A Pentastic Birthday Party!

by Ranganath Eunny


Few would probably be unaware of it but there exists a fan club within Indian Railways Fan Club. The object of an almost sycophantic admiration is a gentleman of short stature, indifferent dressing style, thick dark whiskers, ubiquitous glasses and a mouthful of words, some of which happily go well beyond “political correctness”.

When this man decided he better become a PENTAgenarian a decade before he turns into a SEXagenarian (tongue in cheek), it was an occasion for us to celebrate. So we dragged him out of his home and hearth to a place where all things Railway converge at least in this part of the country.

Sridhar Joshi came up with the idea of celebrating this gentleman's 50th birthday at a Vijayawada Jn. A gateway to the South in railway terms, it was an apt choice with plenty of railway movement round the clock, spicy Andhra food, and above enterprising beer bars to act as a walking stick to the PENTAgenarian. As far as Sridhar, Bharat Moro and I (and a few others) know there are two things very close to this gentleman's heart. Vijayawada is the only place in the Universe where these two things meet. 2727 and 2728 Godavari Expresses crossing each other is an orgy in itself for him. Now if you still wonder who he is, you must be terribly out of touch with the realities of IRFCA rail fanning. I leave it for you to figure him out.

We ended up adding a short trip to the plan: a day run on the Dhone - Guntur section. A heavy freight diesel section, this route also hosts an excellent ghat and forest section between Nandyal and Giddalur, more specifically between Chelama and Diguvametta.

As per plans, Sridhar and I took 7651 MS-KCG express while Bharat Moro and the jubilee man took the 7603 KCG-YPR express. Our trains crossed at Dhone where we detrained and met each other at an ungodly hour into the night. Also on the train with us from RU to DHNE was Shashidhar who is an influential IRFCAn member from Guntur division. At 5.30 we made ourselves comfortable at emergency bay in the SL coach of 427 DHNE-GNT passenger. The run from DHNE to Nandyal was uneventful and pleasant with undulating terrain. Panyam cements works just before Krishnamkonda provided an interesting spectacle with the tracks winding round and round, curve after long curve encircling the rolling hills, trying to find a way out of the maze and deposit us at our destinations. What was interesting in the landscape was the cable and a conveyor belt strung across two far away hills. The hills bearing the limestone deposits are a bit away from the plant. We found out that the company had installed conveyor belts and winches to carry the raw material right across the hills to the plant. The winches themselves presented the spectacle of a small rake in the air, hanging by a slender thread, daring us to find our way out of the maze. Apparently, we hoped the LP had not forgotten his early days as a steam driver or an MG driver, for the alignment of the entire stretch, barring a few kilometres is to the inch a replication of the MG alignment, with exciting unending tight curves snaking both ways, so as not to deprive any passenger of the voyeuristic pleasure. An interesting bit of info that we gathered about the line and the tight curves was that since Panyam Cements had a long lease on the limestone rights, the line had to be built as to avoid encroaching into even an inch of “licenced” territory! As the LP finally found a way out of the maze and entered into what would be his last braking act for the trip before handing over to a fresh set of crew at Nandyal, we hurried back to the VLR for our breakfast. We all downed at least two idlis and a dosa each accompanied by the first spicy encounter - a red hot coconut chutney.

Post Nandyal, the outdoor scene changed rapidly into what I call the “paisa vasool” terrain. The short bald hills gave way to big mountains of the Nallamalla forest region and we began to ascend rapidly to Chelama. En route we passed the first of the two tunnels after Gazulapalli. We reserved travellers may cringe and complain about amenities, side middle berths and telescopic fares but do not begin to understand how railways touches the lives of those in lower strata. Rural folk who boarded this train at Nandyala or Gazulapalle used the Alarm Chain to bring the train to a halt in the forest where they got off with axes and picks to cut wood and sell it off as firewood. To them this train and the line are essential components to their lives. Building a halt station to cater to their needs is a solution, but where does one start from. There are too many places where the chain was yanked for someone to get off or get on board. It is a small operation in itself where one person entrains at a major station and pulls the emergency brake at appropriate point to let people get in. With multiple cohesive groups, each one had its representative on board and its own point to stop the train. They do not buy tickets. If you were to live by selling firewood, would you have the luxury or mindset to buy one? We may complain about deforestation, misuse of railway property and general inconvenience but these people found their own way out within the existing system to make their meagre livelihood.

