Cover of A Passage Through India. Author's Collection

By: Ganesh Saili

Who could have faulted any one of them? Each had accomplished the task set for them. Three persons were involved in the matter. The first: Sardar Gurbachan Singh Seistian, who had left his village in Punjab, a fifteen-year-old and gnawed his way to turn Chief Accountant of the group whose business extended from Bangalore to Bannu, and from Mhow to Murree. He had gone along for the ride. The second: Atulya Sethi, the General Manager, always seen in a crumpled three-piece suit with a wilted rosebud on the lapel. The third: Chatter Singh Negi,  who began as a ball boy chasing errant tennis balls and rose, sourdough-like, to become the Front Desk Manager.

I’ll say it again, no one could have faulted them for their efforts in seeing off Bibiji and her husband, Rai Bahadur Captain Kirparam, who were catching the night train to Delhi. Captain Sahib’s rags-to-riches story remains the stuff of legend. He had run a catering and canteen service for Allied troops during the War, and also built barracks for the German prisoners of war interned in Prem Nagar. Later he had bought a sprawling hotel in the hill station.

NF Railway. Pic courtesy: Trikalagya Rabha

Anyway, on that fateful day, a rickety old taxi from the Library stand had taken them down to the train station in Dehradun. They, jointly and severally, ensured the Boss and his wife reached the railway station on time.

The fault, if you must jump the gun, could have been laid fairly and squarely at the doorstep of the Station Master of Dehradun. Why did he have to have three trains: the Junta Express, the Howrah Express and the Mussoorie Express, leaving from the same platform at dusk, within minutes of each other?

Our blameless trio made sure their charges had settled comfortably. Negi helped open the bistarbandh on the allotted berths, patting the creases by hand. Sethi produced the tiffin carrier he had carried so carefully clasped between his legs in a car hurtling downhill. The engine’s whistle tooted, the carriage wheels clanged, and it was time for genuflecting and bidding bon voyage. They watched the tail lights of the last bogey being swallowed up by the darkness. Only then did they scurry into the taxi that took them back to the hills.

Toy Train to Darjeeling. Pic courtesy: Trikalagya Rabha

Trouble knocked the next morning. The phone rang. Captain Sa’ab was on the line. Instead of Delhi, he woke up, much to his horror, at the Charbagh Railway Station in Lucknow!

Exactly fifty years later, one of the bright young editor’s assistants was chosen to escort my friend Ruskin Bond to a book launch. Arriving rather late at New Delhi railway station, she put him aboard what she thought was the train to Kolkata.

‘What time do we reach Calcutta?’ Ruskin happened to ask a co-passenger.

‘Sir! This Shatabdi is going to Chandigarh!’ he said.

‘We tumbled out fast!’ Ruskin recalls.

Mercifully, the world has moved on from the days when my Nani and I took the Trumba, a slow passenger train, on our annual pilgrimage to meet our relatives, living in Haridwar. That train stopped at all the sundry stations: Harrawala, Doiwala, Raiwala, Motichur and Kansrao. Of course, I knew that Nani would be carrying her tiffin carrier (stuffed with aloo-pooris) and, for water, a brass pitcher too. I have yet to figure out why she carried these accoutrements, which included her not-to-be-forgotten paan-daan – for what was, essentially, a very short ride to the neighbouring town.

What has stayed with me all the days of my life is the cloying taste of that extra-sweet cup of tea in a kullhar at the Doiwala railway station. That, and the clip-clop of the tonga ride to our relative’s home which was little more than a room above the shop.

Remembering these tales of my early train rides, I find myself rubbing my eyes as memories envelop me, much like the smoke from the coal-burning engine that would occasionally fill the compartment and waft grit into my eye. Just before the town came the two tunnels where the clickety-clack of the wheels echoed off the walls, signalling the Trumba had reached Haridwar.

 Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by his pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.