Mhow to Mt. Abu in 1943

by Ken Staynor


1943 saw a significant change in my life. Before that year, I had got used to life in relative civilisation, in places like Calcutta, Darjeeling, Delhi, Simla and several towns and cities served by the East Indian Railway where there was mains electricity, running water on tap and proper sanitary arrangements, flush toilets and all! In April 1943 things took a change for the worse. My father was selected to set up the GHQ Communications Security School for Southeast Asia Command, and this establishment was to be located at a place called Mhow, Central India, in the Holker State, where the chief Royal Corps. Of Signals Training Centre was based. I had heard of Mhow from a boy in school with me during my stay in Simla but, as he never spoke much about the place except that if you were not in the military, you were nobody in Mhow, the journey from Delhi was looked forward to with some excitement.

My excitement was soon dampened by my first impression of Mhow. When I arrived there at about seven thirty in the night I was filled by a mixture of shock and surprise! Gone were the brightly lit multi-platform stations I was used to in the North of India, and here was a single platform station lit by one bright gas light by the entrance while the rest of the platform was in semi-darkness, illuminated by oil lamps which cast sinister shadows, making it extremely difficult to sort out our heavy luggage being unloaded from the luggage van, which was the last coach on the train, and midway between two oil lamps. I was soon to learn that this was the norm for these places in the 'Gut' of India! And the further one got away from what one might refer to as British India, and penetrated into the Princely States of Malwa and Rajputana the more primitive and backward things got and for the first time, I was beginning to realise that India certainly was a country of diversities; people dressed differently and although they all understood 'Kitchen Hindi' (The sort of Hindi we spoke to our household servants) they spoke differently. I was in for a number of surprises and shocks within the next month by a life-style that took a great deal of getting accustomed to, and summoned up every bit of moral fibre and strength of character I had!

My first days at Mhow were spent in what was known as the 'Hutments' which were a series of hastily erected war time two and three bed roomed military officers' quarters on One Tree Hill, and on the outskirts of the Infantry School's Mortar training grounds. This meant that from time to time pieces of shrapnel went whistling passed the house! These were the quarters allocated to newly posted officers awaiting permanent military housing when it became available! As commandant of the Training Centre, my father was entitled to a house on what was locally referred to as Generals' Road, although in fact it was actually called something else, One Tree Hill Road I think, but got its name because the Area Commander and other Brigadiers, colonels and the rest of the 'Red Tape' lived, but as this house was still occupied by the officer who was due to move to some other Cantonment Town, we had to make do with a hutment till it became available. That was military life for you! In the next hutment to ours lived Major D'Silva and his family. Major D'Silva was in the Medical Corps posted to the British Military Hospital, and like dad was awaiting permanent quarters. They had a son who was away at boarding school in a place called Mount Abu in Rajputana, and on their advice, it was decided, that since I had been withdrawn from school in Darjeeling some two thousand miles away by train from Mhow, but only a few hundred miles from an anticipated invasion of India by the Japanese, I should be sent to St Mary's High School at Mount Abu.

At the end of April I made the first solo journey of my life; My bags and baggage were all packed and with fifty rupees (About 1000 Rupees in today's money) in my pocket for expenses en route, I was put on the train for Ajmer which departed from Mhow at just after 8am. In those war days there was only the one through train to Ajmer where I had to change trains to what was known as the Delhi and Sind Mail for Abu Road, which was a through train between Delhi and Ahmedabad. The train to Ajmer stopped at every station and was due to arrive there at about six in the morning the next day. I had already had my first experience with metre gauge trains when moving from Delhi to Mhow, having changed trains at a place called Ratlam from the broad gauge of the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway, to a metre gauge train on the same railway which took four hours to do the 84 miles to Mhow! Beginning to feel homesick yet proud of being semi-adult and unsupervised I began to wonder what the future held for me. At Ratlam the guard came to the compartment and asked if I would be taking dinner at Neemuch. I had already studied the route in the Indian Bradshaw, which was my favourite reading, so I knew the train stopped there for twenty minutes but was unaware that the train stopped there to allow passengers to partake of dinner also. As I had already been wondering what I was going to do for a meal and was considering buying something off some 'Parn Wallah's' trolley I was glad to find out that this service was available and having scrutinised the rather limited menu decided on soup and lamb and potato cutlets with vegetables, though the menu did not say what soup and what vegetables!

