. Subsequent refinements added many more sophisticated functions and developed slide rules for highly specialized types of calculations. Users ranged from NASA engineers working on the Apollo Project to sanitation engineers, to artillerymen.

There was a movie in 1952 titled – Slide Rule Blonde – now that is something very irregular

And there is a great song by Sam Cooke– ‘Wonderful world’ which goes like this

Don't know much about geography
Don't know much trigonometry
Don't know much about algebra
Don't know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two,
And if this one could be with you,
What a wonderful world this would be.

And some reasons why it beats a computer hollow

-A Slide Rule doesn't shut down abruptly when it gets too hot
-A Slide Rule doesn't smoke whenever the power supply hiccups
-You can spill coffee on a Slide Rule; you can use a Slide Rule while completely submerged in coffee or wherever
-A Slide Rule doesn't need scheduled hardware maintenance
-A Slide Rule is immune to viruses, worms, and other depredations from hostile adolescents with telephones
-Slide Rules are designed to a standardized, open architecture

Sep 14, 2007

Vivekanada's Lunatic Kerala
Watching a totally loony & horrible movie ‘Bharghava Charithram Moonam Kandam’ scripted by Srinivasan and based loosely on the fantastic ‘Analyse this’ starring Robert De Niro & Billy Crystal, I was wondering about the comment Sreenivasan makes during the opening scene. He refers to Swami Vivekananda’s statement about Malayalis being lunatics. I thought I must be crazy one to be watching this miserable movie…First & foremost – Do not see Bharghava charithram…It is probably the worst movie you can see, but then you should watch ‘Analyse this’…

Kerala today - is a tropical paradise, God's own country, recommended by the National Geography Magazine as one of the 50 destinations in the world that one should visit. Kerala is a land of great natural beauty, one of the smaller states of India. From the majestic heights of the Western Ghats the land undulates westward presenting a vista of silent valleys clothed in the richest green. A place
Bill McKibben describes thus in National Geographic – The real reason to visit Kerala, which lies at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent, is for the intellectual adventure: Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

Now what exactly did Vivekanada feel or see to say what he said, when he visited Kerala some 100 years ago?? “I have wandered into a lunatic asylum!' Swami Vivekananda concluded after touring the princely states of Kerala (See exact remarks at the end of this note!!). He was appalled by the horrors of the caste system practiced in Kerala at that time. This was some 100 years ago, when Hindu society in India were divided into several castes and sub castes. The many groups bickered & quarreled about rights and privileges and argued over who stood higher on the caste ladder. The miserable custom of untouchability existed and a large majority were denied entry into temples. Vivekananda was horrified by these terrible practices that were imposed on lower caste people prompting him to call Kerala a "lunatic asylum".

The other day I read about a
Dr Bahuleyan in America, also a Malayali, who was giving back many millions of dollars to his village in Kerala. He mentioned that in his younger days, he had to take a circuitous route to school since the temple was on the main route and he as an untouchable could not go near the temple.

Can you imagine that temples, wells, eating halls were all out of bounds for the lower classes? Can you imagine a scenario where lower class women were not allowed to cover upper part of their bodies or wear jewelry? That "Untouchable" Hindus were required to maintain a prescribed distance from the upper-castes at all times so as not to pollute them. The distance was at least 64 feet from the priestly Brahmin caste and 30 feet from artisans. The untouchables belonged mainly to the Pulaya, Paraya or Nayadi community.

I still remember days as a child at Pallavur, when during midday or dusk a sharp howl would be heard on certain days. It was a Nayadi announcing his arrival. We children would rush out despite dire threats not to, by the elders, but there would be nobody at the gate. All we could see was a pot into which old rice gruel was poured by the maid servant for the Nayadi beggar, sometimes it was old clothes. We all had to leave and then the Nayadi would come and pick up his bowl. One day I did see the chap, he was no different from anybody else…A bit darker from all the wandering around in the sun and rather disheveled in looks & attire (a single tattered towel round the waist) that was it. However, we did not have any ill luck seeing him, ever, if one wondered about that..

