My late Uncle Suresh would joke that I was born at exactly the same time as the Frontier Mail pulled in to New Delhi station. Actually I wasn't, unless it was especially early that day! However I do know that I was born not far from the hustle and bustle of the station itself - at the Northern Railway Hospital, on what is today known as Qutab Road. Later in life, the Frontier Mail did somehow find a special place in my heart - that of being my favourite train!
Save for that erroneous fact that was planted in my (then) innocent head, a bond between the railway and me had in fact begun on the day of my birth. I was born into a pucca (solid) railway family - my Grandfather and Father were both railway men at the time. My Grand father was Additional Member at the Railway Board and my Father was at Cranfield University in England, pursuing his MTech, at the largesse of IR.
I have virtually no memories of my first couple of years in Delhi but faint ones of the next two in Lucknow - those that were later reinforced by adult accounts of the same. My dad, back from the UK by then, was posted to the RDSO (Research Design & Standards Organisation), and our house - No.17A in Bandariya Bagh - overlooked the Lucknow - Gorakhpur main line. I'm told that I would spend hours on the balcony - hoisted up to viewing level by means of a mudah (stool) - watching the "action" unfold below. My strongest recollection of the balcony was when a crow stole a roti (bread) from my hand, which had me bawling for the rest of the day!
We moved to Bombay when I was all of 4 and pre-school for me was at the Nursery in Badhwar Park - the large Railway Officers Colony in South Bombay. Between '79 and '97, we moved houses no less than 8 times and my dad was posted out of the city on 3 different occasions - in each instance we managed to "retain quarters" in the city.
He would always say to my sister and me, "You don't earn much in a railway job but they'll always look after you and your family, no matter what." It was true - free travel, medical and housing were some of the many perks we enjoyed growing up as railway kids. And we were taught never to take these for granted. "When you both are older and on your own," he would say, "you should consider yourself lucky if you can find yourself a place south of Andheri - always count your blessings." They were profound words then but equally valuable today. My sister and I continue to do just that - count our blessings for all that we have.
There was one more privilege that railway kids in Badhwar Park had access to but none thought it worth their while to take advantage of. I did, and it was the greatest privilege of them all, as far as I was concerned - that of being able to travel with my dad on his many "inspections".
My Father worked the better part of his life on Western Railway (WR) and while on Bombay Division, his beat extended all the way to Surat. Being in the mechanical department, his job demanded a fair amount of travel. Moreover he enjoyed being out in the field, interacting with his staff, whom he considered his equals, and gave them the same respect he would a colleague or senior. Everyone from the Station Khalasi (assistant) to the Running Crew were addressed with an "Aap" and their names were invariably followed by a "Ji". It was a terrific lesson in civility and basic humanity for a young schoolboy.
Mostly, he toured places like Bilimora, Surat, Udhna and Nandurbar (on the Tapti Valley line). In those good old days, as I will always call them, the W class was the mainstay on the very charming narrow gauge branch to Waghai, and Surat - Jalgaon was single track, non-electrified territory with passenger services entrusted to the capable hands of the steamers of Udhna shed.
Last but not the least, there was Valsad - still Bulsar at the time. A sleepy coastal town in Gujarat, its only claim to fame was its large railway establishment! My earliest memories there are of a "fresh out of Chittaranjan" WCAM1 in striking green livery, being shunted to the shed by a WG! Despite the advent of the WCAM era, Valsad continued as a steam shed till the early 80s. And Udhna shed was one of the last to close on WR!
If his inspections were timed over a weekend (this usually happened once every month), it meant the family could travel with my Father - at the very least, I would make it a point to! The overnight passenger to Viramgam was the train of choice and Valsad soon became the destination of choice! We would leave late on a Friday night and early the next morning, while we were still in deep slumber, our Saloon would be cut off at Valsad and shunted to Jawahar Dhaka. Dhaka is the word for siding in Western India and this particular one was built in honour of Nehru's visit there several years ago. Set in a sylvan grove of leafy banyan trees and away from station limits, it remains the prettiest saloon siding I have ever seen.
Saturday mornings would begin with the passing of the 152 UP Rajdhani, headed by the iconic Ratlam twins. At the time, there were only two other trains that didn't call at Valsad - the Swaraj and my beloved Frontier! The passage of the Rajdhani was really the first ritual of the day and because it was always on time, every other activity followed smoothly - including that all essential cup or morning chai! Evenings were usually spent having fresh naariyal paani (coconut water) at Tithal beach and then heading back in time to watch the northbound Rajdhani make its run past. It was contentment at its simplest, a kind I never tired of.
