Stories of Railway Travel by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru

By B M S Bisht, ex-GM NFR, IRTS (retd.); 12 November 2008.

This article was previously published on the website of the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS).

It was in 1950 that Pandit Nehru was proceeding from New Delhi to Babina for a Buddhist function at Sanchi. Something unprecedented occurred, showing the great simplicity and humanity that Panditji had despite the legendary aura public had in their minds about him. Can any railway person today even dare to imagine the Prime Minister of India travelling over 12 hours in a non-air-conditioned coach on a train and above all without a cup of his/her morning tea for more than four hours? And this is what exactly happened to him during this journey! The tea was finally served to him just one station before the destination. Yet he neither flared up nor reprimanded anyone. He was at times short-tempered in his official dealings but here he was a picture of patience and understanding. Perhaps he thought occasional impatience and anger were justifiable part of his work culture in state business but not in matters like personal convenience.

The VVIP saloon 89 was attached to an express train at New Delhi. Minutes before the due departure of the train Prime Minister Nehru arrived on the State Entry Road platform to board his coach, escorted by the Station Master and a few railway officials. Clad in a long white sherwani with a rose in his button hole, and churidars, he wore pump shoes looking his usual fresh self. His personal luggage consisted of a modest leather suitcase, a typewriter and two dak boxes. As he entered the saloon he asked the attendant to throw open the windows and switch on the fans. This he did on the return trip as well. The saloon had two doors inside. One opened into the kitchen and led into the lounge and from there into a corridor along the Secretary's room, the Staff room and the bathroom-cum-toilet. The other door opened directly into the VVIP lounge. There were call-buttons for all the three enclosures. It was a non-air-conditioned saloon.

Panditji was accompanied by few staff -- an aged South Indian PA, a security officer with a revolver, and personal valet, an opium addict who snored heavily in his sleep.

At Kosikalan, the first halt, saloon attendants Lahori Lal and Abid Hasan of Northern Railway came to the lounge where Panditji was sitting and stood by awaiting his orders but as he did not ask for anything soon they walked back to their enclosures in the rear of the saloon.

The attendants went to sleep when they came to know that their VVIP master had also retired to bed after working till midnight.

Panditji woke up very early around 4.30am just before Jhansi. Later his attendants came to know that he had pressed the call bell, and on not getting any response, had opened the kitchen door and finding them fast asleep had quietly retreated to the lounge without disturbing them. Two hours later around 6am the bell rang again. Soon his valet rushed in. Panditji told him in Hindustani, "Hazrat ab tashreef laayay hain. Hum to aap ko sota dekhkar laut ayay. Koi chaai-waai ka bandobast kiya hai?" ("Gentleman, you have come now! Earlier I had come back on finding you asleep. Do you have any arrangement for tea?") The valet replied: "Hamarey saath saamaan nahi hai, hum kya Karen?" ("Sir, I have no provisions with me to prepare tea, what to do?") Panditji -- the Prime Minister of India -- was as helpless as his valet in this 'urgent' personal matter! It seems he was used to having bed tea served to him early in the morning and would have several cups of it while glancing through day's newspapers. Unfortunately his valet had not brought any provisions nor had any proper arrangements in the saloon. Even the fire-cum-hot box in the saloon's kitchen had no coal.

Panditji looked through the window and saw tea being served to passengers on the platform in kulhars (small earthen cups). But meanwhile the train moved. Panditji did not ask the train to be detained and preferred to wait for the next halt. When the valet tried to buy tea at the next station, Hasan, the railway attendant, stopped him as he knew its quality as the kulhar tea was generally made of powdered stuff brewed several times over. The train moved out again.

A bigger station came next but Panditji's train was on platform number three. Hasan asked the guard not to wave the green flag until he came back. He then went straight to the Station Master. He told him of the Prime Minister's predicament and asked him to send a message to the stations that were to follow to get tea especially prepared for the PM. He also cautioned him that sugar and milk should be kept separately. This meant a full set of tray and cutlery and that caused a problem!

The Station Master soon cranked the block instrument and messages were also given to several stations ahead but they could do nothing about the tea for the Prime Minister! For if one ASM had tea powder the milk was not there, if another had both sugar was not there, if a third one had all these there was no proper crockery for putting sugar, milk and the tea decoction separately. These stations were small road-side stations that lie far away from their respective cities.

