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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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Under the Same Sky: Part VIII
The Silver Line

Perveen Ahmad

The mystique of a railway line, as it leads the eye to a distant disappearing point of flat land, added to the clickity clack of wheel against rail track has fascinated generations of travellers. As children we had a medley which said “Engine, engine number nine/travelling on a silver line, one goes east and one goes west/and one goes in the cobra's nest”. India's vast landscape with its snaking, climbing, descending and converging rail lines, puffing and hissing over desert, delta, hills and valleys carried adventure seekers, separated souls and dutiful officials to fulfil their separate quests. I don't think any other innovation of the British Raj gave Indians the boost for hope and change as did the great British Indian Railways.

The great British Indian Railway

Our journey on a transfer was different to the ones we made with Daddy when he went on tour or on line, for inspection and official work. On tour meant that the OC or officer's carriage would be standing on the “siding” in the yard for the three days while he had office work. My mother and we would descend from the carriage and spend the days visiting co-officer families, looking around the sights and a bit of shopping. In the evenings we returned to the OC cabin to read comics and books, listen to the radio and play table games like Carrom, Ludo, Cross-and-Naughts. Mummy would tell us stories and sing songs. We also used these hours to learn knitting and sewing, producing items for our house or for our teachers, as gifts.

The OC, which was provided for families on transfer and for officers on 'line duty', was a quaint house on wheels. On its green painted exterior was the emblem of the crown with EIR, or East Indian Railway displayed in graceful letters. It contained a drawing room space, a dinning area, and a bedroom with four berths, and a bath attached. A cook was on board and the kitchen served up meals as the journey proceeded. There was a roof water tank that was filled up at major stations and sweepers came in with brooms and wiper cloths to clear out the dustbins, sweep floors, clean toilets and dust the glass and shutter windows. During summer there were two essential boxes, one the Ice Box which was wooden and lined with zinc sheets, stacked up with blocks of ice in which meat, fish, milk and perishable foods were placed. The other was the Ration Box which contained dried foods like rice, flour, lentils, spices, sugar, salt etc. The khansama or cook was in charge of these items for the three- or sometimes five-day journey. Hot meals, puddings and even ice cream were prepared by the ingenious cooks who served the 'sahibs'. In summer while crossing the arid, dust-blown plains of India, slabs of ice on zinc sheet

The Fairy Queen, built in 1855, is the world's oldest steam locomotive in regular operation today. The Fairy Queen was constructed in Leeds, England in 1855, and reached Calcutta in 1895 where it was christened as the Fairy Queen.

trays sprinkled with wood dust and covered with sackcloth were placed in the middle of the compartment to cool the air circulated by whirring roof fans. Dining tables were fixed to the wooden floor and water glass-holders of metal were riveted to the walls to absorb the jolting of the carriage.

Every effort was made to provide a comfortable ride, some OC's having twelve wheels and some sixteen wheels. Bumpers between carriages were well-oiled and shock absorbers beneath the carriage regularly checked. At every big station the Line-Man would clank his spanner and hammer on the wheels, keeping an ear for any odd sound that indicated a shift in alignment of the wheels.

I was always intrigued at the excellence and efficiency of the staff in charge of the 'rolling stock' in their khaki or navy blue uniforms, who walked the rail lines even at two or three o'clock in cold winter nights and burning mid-day sun, when the train puffed into the big junctions. As small kids peeping out of the windows we would hear the slowing hiss of the steam engine shafts as it came to a halt and saw the magic-like alacrity of workers with lanterns or torches in hand, climbing on to the OC roof, their footsteps sounding like rats in the attic, while others scuttled under the carriage tapping the wheels, turning the spanners and checking the gigantic chains between bogeys.

My brother Zamir would lean out of the bogey's window peering at the wheels and telling me to note that the wheels did not stand flat on the track, but were slanted. Indeed this mechanical balance fascinated us like the wonder of balancing on one's toes!

Transfer journeys were often long and non-stop to our destination. The changing landscape and our mother's interventions to enjoy and learn relieved our cramps over the two or three days' journey. Stoppages at the large junctions, after six hours on the move gave us some respite, and we would jump on to the platform to buy clay toys, bangles, fruits and toffees. The railway staff were assigned not to let us stray far off from our carriage as the guard's whistle would blow too soon, the green flag would circulate with the guard's wrists in a special beckoning movement and we would have to run helter-skelter to be hoisted up the perpendicular stairs, and bundled into the cabin. The respite was gleeful and fun!

Daddy's transfer to Bengal on promotion from Junior Personnel Officer (JPO) to Assistant Personnel Officer or APO was dampened by news of communal unrest. On alighting at Calcutta's Howrah Station we were met by Head Quarters staff from Fairley Place and assured that the goods train would be arriving next morning with our trunks and furniture. Meanwhile they arranged for us a stay in the bungalow at Lilloah Colony which we had been allotted, and which had basic beds, chairs and a dining table to manage on before our goods came. Our settling down was quickly handled by a team of railway staff each of whom seemed to know what to do. Beddings were opened up from the buckled canvas bedrolls and laid out, towels hung up in the bathrooms and as if with a magic wand coal fires were lit in the kitchen clay oven and presto! Lunch was ready by afternoon.

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