K R Vaidyanathan: Railwayman and Writer

by Ravindra Bhalerao

The great secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.
Lord Beaconsfield

It was a cool winter afternoon. A young railwayman working at the Victoria Terminus station made his way up the stairs of The Times of India carrying with him a sheaf of papers. Ever since he had taken up a job with the railways, he had sent in his writings to magazines and newspapers alike, and with a good measure of success too, but this time it was going to be different. Today for the first time he had approached a national newspaper and the thought that his work might find its way to the wastebin made his heart sink within him.

Barely a few minutes had passed after the man had submitted his work when an attendant appeared saying that the editor wished to see him. The man rose from his seat and made his way with an uncertain step. The editor was none other than M. V. Kamath, who seemed quite enthusiastic and offered him a seat. "There aren't many who can write on the subject of railways, Mr. Vaidyanathan," observed Kamath. "We would like to have you as a regular contributor for our Sunday supplement for children. Does that suit you?"

And thus began Vaidyanathan's writing career with The Sunday Times of India. His excursion into the field of writing led him inevitably on to do research that was to finally take the form of two books: 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways which is a highly readable account of the rise of the railways in India, and A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes, a collection of amusing and informative bits drawn from the world of trains. A cursory glance through these books reveals an inimitable style that is free of abstruse theories and verbose descriptions. VaidyanathanÂ’s writings possess a quality of freshness; they serve to inform, educate and entertain, and they do so with pinpoint clarity, placing him amongst the foremost railway writers of our times.

Kunissery Ramakrishna Vaidyanathan was born on 4 August 1926 in Kunissery, a tiny village in Palakkad district of Kerala. To attend school the boy trudged all the way to the nearby town of Alatur, 5 kilometers away. After finishing school, he joined Victoria College in Palakkad where he took lodgings in a hostel. Buses in rural areas were few and far between, so weekend visits to his village would often mean that the boy would have to walk the entire 18 kilometer stretch to reach home.

After graduating from Victoria College, the young man wondered for a while what he would do next. Opportunities for employment were scarce in Kerala in those times, and young men often travelled in crowded third class compartments to Bombay, Madras and similar places in search of a livelihood. Young Kunissery had a brother who had been discharged from the army in Second World War, and now served at Jabalpur in the railways. On his advice the young boy travelled all the way to join his brother in Jabalpur where a Scottish railway officer made him sit for a brief test finally declaring that he was qualified before sending him to training school.

The Central Railway Training School, now in Bhusaval, was set up originally in Bina. Following a 6 months course here, Vaidyanathan was selected for the job of a signaller in August 1947 and was posted to the Bombay area. At this time he had begun to write for various periodicals; his knowledge of his subject was profound, and so highly was he regarded by his superiors that he came to be specially nominated to the training school in Bina as Traffic Instructor for imparting training to fresh recruits and officers. After a 2-year spell as instructor in Bina, Vaidyanathan moved back to Bombay with his family where he was assigned to senior positions like inspector, section controller and so on.

Bombay with its teeming multitudes, its honking cars and its hurried pace presented an altogether different picture for the young man who had grown up in an atmosphere of tranquility. To begin with he found himself bewildered and in a daze, but with the passage of time things began to settle down. Bombay would prove to be a turning point in his life, placing him amidst surroundings that were as lively and exciting as they were conducive to intellectual pursuits and growth. Each day as he arrived for work he marvelled at the splendour of the Victoria Terminus. The Gothic cathedral with its turrets, spires and ornate carvings held him spell-bound; far from atop the Statue of Progress gazed down, a mother figure pronouncing a blessing in placid tones, while F. W. Stevens seemed to be urging him on, whispering in his ear a message of courage and hope.