How did Vivekanada land up in Kerala? Well, it all started in 1892 when Vivekananda stayed at the house of a
Dr Palpu in Bangalore, just before his trip to USA. Dr Palpu an Ezhava from Kerala, was forced to move to Madras for medical studies due to the fact that he could not do so in Kerala (even though he passed the entrance exams, he was not given a seat) and was later educated in Europe with a Mysore government scholarship. Even after becoming a doctor with a European degree he was not allowed to practice in Kerala!!

It was Palpu who explained the horrors of the caste system to Vivekanada.
Vivekanada replied Dr Palpu that they should find their own leader and not look up to somebody else. Palpu went along to rally support with a signature campaign in Kerala, created an association with Sree Narayan Guru & the starting of SNDP plus raised the matter to Sr Nivedita in England, who using her connections passed it on to the British government for action. Thus started the mass awareness phase.

During 1924-25, Gandhiji got involved in this uprising, starting with the Vaikom Satyagraha. Sree Narayana Guru who spearheaded the cause rallied to convert it to a mass movement. This forced the Maharaja of Travancore to issue the 'Temple Entry Proclamation' on November 12, 1936, throwing open all temples to all Hindus.


PJ Cherian puts it perfectly - During the last years of 1930s tremendous changes occurred both in the political and cultural spheres of Kerala. In that period anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, national, democratic movement strengthened in an unprecedented fashion all over Kerala. Modern value concepts which was confined to the upper strata of the society in the early phase, now began to spread to the lower layers of society. In addition to the middle class, various other sections consciously entered into the mainstream of public life. Consequently political and cultural spheres became more popular based and it acquired democratic character.


Thus started the renaissance in Kerala. Since then, Malayalis got involved in public work and politics in an effort to rebuild their disintegrating society. Women, who have long comprised over half the state's population, began working in fields such as teaching, as early as the 1920s. Unlike the Indian north, where knowledge has mostly been the privilege of the upper castes, Kerala experienced an even spread of education thus becoming highly literate and today a place where 90% of people own land. Today, ten decades thence, Kerala is an egalitarian state, perhaps the only place in India where castes and religious discrimination are relatively absent. It is also the only state where women outnumber men 1090:1000.

Paul Zakariah adds - Today caste is no more a tool of social domination in Kerala. In fact, lower caste status is shrewdly used as a tool for social bargaining. But Kerala continues to be a sociological madhouse of unparalleled dimensions. For example, perhaps this is the only society in India where ideology has got so intertwined with culture that people have ceased to understand the difference.

Exact text of Vivekanada’s statement (Text obtained from Colombo to Almora – Vivekanada’s notes 1904) Note that Vivekanada mentions Malabar, though I believe he meant Travancore & Cochin as Dr Palpu referred Vivekanada to those Kingdoms during his discussions.

In 1897, Vivekanada remarked in a public address – Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar? The poor ‘Paraiah’ is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high caste man, but if he changes his name to hodge-podge English name or to a Mohamedan name, it is alright. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums and they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed.

The comment about the name is interesting – If you were a non Hindu trader such as an Arab, a Christian, an Englishman or a Jew (As you know Malabar was a trading capital in the world for many centuries and we had people of many religions and cultures inhabiting the coastal lands) you were classified as a Vaishya and were in the touchable-seeable class!!

For those who don’t know – Nayadis are mountain people who came from the Western Ghats. They were lowest in the social strata and were not even allowed to use the public road and had to use side roads (This I did not know, I learnt
this from Gandiji’s notes). They were apparently also not allowed to come out before sunset, this I am not in agreement with.

PJ Cherian explains the system in detail in Essays on the Cultural Formation of Kerala (the situation which infuriated Vivekanada) - Nayadi is the caste which has to observe the farthest distance from the Namboodiri Brahmans to avoid the polluting effect caused by it. If a Nayadi pollutes a Brahman the latter can regain his purity not only by a ritual bath but after the ritual bath he has to change the sacred thread and to eat the five products of the cow (milk, curd, butter, liquid and solid excreta used in the rituals of purification). For this most abhorred Nayadi the food polluted by a Pulaya or Paraya is forbidden but this Pulaya and Paraya are castes mutually polluting by touch and have to be themselves purified through a bathing by immersion. If an Ullada pollutes a Pulaya he can only be relieved from it by a seven course bath and by trickling out a few drops of blood from his little finger. But this Ullada is one who considers himself as holy as to abandon the food touched by a Pulaya.