Chelama was not a halt for some reason. It was not convenient to people who foraged for wood and instead they had a convenient place to stop the train right against the other tunnel of the route - the 1.5km long Bogada tunnel. The loco and 2 coaches actually went right into the tunnel before the alarm chain was yanked. It proved to be a major paisa vasool to me. Bogada tunnel was one of the results of the minor deviation from the MG alignment during re-gauging. The MG line went up the adjacent hills passing over a fine piece of engineering marvel - the Dorabhavi Viaduct - sure to have been a treat not only for sore eyes. For, what the original builders had achieved was something phenomenal and bereft of any PR of the kind we are now bombarded if a company as much lifts ten bricks without damaging one. With the resplendent green in the foreground, an even more resplendent green in the background, the Dorabhavi viaduct would have looked like this:


We can very well understand the compulsions of a realignment, with the tight curves that snaked around the mountains in the MG days not being able to stand the test of the wider gauge. What the engineers have done, however, is beyond anybody's comprehension. For the lure of a few rupees in revenue and fewer rupees ostensibly in bribes, the girders have been yanked off the piers and probably sold as scrap. The region, with the Mahanandi temple would surely have been a major tourist attraction. One rues at the lost opportunity to enthral tourists with a visit to the temple, stop over at the mouth of the tunnel, and offer a short trek to the viaduct and the MG tunnel, a sure treat for the concrete-jungle-sore eyes. With the comfort of a pucca station building just a few kms ahead at, Diguvametta that could house a couple or three of Retiring Rooms, only the short-sightedness of the authorities for all things heritage has come as an obstacle and ruined what could have been a structure to cherish forever.

Diguvametta is an interesting name that translates into English as “descending hill” or more appropriately in this case, “downhill”. The ghat section that began a little earlier to Chelama ends here. The station turned out to be a watering hole for our train with the water tanks in the coaches being filled up here. This is probably a continuation of the station's earlier avatar as a watering point for the MG steam locos of earlier days after they exhausted boiler water negotiating the gradient. Thereafter it was pretty uneventful run through the sultry afternoon as we passed towns like Giddalur, Vinukonda, Markapuram and Narsaraopet that make it to the news during elections as vote bank strongholds. We soon claimed the upper berths to catch up on sleep.

Post Donakonda, to the birthday boy's continuous banter, we devoured the theplas, curd and gulab jamoons that Sridhar had got us from Gujarati Mandal eatery at Chennai that has now become a statutory halt for visiting IRFCans almost replacing Murugan Idli Kadai.

Nallapadu is a watering hole for the GTL WDM2A that was hauling us. This is where our blood pressure really shot up. We were continuously delayed, and were now in real danger of missing the Inter City Express connection to proceed to BZA. We eventually arrived at GNT at 1450, a tension filled five minutes before the ICE was to leave. Thankfully, Jayakar Sunkara of BZA was at GNT and had the tickets ready. We were also honoured to be received at the station by Shri Sridhar, formerly CPRO of Southern Railway, and currently the ADRM of GNT Division. Having known through Sashidhar that Sridhar Joshi, an old acquaintance of Sridhar was to pass through GNT, the ADRM took all the trouble to be there on a Sunday afternoon just to say Hello to a few IRFCA friends. Sridhar has provided exposure to a lot of IRFCans when he was the CPRO, a fact that many members would endorse. Of course, the relationship has been symbiotic as IRFCA has done its bit to showcase IR through SR to the general public.

A wonderfully refreshing cool glass of buttermilk later, we pulled out of GNT headed by a P4 of LGD towards our next halt at BZA, but not before bidding goodbye to Shashidhar. We literally blasted through the first 10 or 12 kms, evoking shrieks of surprise from Bharat Moro, Jayakar and the birthday boy as they probably know that section like the back of their hand. We arrived BZA about 10 mts before time, and headed off to the retiring rooms. We took an A/C double, the birthday boy would leave immediately after the celebrations post-midnight. Bharat would leave early in the morning, and Sridhar and I would take the Jan Shatabdi on Monday afternoon. The birthday boy and Sridhar freshened up and paid a visit to the Kanakadurga temple. That provided ample time for Bharat and me to freshen ourselves, shaking off the grime of the emergency window plating and the doorplating that we had indulged in earlier for close to eight hours on the 334 km run.

As the birthday boy and Sridhar were escorted back after the darshan by the caring Jayakar, we immediately set to neutralize whatever punya they might have gained from Goddess Kanakadurga. We shouted greetings as the birthday boy uncorked a special edition Frontera Chilean merlot that I had acquired to befit the stature of the birthday boy. (The special edition wine for the next big jubilee is already on ferment.)