The VT is much more than a railway terminus -- it is the headquarters of the erstwhile Great Indian Peninsula Railway and houses within it a library containing a vast collection of books and periodicals. To this library the young man would now turn for inspiration and instruction, for he had secretly nurtured all along a dream that he would go on to become a writer some day. With this purpose in mind, he now embarked on a programme of self-study and improvement aimed at improving his style of writing and diction in English. To quote his own words, "Since the atmosphere was so favourable I decided I would develop myself both as a writer and also as a senior officer in the railways. The Britishers had left behind a huge library at VT station which proved to be a mine of gold for a voracious reader like me." Besides the library in VT, Vaidyanathan also found time to enroll as a member of the British Council Library. He had a keen eye for detail and a prodigious ability to take notes, later assimilating the material by careful study. The rigors of this exercise, while enjoyable in itself, was to pay rich dividends in the years to come. It broadened his horizons of knowledge helping him to develop a distinctive style of his own, and as an added bonus, when the railway examination came round, he did exceptionally well securing a promotion for himself. The shy young boy from Kerala was slowly being transformed into a cultivated gentleman with fine taste and enough grit to forge his way ahead in life.

Vaidyanathan's first venture into the field of writing was when began to work on essays and articles for the Indian Railways magazine begun by the Railway Board shortly after independence. Significant developments were taking place at this time in the world of railways and there seemed to be a great demand for general information. Encouraged by his initial success, he began to venture further afield, writing for the general press and various periodicals. His preoccupation with writing was to take a momentous turn when he was invited by M. V. Kamath, then Sunday Editor of The Times of India, Bombay, to send in his articles on railways. Among the several pieces he wrote was one titled The Chuk-Chuk-Chuk Men: An Inside View of the Exploits of Our Fabled Engine Drivers. Other writings revolved around guards, station masters and cabinmen, while still others told about modern methods employed in signaling and other varied aspects of train working.

His work for The Times of India also brought him in touch with Khushwant Singh who was at the time editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India. Khushwant Singh was looking for humourous pieces to add colour to his magazine and Vaidyanathan agreed to contribute railway jokes and trivia to the humour column from the vast collection he had gathered from various sources.

Today Shri Vaidyanathan is the proud author of several fine books. His researches on religion led to the publication of several works, notable among which are Temples and Legends of Kerala and Shri Krishna: the Lord of Guruvayur. Other publications include Pilgrimage to Sabari, Growing Old Gracefully, and of course, 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways. But the crowning achievement for which he will be remembered is his joke book on railways. A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes published in 1982 is a compilation of witty anecdotes and informative tidbits, some real, others fictional, gathered from innumerable sources. The title turns out to be quite misleading though, for Vaidyanathan had much more in mind than a collection of jokes when he compiled his work. He will take you on a trip showing how Thomas Edmondson invented the cardboard ticket we are all familiar with. He speaks about the origin of the train whistle and goes on to tell us how the railways came to adopt the 24-hour clock. It is a book that comes close to being a collectorÂ’s item, its 160 odd pages holding a treasure chest of nuggets that will delight every rail enthusiast.

K. R. Vaidyanathan retired from the Central Railway in 1984 having risen to the rank of a Senior Commercial Officer of the Indian Railway Traffic Service. Over 80 years of age, he lives today with his wife and sons in Mumbai. "I am an 82 years old young man," he once observed while chatting with me on the phone. Age has not mellowed his enthusiasm; he goes for walks, reads, even attends social and religious get-togethers. In many ways a Gandhian, Shri Vaidyanathan has essentially a simple and uncomplicated view towards life. He is deeply spiritual drawing inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita for which he feels the greatest reverence. As a young man he greatly admired the heroes of the freedom struggle, and found that the path towards fulfillment lay in doing the task that lay before him as best as he could.

"When we were young, Gandhiji, Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri were our role models," he says reflectively. "I have done my duty in all walks of life and this has brought me deep satisfaction. I was very fond of Bhagavad Gita. The core teaching is: do your duty to the best of your ability and leave the rest to God. This I have earnestly followed," he says.

In recent years, he has turned his attention towards social work, working for his native village, Kunissery, which he intends to develop into a model village. He has already renovated the three temples in the village and appointed proper priest to conduct religious proceedings. Now he plans to go one step further and arrange for free food, medical care and education for the poor. "It's a gigantic task," admits Vaidyanathan, adding that "it is going to require funds, and I am planning to collect at least one crore rupees to carry out these projects."