Pic – courtesy Wikipedia

Sep 11, 2007

‘No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – Satisfaction guaranteed
Like they say, books written by Alexander McCall Smith are for some, not all readers. If you like laid back writing about a sleepy town in Botswana, about simple people and their simple lives, about human behavior and simple joys, read Smith. If you want thrills, read James Patterson. If you want to undergo mental calisthenics, read the late Robert Ludlum. Thus start my recommendations, but let us get to Smith.

Smith became famous with his first book of the detective series, one that I read second, called ‘No 1 ladies detective agency’. What a master stroke, the name of that book. It makes you curious and when my cousin recommended the series to me, I was intrigued. I am through reading two of them, the first and the fourth with an equally strange title – ‘The Kalahari typing school for men’. In a way it was good to read the 4th first, as it sets the pace and mood, also describes the settings without much of a plot. It whets your appetite for the others which are supposedly better. Now I am reading ‘In the company of cheerful ladies’.

The detective is a homely plump woman called Precious Ramotswe who runs the agency with much success. And she goes about tracking errant husbands, missing children or all kinds of offbeat cases in her daily life. She has to deal with her new life partners JLB Matekoni’s and help out at his car repair shop and she has an able secretary, assistant detective and assistant manager Mma Makutsi. So in the 4th book, while Ramottswe is trundling about Botswana in her white van, looking for two people a client Moleflo had asked her to locate, in an act of penance, Makutsi has a brainwave in creating a typing school for men. Matekoni on the other hand is working with his two apprentices, trying to hone their auto repair skills, but then boys are boys, one of the two seems to have moved from girls to god while the other is trying to find even more girls to chase.. And Makutsi, eventually finds romance at the typing school and is close to finding her life partner…

This is a fascinating book that showcases the basics of human nature and how people can be happy with small things. It will help take you back to those days of common sense, manners, sentiments and simple wry wit & humor.

Listen to this comment in the 4th book - Mma Ramotswe observes, "The trouble with men, of course, was that they went about with their eyes half closed for much of the time. Sometimes Mma Ramotswe wondered whether men actually wanted to see anything, or whether they decided that they would notice only the things that interested them"

And this- Mma Ramotswe suggests that people are now "far too ready to abandon their husbands and wives because they had tired of them. . . . And friends, too. They could become very demanding, but all you had to do was to walk out. Where had all this come from, she wondered? It was not African, she thought, and it certainly had nothing to do with the old Botswana morality. So it must have come from somewhere else"

I am now itching to get to the other books – and hopefully move on to the three other series that Smith writes about.

This is how the detective agency is advertised

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency -For All Confidential Matters and Inquiries -Satisfaction Guaranteed for all Parties - Under Personal Management

McCall Smith has written over 50 books – Here is what he has to say about his central character - There is no particular person upon whom Precious Ramotswe is based, but there is an incident. Years ago I was in Botswana, staying with friends in a small town called Mochudi. A woman in the town wished to give my friends a chicken to celebrate Botswana National Day. I watched as this woman -- traditionally built, like Mma Ramotswe -- chased the chicken round the yard and eventually caught it. She made a clucking noise as she ran. The chicken looked miserable. She looked very cheerful. At that moment I thought that I might write a book about a cheerful woman of traditional build. Mma Ramotswe sets up her agency without any relevant experience. However, she does have intuition -- in abundance -- and that is very much more important than anything she could learn from a book. In fact, the passages she cites from The Principles of Private Detection are ultimately not particularly helpful to her, the point being that a person without any training can achieve great things if he or she has natural intelligence and ability. In many African countries, including Botswana, people have great respect for books and for the learning they contain. I would hope to point out that this should not obscure the importance of real, practical wisdom.