The birthday boy found it to be a glass of the neighbouring juicewallah's grape juice horribly gone wrong. It was left to me and Bharat to finish off a major portion of the potion. That done, we headed off to a bar for some beer and food - this time a real party the birthday boy was throwing us. After failing to find a table at one bar, we headed off towards another - a rather seedy looking bar with what we discovered later was good food.

Beer flowed, and so did French fries, onion pakodas and chicken wings. Downing all this in some time, we headed back to the station, not to the retiring room. We headed straight to the loco position on PF1 of BZA, welcoming the loco and the friendly LP of the Bangalore bound Seshadri Exp. A few minutes of chat later, we walked the trolley path to probably the most happening place - the island platforms of 6 and 7. As Sridhar and I played a see-saw game on trolley, ruffling a bit of the insides of the birthday boy and Bharat, the MAS bound GT Exp arrived. A few minutes later, Bharat left for the comfort of the RR, ostensibly to catch up some sleep. We waited for a few more minutes, and I too felt the need to catch some sleep. I left the birthday boy, Sridhar and Jayakar to their fate and headed back to the RR soon after the VSKP bound Godavari, one half of the two things that give the birthday boy a state of near-frenzy arrived on PF7. The crossing of the second half would be fortuitous if it were to happen in BZA, for the SC bound Godavari was expected to arrive only around 25 mts later, if on time. As I left, Sridhar reports:

Saying good night to Ranga, we filled up the empty water bottles with mineral water at Rs.3 a bottle, and set about eyeing every inch of the Godavari. The birthday boy boasted about the brand new rolling stock that indicated the prestige of the train, overflowing GSs and the SLRs that indicated the popularity, and the mobbing of the TTEs that indicated that people were willing to sleep with, oops, on the Godavari at any cost! As I swigged a few sips of water from the bottle, reassuring the birthday boy that he would get the perfect gift - the SC bound Godavari would surely arrive a few minutes early, so that the birthday boy gets the perfect double treat, three pairs of ears perked up like those of rather long-eared donkeys. The SC bound Godavari was announced, and to add to the joy of the birthday boy, it was announced on PF6, the other half of the island. The birthday boy could now cast seductive glances at both maidens on offer, choose to sleep on whichever he wanted and where he wanted to go. Both SC and VSKP are more than homes to him. In fact, all of India is! The birthday boy waltzed in ecstasy at the rather perfect synchronization of the ballet that was unfolding before him. We too were very happy for the birthday boy, and why not! It had been the perfect gift moments before his birthday was to kick in, and what a jugalbandhi it was!

As the VSKP bound train was announced to leave, we also left to seek some rest, though aware that the birthday boy needed to be back on the platforms in just over an hour to sleep on the Charminar. As we entered the RR, both Bharat and Ranga were neither asleep or wide awake - they were in that in-between state of dazed stupor. We noted that the time was around 2345, and took turns at passing around a cigarette or two. We then spent the next 12 or thirteen minutes smoking, and woke up Bharath and Ranga at 2358, to wish the birthday boy at the stroke of midnight and get him open the gift that we had bought for him from MAS. Ranga was probably wide awake at 2358, and he best describes what followed next.

As the clock struck the midnight hour, loud cheers and birthday wishes rent the rather chillingly cold retiring room confines. The birthday boy acknowledged the wishes with genuine happiness that showed on his face, and went on to open the gift. We had pondered over what to gift him, spent close to a couple of hours at Landmark. Now, if you cannot decide what to gift after having a look at Landmark in MAS, then you can never make up your mind. Not wanting to go through that ignominy, we settle for a gold-plated model of a steam engine, embellished with Swarovski crystals. The birthday boy was very happy, at least we presume so, to have the nostalgic memories of his steamy early days on the Godavari rekindled, the express that is, not the eponymous river or an eponymous girl!

A few minutes of exchanging banter, another round of smokes meant that it was close to 0040 hrs., and the birthday boy left to meet his date with the Charminar, for a change. He told us not to bother coming down to the PF. We could rather catch some sleep.

To the birthday boy, we say we were honoured to be present at the moment to wish you personally and also as many thanks as the number of tables in all the Time Tables that IR has to offer. Thank you, V Srinivasa Prasad we really wish your sixtieth birthday arrives before time.

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