When Goddess Durga Arrived by Train

By Lalit Chandra & Ravindra Bhalerao, 2017

Clunk-thud went the ticket dating machine behind the counter. The coins were passed through the window and the man at the head of the queue emerged with a look of relief with two tickets to Itarsi. Next it was the turn of an old lady who wanted a ticket to Maramjhiri. The booking clerk yelled, "Amma, this train won't halt at Marmajhiri. You had better board the Passenger in the evening!" The old woman had misjudged the train; she withdrew her coins and turned back looking crestfallen. When my turn came, I found Shivshankar the booking clerk was amused. "How many tickets?" he asked. He knew we rarely bought tickets for any station other than Betul. In Amla, railwaymen and their families were a closely knit community. No one can remain aloof here for long, everyone knows each other. As I counted out the coins, the booking clerk drew out four card tickets. Four times the machine went clunk-thud before the tickets were passed on through the window. Brave little card tickets! As children we collected these bits of pasteboard, played games with them, built pyramids reaching to the skies only to be toppled over by the slightest breeze that came in through the window. I have several of these pretty railway tickets lying around the home to this day:

  • Amla Junction -- Betul
  • Itarsi -- Amla Jn
  • Itarsi Junction -- Khandwa

Back in those days the ticket machine behind the window was a mystery for me. I could only look upon it as a printing press in miniature which printed out the names of the starting station and destination. I was dismally wrong. The mystery was cleared when we boys trooped into the booking office one day. Shivshankar knew the gang collected card tickets, and he was careful not to let us have access to his ticket tube. This was a small wooden cupboard with pigeon-hole partitions carrying stacks of tickets for various destinations. We discovered the tickets already had the names of the stations printed together with the fare. Shivshankar's ticket machine merely served to emboss the date of issue on the piece of card.

So here we were at Amla station on a lazy summer's day, Abhay and I, with cousin Nidhi and mother alongside, with tickets to Betul. Despite mother's stern warnings, we walked over to the edge of the platform and craned our necks. The tracks gleamed in the sun, and some distance away, a row of carriages could be seen stabled on a line. At any moment we could expect to see a smoke billowing engine pulling into the station bringing the train along with it. I can still remember these trips to Betul as a regular feature during our stay in Amla. Mother had a sister staying in Betul, and she would pack up a few things and take us along to spend a day with Supriya aunty. Sometimes we would watch a movie while in Betul, or indulge in a bit of shopping. For lower middle and poor class folks, the district place of Betul provided all the trimmings anyone could dream of.

Forty minutes later, we had alighted from the train at Betul, and boarded a rickshaw that would take us to aunt Supriya's home deep within the town. These family gatherings were a great event; mother and her sister would take to a charpoy spending hours reminiscing over the month's events, and exchanging the latest family news. While the elders were deep in conversation, we kids were left to our own devices. Bholu, Abhay and I, and Nidhi and little Sonam took to the outdoors. Next to the home was an old tree with gnarled branches, and Abhay and I took turns to the climb up the tree while little Sonam , full of delight, cheered from below. At other times we played with a ball. Then came lunchtime. Aunt Supriya made us sit in a row, and served dal, chawal, aloo subzi and achar. The Sunday lunch was always followed by bundi-ke-laddoo, so tempting, and so very sweet to the taste.

There were things to be bought and we would make our way to the bazaar to buy a hurricane lantern, a new baba-suit for Abhay, or a box of colour pencils. The afternoon went by dreamily with more gossip of the elders, and more games for the kids till it was time for us to prepare to leave. A day well spent brings a glow of satisfaction, and mother would pack up her bags for the return journey. Travelling back by rail would have meant a long wait at the station late in the evening, so we often took a bus instead. A two-hourly bus service run by a private operator provided reliable transport between the two towns, and for most residents of Amla this was the preferred mode of transport.