I had a colonel and a friend of my father for company as far as Ratlam, but after that I had the compartment to myself. In fact there was a mass exodus of military personnel at Ratlam and I began to feel quite lonely. The train made its regular stops at mainly deserted stations till a place called Mandsaur where I noticed there were 'High jinx' and merry making going on in a compartment in the coach behind mine. The high jinx continued when the train pulled out of the station and just as that coach cleared the platform a fellow fell out of the train and rolled down the embankment. It was actually all good-natured stuff which had gone wrong. Fortunately someone pulled the communication chord and he was got back on the train but not before the armed guard who was also on that coach gave him a clip on the ear!

If Mhow station was a shock, Neemuch was something out of this world! Mhow at least had a bright gas lamp at the station entrance, but Neemuch was in almost total darkness lit only by a few oil lamps and if my compartment had not stopped almost right opposite the 'Refreshment Room' I would have had trouble finding it in the dark. The dining room was about fifteen feet square with a large table in the middle which had an oil lamp in the centre of it that was the sole piece of illumination. There were four of us for dinner; we sat ourselves down and made light conversation; one was an army captain travelling to Ajmer while the other two seemed to be travelling together and going to Udaipur. The soup arrived from an adjoining room which I took to be the kitchen and with it came a gentle breeze which made the flame in the oil lamp dance and cast weird ghost like shadows; at first I was puzzled by this sudden cooling draught till I realised it was the 'Punka' which was a rather large carpet looking thing on a horizontal pole suspended from the ceiling which, when pulled by some hidden person, swung to and fro over the table and gave a rather pleasant gentle breeze keeping the dingy room quite cool. I had heard about these but had never seen one before. Things were certainly getting more and more like something out of a story by Rudyard Kipling! After twenty minutes or so we were all back on the train and on our way. I had the whole compartment to my self so decided to settle down for the night as we rocked, rattled and bumped through the night at a very leisurely pace.

I have a kind of built-in alarm clock which allows me to set an alarm in my mind that awakens me more or less at any given time I want, and this was working well as my eyes suddenly opened, and I was aware that the train was slowing down; I looked at my watch which showed 5.15. When the train stopped I looked out of the window and in the semi-daylight saw that we had stopped at a place called Nasirabad which from my study of the Bradshaw I knew to be about forty minutes from Ajmer, so I decided to have a good wash, roll up my hold-all and prepare for my change at Ajmer. Not long after six o'clock we trundled into Ajmer and I was pleasantly surprised to find that here was a rather pleasant station with three well electrically illuminated platforms, nice station building, bookstall, and other amenities one would associate with a station for a large city like Ajmer. Since I knew that the Mail had a dining car attached to the train at Ajmer I decided to treat myself to a cup of tea only, having in mind a breakfast on the train. The dining car shared a coach with a first class compartment with a connecting sliding door, and the coolie who had taken charge of my luggage expertly got my luggage into this compartment and installed me in it. I had a fellow traveller who was a Major in the army and was on his way for a short break at Mount Abu. He was an excellent chap and immediately struck up a conversation with me and suggested that we should wait for the train to pull out before making our way through the adjoining door for breakfast. He had joined our train at Neemuch, but somehow we had not seen each other, and like me he had a compartment to himself. I found out from him that Neemuch was also a military station and he had been stationed there for over two years and long enough to accustom himself to the 'Joys of the thunder box' as he put it! When he found out who my father was, he made sure he had nothing derisory to say about the army and being posted to a place like Neemuch. Little did he know that my father had often been derisory about the army himself on several occasions, and wasn't all that keen on the Training School being located at Mhow, but had accepted it since Mhow was the main Signal Training Centre in India, and accepted it as a fait accompli!

