A Pentastic Birthday Party!


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 minor defvmay 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
– 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 – 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 – 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.

Material provided by Ranganath Eunny, Copyright © 2009.