As boys our days were spent in pleasant, idyllic surroundings with the railway an ever present influence permeating our lives. Amla was a not-too-important junction 20 kilometers from Betul, and midway between Itarsi and Nagpur. Here father worked in the Parcel Booking Office. The actual parcel traffic for Amla town was small, but there were a sizeable number coming from various places and bound for Chhindwara. Father and his men would unload these parcels from incoming trains and after duly entering records, would load them into parcel vans of passenger trains for nearby Parasia. The little goods office at Amla station did brisk business most of the time.

Amla had a goods yard and locomotive shed ; it was the seat of an Air Force unit, and a branch line took off from the station leading to Parasia close to the district town of Chhindwara. All this meant that every train, no matter how important, would halt at this little junction. The Grand Trunk Express halted here as did the Dakshin Express. And so did the Jammu Tawi - Madras Janata Express.

The station consisted of two island platforms, one of which carried the main station building, with access to the rickshaw stand by a foot overbridge. On this platform could be found the station master's office, the parcel booking office, a canteen, waiting room, and the train examiner's room and train lighting section. Next to the station master's office was a row of fire-buckets, a necessity at every railway station, the bright red adding a cheerful dash of colour to the station. Sawarkar's refreshment stall did brisk business when a train arrived; he would serve aloo-bondas, coffee, and idli-sambar to hungry passengers eager for a quick bite. Close by hung a huge wall clock which always had a solemn air about it as it looked down from its lofty perch. Posters hung at intervals brightening up the station with their pictures : "This is your railway -- help to keep it clean.." said one, while another exhorted, "Avoid haste at level crossings..."

We lived in the railway colony where gangmen's quarters and those of other Grade D employees were laid out in rows. It was here that we lived and played and grew up. The boys -- there were eight in my group -- saved up pocket money to spend on roasted peanuts when the mumfali-wala came round pushing his handcart. A fifty gram paper cone held enough peanuts for a boy's evening treat, and we would sometimes stroll into the station, each holding his cone carefully. The shells had to be tossed away over the track, but one day two of my companions decided the platform was as good a place as any to toss away roasted groundnut shells. Amidst a constant stream of idle chatter and laughs we kept munching away until our paper cones were emptied of their contents and a pile of shells lay strewn at our feet. I looked down at the mess we had made; it somehow just didn't look right. It looked disturbing. It was not quite the proper thing to do, and I am sure the boys were debating in their minds on what to do next. Just then a sharp yell was heard coming from down the platform. We turned and found the station jamadar charging at us, letting out a stream of choice words. We had done wrong and were guilty. We took to our heels!

Winter came along and it was freezing cold in Amla, time to get into our sweaters and mufflers. Often an engine would be seen standing in the yard nearby and the good mothers of the colony, with small buckets in hand, would go to fetch garam pani -- hot waste water which the driver did not need anyway, and which was such a luxury, indeed a blessing for us in the winter months. Womenfolk could also be seen scavenging the track collecting as they went along bits of coal and unburnt cinder which was loaded into a small sack to be brought home as a prized find. I had accompanied mother on several such expeditions. I soon made the discovery that with some patience and a willingness to explore, it was possible to recover a good amount of cinder -- cinder that was destined for the sigri at home where it would give up the last remnants of its heating value and help ease the burden of the monthly fuel bill.

Diwali brought along with it school holidays, and was always a time of great fun and merriment. There would be firecrackers and sparklers, and homes everywhere were lighted up with diyas, tiny clay bowls with a lighted wick dipping in oil. A Durga Pooja had been organized by a resident of the colony and the boys volunteered to help. It was exciting to be a part of the organizing team. The very first task assigned to us was a manual job containing an element of risk. A two feet high murti weighing several kilos had arrived by rickshaw at a place across the railway and we were asked to fetch the murti and install it in Somnath's home.

The boys -- there were eight of us--heaved and panted and amidst cries of "Arre, samhal ke..." the murti was unloaded from the rickshaw. It was a prettily made idol. The colours were breathtaking, so bright and eye-catching, with sunlight glinting off the corners. As the rickshaw moved away, we stood admiring this work of art. The men who crafted such an object of beauty must have been truly skilled artists, we thought.