After breakfast and before the train had made its first stop we were back in our compartment the major locking the door behind us so that no one could come in from the dining car. The difference between the Mail and the stopping train from Mhow was remarkable; this train was making headway and for a metre gauge train was quite fast. The major complained that he had not slept well and since there was another seven hours before we got to Abu Road he was going to catch up with his sleep saying 'If no one else got into this compartment at Ajmer, it is unlikely anyone else will between here and Marwar Junction or Abu Road.' By now I was beginning to feel 'Rajputana heat' for the first time; it was not yet 9.30 but the ceiling fans, whirling around at full speed, were having no effect. I decided to follow the major's example and stretched out on my bunk and fell asleep not noticing that one of the windows was not fully shut with about an inch open at the top; when the major woke me up at about noon suggesting we should have lunch I got up and could see where I had been lying; that was the only area of the bunk that was not covered in desert dust!

Lunch was taken in a half empty dining car, the major and I were two of only five 'Whites' the other half dozen looked like well-to-do Indian professional people all seated at separate tables. By the time we stopped at Marwar Junction we had almost finished our meal and as we had left the connecting door open we were able to see that nobody had entered our compartment. After lunch we dozed and conversed alternately till about 3.30 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the temperature had risen to well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit which, with the amount of desert dust that had got under my collar, mixed with heavy perspiration was making things very uncomfortable. I made two more trips into the dining car via the sliding door for a drink of water which tasted very bland but helped to ease my rasping throat; I discovered that the water was being dispensed from bottles of distilled water hence the bland taste. The train travelled through some of the most barren country I have seen, occasionally stopping at stations which seemed to be nothing more than passing places because as far as I was able to see there appeared to be no townships associated with them. At some of these stations there were goods trains headed by YD locomotives going the other way and obviously waiting to allow the Mail through before being allowed to proceed; there appeared to be heavy freight traffic on this line. As we progressed through this scrub-land flatness I could see the distant Aravalli Hills to the right while to the left there were isolated hillocks and as we neared Abu Road the major asked what arrangements I had made for getting to the Mount from Abu Road. I told him that I had made a reservation by telegram from Mhow for a reservation on a bus which was operated by, who I think was, Ganesh & Co.

'You will be lucky,' he said. 'They take no notice of telegrams round here, they want cash up front for reservations. I have hired a taxi, same fellow every time I go to the Mount and I would offer you a ride, but there is no way all your luggage and mine will fit in the car.' By this time we were almost at Abu Road and I was beginning to get that sinking feeling of despair one gets when one realises that all is a lost cause! Abu Road station like all the stations we had stopped at with the exception of Marwar Junction was once again, of the single platform type. Thousands seemed to get off the train, while an equal number fought their way on. There was quite an extensive yard and a clear view of the locomotive shed with several YB and YD locos on shed while a goods train this time headed by a P Class was waiting for the Mail to overtake, and across the lines I could see the railway houses. Clearly Abu Road was a Railway Town. A coolie obligingly handled my luggage and showed me the way to the bus operator's office. I introduced myself and told a rather harassed man that I had telegraphed from Mhow for a reservation.

'No telegram come!' he said. 'You paid money for reservation?' he continued. 'If you no send money we no make reservation.'

'I must get to Mount Abu,' I said.

'So also more than hundred people,' he said. 'How I make room for you?'

'Have these people made and paid for reservations?' I asked.

'No, but they come before you; but you wait and I see what I can do. Where you go in Abu?'

'I have to get to St.Mary's School' I said.

'OK, you go in this bus, tell driver you get out at Toll Gate,' he said having softened his tone of voice by now.

'No,' I said, 'I want St. Mary's School,' I said in my ignorance about anything to do with Mount Abu.

'Yes, yes I know you want High School; that is stop by Toll Gate,' he said.

By this time I began to think that Mount Abu was some great Metropolis! Little did I know! However I was on my way to Mount Abu after one of the more interesting train journeys I made on the Sub-Continent.

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