I was reading this slim book, ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories’, and was reminded of an interesting incident that happened over 4 decades ago.
Our family was traveling from Jamshedpur, Bihar (now in Jharkhand) to New Delhi. We were to change trains at Patna.
We were traveling by what is today known as ‘2nd Class Sleeper’. During those days it was known as ‘Ordinary 3rd Class’.
True to its name, the ‘Ordinary 3rd Class’ consisted of ordinary people, meaning the Indian middle class of those days. The people were quite ordinary and their luggage, in the form of unwieldy steel trunks, unshapely gunny bags, and bulky holdalls, even less ordinary.
During those days people carried a lot of luggage with them. One would think they were relocating. Based on requests from relatives, bulky items such as gas stoves, table fans and folding iron cots wrapped in hessian cloth were transported as personal luggage in such trains. After using up all the designated areas for storing luggage under the lower berths, the remaining pieces of luggage could be found leaning against the exit door or heaped on someone else’s luggage. The brash ones would set down their steel trunks plonk in the middle of the narrow passage. They were ready and capable of defending their position should someone challenge them. People passing through bumped into the luggage bruising themselves, muttering curses under their breath.
In summers, families also carried with them earthen pots (matkaa or suraahee) to store cool water. Invariably, these earthen pots with an uneven base would not last the length of the journey owing to the rough running of the train. Frequent fights broke out in the compartment when these pots broke and quickly flooded the compartment and submerged the luggage placed under the berths.
We were traveling as a fairly large family after attending a family event at Jamshedpur. In addition to my parents and my two siblings, my uncle, aunt and two of their children were also with us. My father was a man of great humor and my uncle was the exact opposite – stern and serious.
Every time the train stopped at a station, much against my mother’s wishes, my father would get down from the train and take a stroll on the railway platform. My mother was worried about him missing the train. She would keep looking for him in the milling crowds as my father kept enlarging his area of perambulation with every new station. On many occasions, he would stray and disappear from her line of sight causing her to panic. My uncle was quite unhappy with this habit of my father and would keep grumbling.
On the other hand, my father really enjoyed his moments. He made friends with fellow passengers striking interesting conversations, taking in the sights and sounds at every station. He would rush back as soon as the train blew the whistle. As children, we looked forward to his quick return. He would be back with biscuits, toffees, hot snacks or bananas.
At yet another station, my father got down to get hot tea for all of us. He was clad in his pajamas and a vest, holding a stainless steel vessel and had just enough money for a few cups of tea. As usual, my mother was peeping out of the window panicking while my uncle grumbled. We were looking out of the window expecting some eats.
Suddenly and without warning, the train began pulling out of the station. My mother spotted my father at the tea stall. She began screaming, calling out his name. My father was lost in his world. He must have been expecting the sound of the whistle. Spotting my father at such a distance, my uncle also panicked and began shouting at the top of his voice. We also joined in but by that time, the train had picked up speed. My mother rushed to pull the alarm chain but my uncle prevented her from doing so. During those days, to pull an alarm chain, one needed to be faced with a real emergency situation. Pulling an alarm chain without sufficient reason could attract penalty, imprisonment or both. I don’t think ordinary folks ever considered any reason grave enough to warrant such an action – such was the fear. Consequently, the alarm chain was never pulled. By the time my father turned to face the train, it was too late. Our bogie had rolled out of the station.
Pandemonium reigned in our compartment. My mother was in tears. As children, seeing our mother, we were also crying. My uncle, aunt, and the other passengers were trying their best to comfort my mother. Everyone was speculating about how my father would be united with the family. Some suggested that all of us disembark from the train with all our luggage and go back to the station where my father had missed the train. Anyway, thankfully, we did none of that and continued the journey with no idea of how our father would be back on the train.
About an hour later, we seemed to be approaching another station. Some passengers were beginning to laboriously move their luggage towards the exit door. My mother was looking forlorn. She was looking out of the window. Another train was overtaking ours. Suddenly my mother let out a piercing scream. She was pointing to the other train.
On that goods train, on the landing near the engine door, in his pajamas and white vest, holding the stainless steel vessel like a trophy, my father was casually leaning against the railing, smiling and waving at us.