How The Train Chugged Memories

It has been a great pleasure to see that my article on the little blue train made it to The Hindu (a leading publication in India) The article also mentioned my email address as a contact and I received many messages from readers. I cannot make a sweeping statement for humanity based on the emails sent to me, since most of them were sent to me by retired and/or educated folk, but I have to admit the comments were overwhelmingly warm, sincere and helped me reaffirm my faith in the basic goodness of mankind.

Of course, there were a few meant to make me skip a heartbeat. Some insurance salesmen sent me devastating statistics on disease and dying and how it is imperative for all to buy a policy (from him) in order to survive.  Then, there was this furniture salesmen who extorted his wares and offered me free shipping from some place in Hyderabad, India to anywhere. I wonder whether I should have ordered some furniture and had them shipped to California.

But such emails were few. Very few. Or my spam filter was very good. Many readers mentioned their own train-related experiences, and I enjoyed reading most of the emails.

train_tracks
Train Tracks Through a Forest

One person wrote to me about the heart warming story of his train journey in the Gir forests of Gujarat. He himself was traveling there from an urban area. Apparently, the train made many unscheduled stops along the way – there was no station, no station master and no ticketing machine, but people clambered on in these unscheduled stops. This traveller thought something fishy was going on and asked folks what the deal was. It turns out that many rural stations were closed along the way due to lack of funds, but the people in these villages still needed to use the train for various activities, so a truce with the engine drivers was reached, and the train stopped at the erstwhile stations.

“What about the tickets?” asked the fiscally conscious urban dweller, and the train clamberers shook their heads at his ignorance and said they usually purchased their tickets with the engine driver up front before climbing on.

“But what if you don’t? People can cheat this way!” said the shocked traveler.

The train clamberers were indignant. The urban dweller was told that cheating their way out of a ticket is not something that appeals to the simple and honest rural folk in that area. Every one of them held up the ticket they bought. With dignity.

Many letters came from people who had lived in the Nilgiris, or do so now,  and they wrote of their own experiences with the train. One reader even helped me track down the engine drivers who served in the approximate timeframe of my writing and narrowed it down to one or two people. They may have actually been the ones who waved to my mother.

One thing is clear, I enjoyed the ride with the little blue train all over again simply by reading the reminiscences of these readers.  I am immensely grateful for that.

Lessons From The Little Blue Train

The Article below also appeared in The Hindu in the Open Page on May 10th:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/looking-back-at-a-little-blue-train/article8576823.ece#comments

My mother ran downhill through a steep slope in order to catch her little blue train to get to school, where she taught, everyday. We lived in a small place nestled in the Nilgiri Hills, where everybody knew everybody else and even though we might not have been invited to Tea at the train driver’s house,  he obviously knew my mother. He would see her pelting down the hill, practically skating on the little seeds dropped from the Eucalyptus trees above, as he maneuvered the train around the mountainside. He would wave a friendly hand to her telling her to slow down indicating that he would wait for her to board. What is a minute here and a minute there was his philosophy, and one that entirely suited the place and times.

lovedale

The Nilgiri Mountain Railways was not competing with the Rajdhani Express or the electric trains of Mumbai. The little steam engine was a joy, and intended to show people that true joy in living came from hard work with a dose of huffing while going uphill and a friendly toot and speed moderation while going downhill. The journey, it steamed, was the most important thing. Chug past the lakes and mountains, cling to the cliffs, take deep breaths of the nippy air and keep moving while you can.

Nilgiri_Mountain_Railway

From Wikipedia: Picture Credit: By Nsmohan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37242880

When people ask me about the banes of urban living, I rank not knowing the train driver quite high up on the list of grievances. I have to run up 50 stairs like an asthmatic calf to get to the platform.  So many times, just by virtue of being stuck behind a set of folks who refuse to budge on the escalator, I have missed the train. More often, I charge into the train just in time to have the doors close behind me and then stand there panting and mooing for breath.

When one considers how often I have flown past steps and hopped past debris and skidded into the train, I suppose it is only fair. A matter of tempting fate long enough. One day last week, a quick look at the watch (set to two minutes past the actual time), and another look at the car clock (set to three minutes past the actual time) revealed that I have a 30% percent chance of making it to the train if it was on time and a 43% percent chance if it was a minute late. Give me a chance at something like that and I mysteriously transform into a demonized matador bull:  I will lower my head and point head train-ward and charge like a demon with horns. However I was not feeling sufficiently bull-like that day, more like The Reluctant Dragon.

reluctant_dragon

The Reluctant Dragon is a marvelous children’s book written by Kenneth Graham. In the book, the villagers are keen to slay the Dragon assuming all dragons are vicious. The Dragon, however, wants no fighting or flame spewing. He simply wants to rest his back against a rock, think and write poetry.

The train doors above me opened and I looked upwards while running. I forgot about the raised platform around the 57th step. It was then that I took a toss. Now, when I say ‘Toss’ in that flippant manner, it does not truly capture how much an ass it makes one look.  Well, there really is no comparison with the animal kingdom, I mean have you seen deer trip or donkeys slip on the mud? That is set aside for the two-footed I believe.  The point is that the step hurled me and I fell spectacularly. My bag flew one way, my legs the other, while my knees scraped along trying to keep the bag and legs together. I lay there trying to resist a bizarre urge to laugh out loud, though I could feel the stinging pain in my scraped knees. I did chuckle to myself though – I must have looked like a prized fool sprawled there first thing in the morning when folks have important things to do and places to be. One cyclist evidently late for her own train, said, “You okay?” and I said “Yes”. She gave me the Thumbs Up and cycled off.

As I stared at the departing train to see if I could detect a smirk from anyone on the train, I need not have worried. The shiny silver train streaked off glinting against the morning sun as efficient and indifferent as ever. I did not know which was worse, the physical pain from the bruises or the indifference of the departing train. Just as quickly as laughter had come, I found much to my embarrassment, that tears stung my eyes.

No one knows whether the kind train driver who waved to my mother is still alive today, but I miss the likes of him in today’s world.