"Carriages", as Saloons or Inspection Cars were referred to then, came in all shapes and sizes but my favourites were the IRS (Indian Rail Standards) shell 8-wheelers in the 266x series. They came complete with wood paneled interiors (Burma teak if you were lucky!), ornate ceilings, brass fittings, bath tubs and roller top writing tables. BB&CI crockery could still be found lurking in their kitchens all the way into the early 90s, and the khansaamas (attendants) who manned these kitchens, were in a league of their own. Kamar Ali, for instance, made the best poached eggs one could ever hope to find in a moving train!
Saloon trips to Valsad became something of a regular phenomenon and over time, a much-anticipated family outing - with everyone from our cousins, uncles and aunts taking turns to join us. Though many relatives came along at different times, my Uncle Suresh was the one constant. It was what he referred to as the "perfect getaway from Bombay, all for the price of a first class railway ticket". That's pretty much all it cost for those who cared to join us, and in the absence of a Train Conductor, it was my dad - always a stickler for the rules - who insisted and ensured that everyone paid! He would always tease me, "when you turn 21, my friend, your saloon rides will be over - so enjoy it while you can!" Depressing as that thought was to me, those were in fact the rules - sons could only travel for free till they were 21 and daughters till they were married!
In the mid 80's, with low cost air travel and 24 hour news channels still in the distant future, rail travel still managed to make the news - if not national, than certainly regional. More so if it was related to the Rajdhani! So when the new air-braked version of the train was inaugurated, it was a big deal in the city! In addition to overseeing all mechanical aspects of such a revolutionary (for those times) roll out, my dad also coined something that would be adopted by IR throughout its system, though he didn't know it at the time - the A suffix!
The Rajdhani was the pride and joy of WR at the time and anyone having anything to do with it was looked upon with awe - especially its running crew. Only A Grade "Special" drivers were allowed to drive the train, and more often than not, they lived up to the reputation they had earned. My dad would often regale us with tales of their heroics, especially of one by the name of Lokhande. One evening, when our carriage was parked on the siding in Surat, my dad took me for a stroll to the starter signal of platform 1. The Rajdhani was due to pass then but would have an unscheduled halt there because of its early running (a regular occurrence in those days). When it pulled up to the starter, my dad took me inside the cab and introduced me to, you guessed it, Mr. Lokhande! I had instant goose bumps! As the starter turned green, Mr. Lokhande invited me to blow the two tone WDM2 horn to signal departure to the guard! I was already in heaven!
My dad's approach to my rail fanaticism was probably the best there was. He never outwardly encouraged it nor told me what to do, instead he only facilitated it. His gestures were always subtle, and knowing fully well how excitable I was with long drawn out plans, he would often just surprise me with sudden ones. Sometimes the best of these surprises happened on my Birthday. On one of them, he picked me up from school and we drove straight to Bombay Central (BCT) to board a First AC coupe on the Rajdhani! The family travel pass system at the time restricted travel in First AC as well as on Rajdhani's so that was a double first for me! We were to travel to Baroda, stay the night in a Saloon and get a tour of the modeling room in the Railway Staff College the next day! While I was beside myself in the modeling room that day, back in Bombay my school was on in full session! Prior to our trip, my mother had pleaded with my dad not to make me miss school but my dad simply said to her, "missing school for one day is not going to change his life". He was right, it didn't!
Despite all these wonderful surprises and gestures, not once did he let me believe that I was spoilt and could have it my way every time. And just as well, for I learnt over time to value these things that much more and never take them for granted - to not be greedy or have unrealistic expectations from him or the system. For instance, I was never allowed to footplate in the absence of an LI (loco inspector), even if our carriage was attached to the loco! Once, when we were in Indore, I asked if he could arrange "trailing window" (when a Saloon is attached to the end of a train, with its inspection windows bringing up the rear) on the overnight Avantika back to BCT. He declined, saying that it would be unfair on his part to request that since the yard was congested to begin with and it would, most likely, involve additional shunting. As it turned out, my wish did come true, but only by chance!