Thus the train passed one station after another without Panditji getting his morning tea; he was restless. His eyes had gone red but he did not lose his poise. Stray passengers would notice and gather near the window but before he could speak to them either they would rush into their compartments or the train would move out.

Finally quite late in the morning around 9am came the big station Bina. The enterprising Station Master had got special tea made by his wife and had also managed to get proper cutlery, and crockery in which to serve it. Thus, after about four and half hours' painful waiting Pandit Nehru got his first cup of "bed tea". Soon newspapers also arrived -- two in English and one in Urdu. Panditji did not ask for biscuits or any eatables and started reading the newspapers helping himself to several rounds of tea (to which he added very little milk).

About an hour later the train reached the destination. Smiling Nehru emerged from the saloon and was received by waiting officials. A large crowd waved the tricolour and shouted, "Pandit Nehru Zindabad". Soon the nine-car cavalcade left for Sanchi.

Probably Panditji good-humouredly mentioned his culinary dilemma to someone during the day. That was enough. At about 8pm the same day, RA 89 was attached to the Grant Trunk Express for returning to Delhi. At Jhansi, the catering staff of a private company under contract with the railways marched in, with a helper, a waiter, a cook, and a bag load of provisions -- tea bags, cans of milk, sugar, eatables, water, coal, and a fine set of crockery and cutlery.

Panditji again worked till midnight. Then he opened the door and told the catering staff: "Ab aap log bahut ziyaadah ho gaye hein. Main bedroom jaa raha hoon aap yehan aakar lounge mein so jaaiyay." ("There are too many of you here. I am going to the bedroom. Come and sleep in the lounge.")

But none of the catering staff slept a wink. Coal was continually fed into the oven; water was kept boiling, and the milk kept hot. After the train left Mathura around 4am attendants would frequently look at the call bell indicator for the PM to order tea. Finally Panditji got up and pressed the bell. Within minutes, steaming hot tea was served to him. He had four to five cups.

Before reaching Delhi Panditji asked for the caterers and instructed his PA to make the payment in cash. Then, he called the attendants in. Taking out eight-anna coins from his pocket he tipped them one each saying: "Chai pijiyay , chai pijiyay" ("Have some tea!")

In 1955 again Hasan travelled with Panditji on a special train. He was to inaugurate the Bhakra-Nangal hydroelectric project. The train was packed with officials and pressmen. It was now an air-conditioned saloon for him. Nothing special occurred during this trip. Both the forward and return journeys took place during the night.

A later travel: A memorable event did occur when Hasan the Northern Railways' old and experienced electric attendant was on board with Panditji for the third and last time when he was going to Amritsar for a function at the Swaran Mandir. Hasan was now an Electric Examiner having been promoted.

On his return journey leaving Amritsar for New Delhi at 10pm the Prime Minister's special train reached Saharanpur late around 6.30am the next morning. Panditji called the driver, one Mr Kerr, an Anglo Indian, but not quite fair of complexion. So Panditji spoke to him in Hindustani: "Suniyay, mujhe parliament ki kaarwaai mein shareek hona hai , kitni der aur lagaygi?" ("Listen I've to attend parliament, how long will you take?")

Kerr replied in English, "Four and a half hours, the latest we will reach Delhi is by 11am."

Panditji now asked him in English, "Can you go a little faster? I don't want to be late for Parliament."

Kerr shot back, "Sir, I'll try, but I'll not punish my engine."

Panditji appreciated his sentiments and remarked, "All right , try your best."

Kerr drove the engine like he had never done before in his long career. At 9.45am sharp the special train pulled in along the ceremonial platform at New Delhi.

Prime Minister Nehru alighted and sent for the driver. Kerr came to him smiling. Panditji shook hands with him warmly and said "Thank you!" Overwhelmed, Kerr sought instant retirement that very day though he had a couple of months to go! His railway bosses tried to persuade him to complete his service but he snapped back, "I've had the moment of my life, and I wish no better." After his premature retirement Kerr soon thereafter migrated to Australia.

Source: The archives of the Hindustan Times Of India, Delhi