Travels on board the NDA Special
by Shikhar Parjan
The NDA (National Defence Academy -not the recently defeated Party in Central Govt in India) located at Khadakwasla, near Pune is a unique institution in the world - in that it trains post-XIIth, under grad cadets for all 3 services- Army, Navy and Air Force- so as to instil a spirit of inter-services bonding at an early stage.
The NDA Special is a elusive, much lamented train that comes into existence every 6 months to ferry cadets going North for their term breaks and brings them back to Khadki after 4 weeks. In cadet folklore, it has a part-adored, part-hated status. The service runs from Khadkee to Delhi and points North till Jammu, but bogies are detached at Jhansi - for Lucknow/ Kanpur and further on for Kalka and other branch lines.
The train actually happened to be passing by the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, in Dec 84, when the gas leakage was happening late in the night - but on account of the train being in motion, only mild eye irritation was observed by travelers on board.
After Passing out Parade in Jun/Dec, there is a rush amongst cadets to head back home, but the NDA special types (about 60% of cadets) have to cool their heels. Firstly cadets bound for Bangalore are allowed to leave to be in time for the early-noon incoming train from Dadar /Kurla (forget which one), then the 4 down types for Calcutta/Allahabad leave in the afternoon bound for Kalyan via the Deccan Queen. The 'Special' sits at Khadkee, patiently waiting for Jhelum Exp to depart from Pune ahead of it on it's Northward course. A favorite consolation is '..had it been a time of war, then the Special would be given clearance at all stations..' but the exuberance of youth does not fully grasp the scenario that in that case it would not be home but another military location that they would find themselves in. For most Northerners, it is their first experience to see Double Deckered train (either Pragati or Sinhgadh Express don't remember)s and the DC operated locos -establishing roots for future train spotting......
After Ahmed Nagar, between Vilad and Nimbalak are the KK ranges, where tank firing classes are held. Cadets on the way back to Pune, try to discern the dull whoossh of a tank gun firing - it is not very far from the Ahmednagar - Manmad track about 2-3 km as the crow flies. Babeena is another location where spotting the latest military hardware from the train is indulged in with great passion.. (of course, after trying to make eye contact with more 'fairer' passengers on trains on other platforms)
Based on the point of future detachment -and school type - there are informal bogies - APS Delhi, Lucknow Bogey, Chandigarh/Kunjpura bogey and so on. Lucknow Bogey had a tough reputation for it's rough 'ragda' of juniors. Even though a senior pal in another bogey might want to 'save' his junior, he wont ask him to join a safer bogey as that is frowned upon, and against the overall experience of traveling in the special.
Smart alec cadets who lived on the Special route, but chose to-say fly out of Pune- would be promptly be given Endurance hikes to Singhgarh Fort of Maratha Warrior king Shivaji on their return - that was the official punishment for 'not traveling by NDA Special'. Unofficially, a senior would say 'this junior feels like flying when his fathers (seniors) are sweating in the train..' and it would send shivers down the spine of a special-dodging cadet and lead to pensive meditation while undergoing 'penance' for the said infraction- like front rolls etc.
But it was a good experience.... Tough seniors who would rag for hours would, by mid journey ordering glasses of hot milk at Bhusaval for their juniors The packed meals given would have been polished off at Khadki itself, but the seniors ensured that no junior went hungry. Sitting for hours at the open doors with feet hanging in the brisk breeze as the train sped through the Vindhya mountains was an experience to undertake. My favorite part used to be when the train crossed the Chambal river at dawn during winter, with the low fog sunk below the Chambal badlands -causing the eyes to play games on the mind, about the unknown lurking behind the ravines
On the flip side, in a freakish accident a cadet did however suffer serious electrocution- with major burns, but survived- when somehow, enroute he got in touch with OHE current on a rainy night (God knows how....)
Arrival at NDLS has everyone dressed up in their finest - goodbyes are made to fellow cadets and families greeted- till it is time 4 weeks later to make the return journey