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and was educated there and in Scotland. He became a law professor in Scotland, and it was in this role that he first returned to Africa to work in Botswana, where he helped to set up a new law school at the University of Botswana. He is currently Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, but has been a visiting professor at a number of other universities elsewhere, including ones in Italy and the United States (where he has twice been visiting professor at SMU Law School in Dallas, Texas).
The picture ofthe 'Kalahari' presents a poignanat backdrop....
Pics - courtesy various sites, acknowledged with thanks

Sep 5, 2007

Those were the days – Train rides - Part 2
I hope at least some of the readers understand Malayalam and can follow the lines sung by Mehboob in the movie ‘Doctor’. The song is Vandee, pukavandi…..Those who have speakers, turn the volume up..Though this is more apt for my earlier blog, I could find this song only recently.



The train journey I remember the most is the long – was it 6 days then? from Olavakkot to Howrah. Around 1969, we decided on summer holidays in Calcutta at my aunt’s place, so another aunt escorted us in a steam engine driven second class sleeper compartment to Calcutta. We were like ruffians when we reached there, hungry, black as coal, hot and miserable…But I can still remember the food at stations (this was before in-train catering) where tea was drunk off a the tiny mudka, the poori’s with potato curry served in a stiff leaf cup, the potato skins still in place…the grime and the misery in the compartment, the stinky toilets with taps that ran dry, but we were kids then, and it was all very enjoyable…

For somebody vacationing in Pallavur, arrival of long lost cousins was always a great event. Vast stretches of land, huge areas to play meant a lot of fooling around and games provided cousins were around. They usually arrived in droves for the 7th lamp or Ezham Vilakku festival at the local Thrippallavurappan temple. Big temple, big event for all and sundry in the locality, especially for us children.

Elayachan was always doubly welcome; his children arrived from Madras, adding to the group at home. These Madras imports were an interesting lot, they spoke highly accented and broken Malayalam, and lots of English…that’s how we picked up the lingo (English) during childhood actually, listening to my Madras cousins. Written English & grammar were taught in schools, hardly anybody spoke it though. In college we even had a split between English speaking ‘guys’ who came after studying in English medium or ‘higher secondary’ schools and the post PDC lot.

Well, after a few of those vacations, we got a chance to visit Elayachan at Madras, in Mint as it was then called. The area had the money minting factory, hence the name Mint. It was originally Vannarapettai, the English established a railway colony there, created Anglo Indians and renamed it Washermanpet (Used to have many a dhobi ghat). It was not very far from the Central station. Valiachan was in Pallavur for the Vilakku and he told us one evening, come and spend the rest of your holidays in Madras, well; it caught us by complete surprise. Did we really get permission to travel? Yes, the two of us, my brother and me were allowed to go. Since we were traveling with Elayachan, it was not an issue with tickets etc. Elayachan was the engine driver on that day for the Madras mail from Olavakkot station to Erode (or was it Arkonam?). They had I think 5 hour driving shifts, so they never took the train all the way from Olavakkot to Central!!

Off we went to Olavakkot, after a dinner, I was actually hoping that we will get something to eat in the train or the station, but the elders in Palakkad don’t really think that way then or now…eat at home, not outside was the motto – save money, don’t get sick eating rubbish food was the other reason…When we got to the station, Elayachan met up with his pals in the running room (where train staff prepared themselves, met & chatted, stored their ‘trunk’ petti etc) and it was decided that we will not travel in the main coaches, but in the Engine – it will be jolly for the kids he said. Elayachan was like that, he did not care about some of the rules…He told us that we should sit quietly and not run around, keep a low profile, was what he meant..

Elayachan had come up the tough way, up the ranks to become a steam engine driver with the kerchief/bandana knotted around his forehead (remember Adoorbhasi in Chattakari or Premnath in Julie?)…then took exams and became a diesel engine driver. I remember that, as a small kid, he did show us around a steam engine, but this time it was a monstrous diesel engine that we were going to actually ride in!!! We were trembling with excitement. The train came soon after, the engine drivers changed and my uncle led us into the engine.

It was no longer the smell of coal and fire that greeted us, but the acrid smell of diesel and it was reasonably quiet in there, unlike the steam engine were the steam release valve usually blew up often with deafening noise, or it was the whistle…The engine – WDM2 locomotive was some 125,000KG’s in weight, producing a huge power of 2600HP (well, sort of, my new car produces 260HP!!!). It has now completed 4 decades in the IR.