"I had forgotten how trains are run", he said to me once as he stepped off the Frontier Mail. It was an early winter morning in the mid 90's and I had gone to BCT to receive my dad. He was posted to the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) at the time and had come via Delhi to visit us. His reference was to how poorly trains were run in the northeast and how long it had been since he had had a "solid" non stop run on an express! In the 3 years he spent on NFR, he missed WR sorely. After all, it was the railway he started with and spent most of his life on.
I'm not sure of its status today, but at the time, a posting to the NFR was considered a "punishment" within railway circles. That never seemed to deter him though. All he needed with him was a P.G. Wodehouse, a pipe and a single peg of Old Monk as he would set out to discover the new territory he was put in charge of. In the course of the three years he spent there, he grew to love the North East, and his stories ranging from the "koi hai?" (anyone there?) culture of Assam's manicured tea gardens, to the width of the mighty Brahmaputra at Dibrugarh ("the only male river" as he used to refer to it), to the breathtaking Barak Valley hill section or the magic of the Darjeeling Hills, were enough to convince me to visit him no less than eight times!
Even as late as '93, the NFR was still, primarily, a Metre Gauge (MG) system, with the entire South bank (of the Brahmaputra) MG, and a good proportion of the North bank to. With only a single change of train, one could travel MG from one end of the system (Katihar in the west) to the other (Dibrugarh in the east). To top that, steam was fairly active too - not only on the MG but on the BG as well! His tenure there coincided with my last years of "free saloon travel", so travel we did! It wouldn't be to presumptuous then, on my part, to say that during the eight trips I made to the northeast, I would have covered over 60% of the system's route length - most of it, sadly, sans camera!
About to reach the magical age of 21 and presumably wiser for it, I made my two most significant contributions to NFR at the time. In the first instance, we were heading to Dibrugarh (DBRT) from Guwahati on the MG Assam Mail and while passing New Guwahati yard, I spied what appeared to be an MG Garratt! When we got to DBRT the next morning, my Father made enquiries during his visit to the workshop and it turned out to be just that! For his part, he got in touch with his counterpart in the stores department and requested that its listing for scrap be withheld. He then asked me to write a letter to the Director, Rail Museum (then Mr. Lohani) requesting that said loco be preserved immediately. On my return to Bombay, I was thrilled to receive a letter back from the Rail Museum, thanking me, and stating that the loco had been earmarked for preservation, and would, most likely, be assigned to the upcoming Regional Rail Museum in Varanasi. It's anyone's guess as to its whereabouts these days, but at least I had done my bit and saved it from certain doom!
In the second instance, on a trip to far away Murkongselek (on the North bank), our carriage was attached to the loco, and while we awaited a crossing, I decided to take a stroll outside. I came back a few minutes later to report, rather innocently, that there was no crew on board the YDM4! My Father asked me to go back into my room and wait there till I was called out. He then summoned the LI and proceeded to reprimand him for allowing the loco to be left unattended, when, in fact, his job was to counsel the crew on safe running practices! My Father also informed the LI that those were grounds enough for charge sheeting, but he was letting him off with a warning on that occasion.
I felt bad initially, about this act of tattling, but realized soon enough the importance of it. No doubt, it was a wayside station on a section that was considered to be of little significance, and the crew (along with their LI) had done something seemingly harmless - deserting their charge briefly for a cup of chai! Fact is, it was gross negligence on their part and in complete contradiction of the working rules. If it hadn't been brought to their attention by someone of authority, it would become a thing of routine - not just at wayside halts, but even at larger, more important stations. I had, if anything, done them a favour! In my travels on IR today, whenever I see the all too familiar sight of a powered loco unattended, it reminds me of this incident and I wish the powers that be would take notice.
In '97, a few months after his posting back to Bombay, my Father passed away quite suddenly, whilst still in service. Apart from the jolt of losing someone so close at such a young age, it also dawned on me then that my ties to the railways would be snapped forever.
That, however, wasn't to be. Towards the end of '96, we had gotten our first internet connection at home. There was little one could do with a text based account at the time, save for emailing. One email led to another and soon I was part of the IRFCA mailing list, in the days when the "A" still denoted America! The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2003, a few years after our move to Delhi, the only other advocate of my rail hobby, my Uncle Suresh, passed away. Four years later, and a little over a decade after my Father's passing, I produced a documentary on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - a railway and a region that my Father had loved, and a medium that was my Uncle's forte - as a part of my Master's Thesis in New York. It was a defining moment in my life and the closest I've ever gotten to being a third generation railway man!