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


Naveen Prabhu said...

Nice post .. & an informative one ...I share your love for train journeys too, though i don't quite agree that indian railaways is the best run railways in the world..:-)

Maddy said...

hi naveen, i guess i used the wrong tense & adjective and surely was a bit carried away, it is defintely not the best run, but better run, in relation only to the size & volume..

Nanditha Prabhu said...

vande puka vande ...was a nice song! i enjoyed it and also my 2 year old son...he wanted to hear it again and again!:)
enjoyed reading your post too!

Happy Kitten said...

oru malayali koode!

dont know how I ended up in this blogg. but it was worth my time!

diyadear said...

hey where did u get that song.. incredible.. u always make me miss india sooo much.. i miss the trains.. :( my pyara parashu.. the ladies compartment on which i used to spend alsmost whole of my sunday(with other friends) when i left home for college after a break..

Maddy said...

Thanks Naveen, Nanditha, Diya

The song is a favorite from yesteryears...the next generations wont even know about it, let alone hear it. So I thought of including it here. And mehamood the great singer from Kochi sang it, he is a personal favourite !!!

Happy Kitten - welcome to my world...plenty of mallu bloggers these days..keep visiting our sites..

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Wow, reading this post made me envious, wishing I had an uncle like Elayachan. Riding inside the engine must be an unforgettable experience.

Nice little touches through the post kept bringing back memories of train journeys past:
- black as ruffians from the coal engines
- the station food
- using the comb :-)

Nice use of visuals and audio too

Great post


Anonymous said...

You must see The Darjeeling Limited!

Maddy said...

Thanks BP&SK - hey man i am feeling hungry already hearing about Seekh Kabab.
Filmiholic - I read about Darjeeling express,will see it, is it released yet? heard that once the three get of the train the movie drops its quality!!!