But there was work to do ahead. As we stood by the tracks, Dakshin Express steamed out of the station with a great clatter and din. On the loop stood a goods train, the long line of 4-wheeled wagons stretching away in each direction to infinity. The obstruction was immovable; it was static and would not move out for ages, we knew. Carrying the murti to the lineside quarters across the yard would involve an arduous trek along the tracks, make a U turn around the stationary train, and carry the fragile load the same distance back. We shuddered at the thought of performing this herculean feat.

If railwaymen are known to extend a courtesy to a soul in need, they are also known to be ingenious in working out a solution to a problem. As we stood with the murti, looked around in dismay, an engine was seen about fifty meters away letting out steam idly as it stood awaiting orders for shunting. Three of us strode up to the locomotive. There was no one in the cab but we found the fireman and driver standing next to a coupled brake van with pointsman Malwe standing beside. We walked up to the men and explained the matter, hoping that they would agree to shunt the train out of the way. After a bit of deliberation amongst themselves, the matter was finally settled. Without a shunting order, the goods train could not be touched; but there was nothing to stop them from arranging transport using engine power. True, it was against the rules, but a certain amount of "amicable working" or cooperation would do no harm. It was a part of railway working.

And so it was that Goddess Durga seated atop a striped tiger found a place on the goods brake behind an engine on that day. We clambered onto the brake and with a merry whistle, and amidst clouds of steam heralding this singular event, we set off. The engine steamed on steadily till we were past the stationary goods train and beyond the trailing points. Here we slowed down and halted. Malwe got off the brake, the points were reversed, and we began our journey back, this time taking the line that ran next to the gangmen's quarters, bypassing the stubborn line of wagons that had refused to budge.

Word quickly spread in the colony: Goddess Durga has arrived by train, they said. It left behind a lasting impression on me. To a little boy's mind it was a day of victory. It was a day which saw the most unusual consignment being transported in the most innovative way.

Although a junction of medium size, Amla doubled as a train examining station. Other than the customary checks, one of the most important tasks of the Train Examiner here was to check the brakes on the train. The procedure was crucial ; no train was allowed to leave Amla unless the TXR had satisfied himself that it possessed enough brake power. The reason for this is not hard to find : close to Amla lay Betul, and a bare 9 kilometers ahead was the awesome Maramjhiri - Dharakoh ghat with the line winding its way through wooded hills in a steep downward gradient. Allowed to roll down on its own, a train would acquire a dangerously high speed, so brake power was all important--even more important here than engine hauling power.

If travelling down the Maramjhiri grade was fun, a train ride up through the ghat was even more fun; it was exciting to have a extra engine pushing the train from the back. Here we were at Ghoradongri station one day, some 15 kilometers short of the ghat with the slow Passenger train showing no signs of wanting to move on. A tiny country station, Ghoradongri was provided with a small yard with space enough to hold two or more full length trains and sundry wagons besides. The first sight that met my eye when we pulled into Ghoradongri was a steam engine standing in readiness in the yard. I was to discover later that no train could make the grade that lied ahead with a single locomotive, so a banking engine was stationed here for good, to assist trains up the ghat.

The Nagpur Passenger halted long enough for my father to alight and have a leisurely chat with the station staff. Finally after an unbearable delay, the loco stabled in the yard gave a hoot, and moving from its line, came over and took charge at the rear of our train. And thus began the most pleasurable train ride I have ever had. Huffing and puffing all along the way, the two engines laboured, one pulling, the other pushing ; together they had might and power enough to carry the train up the slope, a 12 kilometer stretch of track winding its way through a delightful panorama of low lying hills, valleys, viaducts, and tunnels.

The pleasure of having an engine at the rear pushing us up the gradient was short lived though, for in about an hour's time, Maramjhiri was reached and here the banking engine was detached from the train. With assistance no longer needed as the track henceforth was level, it would be sent down to Ghoradongri where it would be kept in steam awaiting the next train it had to push up the incline.