The diesel engine never had a characteristic whistle, I have always wondered about that, why did it come with a bbrooooobroooah sounding horn instead? Research tells me that the classic steam whistle was made to work with steam, and since steam at that pressure was no longer available in diesel’s
they developed the bleating horn.

No place to sit, actually the diesel engine cab had two small seats on either side and next to windows where the driver could lean out. It had few controls, a few dials and a recording device for the trip, (like a drum or disc if I recall right) the diesel engine’s black box…

Soon the engine started and within seconds we had hit around 70kmph. Now my friends, it felt 200kmph sitting there, right in front of the train, rushing into total darkness, illuminated by a small tunnel of light from the headlamp. It was truly exhilarating…like a roller coaster ride in darkness that you guys would scream at today…The accelerator was a small handle on the desk…

My uncle told us about some of the other controls…and we were on the top of the world…screaming through the night, peering into the darkness, we could see animals running off the track as we sped by, dogs, cats…other birds of the night…foxes, mongoose…cattle and the such. Now and then we would scream past dimly lit houses lining the track, seeing into their meager living areas, people having supper, chatting and reclining on easy chairs set in the area in between the tracks and their houses……watching the speeding train go by, remarking possibly, Oh! Today the Madras mail is on time…wonder if it is a blue moon today??

Soon we were tired and it was cold like hell inside the engine, we just found a nice corner and napped till we were woken up towards the wee hours of the morning. It was time for the shift change and my uncle had to hand over the wheel to the new chap. We moved out of the engine and to the sleeper compartment for the last part of the ride to Central…

We were woken up as the train closed in on Basin Bridge, the power plant’s big grey concrete cooling towers towered by the skyline to welcome us to Central….getting off at the great big Madras Central station; we caught the local to Mint and went home…

My aunt was waiting for us with steaming hot food, I will always remember her cooking, what a fascinating lady she was, the lady who once saved me, as a small kid, from drowning (that is another long story). She always had much to say about everything…

After that trip, many years later, I spent some days at their place while I was settling into a new job in Madras, and I learnt the railway colony style of life, the various types living there; Mallus, Tamilians, Goltis, and of course the Anglo Indian household across the road, where we all collectively eyed the pretty pretty girls – there were three to be eyed, two were older but the third was our age…

They are all gone now, settled in different parts of the world, Elayachan and Elayamma are no more, the cousins are spread around India…I don’t know if the railway colony continues to exist in Mint, I am sure it still does, the railways have changed little since then ...a little bit of electrification on some tracks, but the trunk trains are pretty much the same – stock diesel engines….

Almost every year, when I go back to India, I travel by a train from Kozhikode to Palakkad. I love every minute of that ride, though I nap a bit even today, what with that even rocking and the train track rhythmic noise ‘clack clack’ which you can only feel on Indian trains. The ceiling fans are still the same, you need a comb to start some of them…the seats are mercifully cushioned, not the yellow rock solid wooden reapers lined up….The trains look messy though, never an even color, you have green, red and blue bogies..Wish they spruced up the bogies, and compartments…

After all we have one of the best run railways in the world, considering the size…Yes, it is still a hole you shit or pee into…the longest toilet in the word…but well, time will slowly catch up with the Indian railways, what with all the wealth generated in India today.. On the other hand, Laloo seems to have done a great job turning around the IR, already!! Kudos man!! Go for it….


Whistle talk –
a nice article for train horn/whistle enthusiasts – Amongst other details (American) it provides - Many an engineer would signal ahead to his wife by playing “Polly Put the Kettle On.” One, whose spouse had divorced him to marry another, kept her mindful of him by whistling what sounded like her name every time he passed through town. Another, more happily married, would whistle something recognizable to the hearer as “I love you” from across the valley. Gay blades would signal ahead to their girl friends to be ready for a date.

An article on
engine drivers
A nice interactive website on India’s stock diesel WDM2
If you like listening to engine, locomotive & horn sounds
go no further
Cab photos – Thanks Jimmy Jose