Platform Humour

By Ravindra Bhalerao, 2015

A review of the book, "A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes" by K. R. Vaidyanathan. English Edition Publishers and Distributors Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, 2003; pp 159, Rs 150.

The story is told of an English gentleman named Tom who had the deepest regard for the railways of India. Once Tom was at Karjat station waiting for a train that would take him to Poona. When after three hours at the platform, there was no sign of a train coming, Tom asked a porter what the matter was.

"There was a train collusion last night on this line, sir," explained the porter. Tom looked the coolie up and down with disgust. "Collision, not collusion, you idiot !" he cried.

To which the porter asked, "U or I sir?"

There are people who look upon a joke as a mere trifle, an altogether waste of words. Others say that for real harmless fun nothing can beat a joke. They say that a joke leads on to laughter which is the best medicine. Someone may break into a laugh, others may grin. The humour may be ever so slight but it nearly always brings a smile to the listener's face.

With so many joke books already on the crowded shelves of bookshops, one may wonder if Vaidyanathan's anthology has anything different to offer. The answer depends on who picks up the book. The general reader will look upon this as any other joke book with the railways as its theme. For the rail enthusiast, it is nothing less than a treasure chest of nuggets. It is a book that comes close to being a collectors' find. A veteran writer and railwayman, Shri Vaidyanathan first began to dabble with literature when he joined railway service in 1947. He was posted to Bombay where he found an untapped mine of literary treasure lying in the VT library. It was a veritable treasure and Vaidyanathan would spend hour after hour reading voraciously. He soon found he had a penchant for collecting trivia from old railway magazines and books. He kept adding to his collection until his stock of material grew to enormous proportions, large enough to fill an entire book. Then came the task of classifying his tales under various heads. This book, released on the 150th anniversary of Indian Railways, has jokes and anecdotes on nearly every facet of railway life. Beginning with platform humour, there are sections devoted to trains and travellers, tales from the Raj, train robberies, as well as humour revolving around guards, station masters, booking clerks and a variety of other subjects.

Had it been purely a joke book, this volume would probably not have much to recommend it. Its appeal lies in the fact that the writer has carefully interspersed his work with anecdotes from real life, as well as trivia that serves to inform as well as entertain. He tells us how the railways met with opposition when they first arrived in India, and how the 24-hour clock came to be adopted. Then there are tales telling about the legendary Thomas Edmondson and the pasteboard ticket he invented, railway officials and the games they played in their colonies, a runaway cattle train speeding through the countryside unmanned for over an hour. The book has enough variety to hold the enthusiast spellbound from beginning till end.

Nothing could be more charming that the tale of Mr Barnard who retired as Chief Operating Superintendent of the old East Indian Railway. Having spent the whole day in the grilling heat of Mughalsarai yard on an inspection, Barnard retired towards evening to his inspection saloon. But sleep would not come easily, and he was frequently woken up due to his carriage being shunted about throughout the night. To quote his own words: "I was grateful for the lull towards the morning and had gone to sleep peacefully for the first time (for my carriage which had been like a furnace had, by now, somewhat cooled down), when there was a terrific bang and I was nearly thrown off my berth. This was the last straw and I got up in a towering rage intending to blow up the shunter. As I turned to the handle of the door to open it, I heard one of the shunting porters shouting Astey, astey, saala sota hai. At this I promptly went back to bed."

Then there's the tale of the burly loco foreman known to his friends as 'Small' who once squeezed his frame through the window of a carriage and bolted for his life with a TTI in hot pursuit thinking him to be a ticketless traveler. Or yet again, the scene at Delhi railway station where Lord Irwin, having relinquished his viceroyalty stood shaking hands with the Station Master thanking him for his courtesy. "Not at all, your Excellency," replied the Station Master, "It has always been a pleasure to see you off!" Deep within his heart, the railway enthusiast holds an unfortunate bias. He would love to think of his railways as an enterprise that exists solely for its own sake. The buzzing crowd on the platform, the follies and foibles of railwaymen, the cries of a porter, the exchange between travellers seated in a carriage -- these and a host of other things are seen as a positive hindrance, and shrugged aside as though they were no part of the real business of railways. But let him but come upon a Signalman posted on duty, and his perspective dramatically alters. The railwayman at work assumes an importance out of all proportion to the true nature of his work; he appears as a larger-than-life figure, a superhuman being engaged in the noblest of all pursuits.

With its human interest stories and anecdotes, Vaidyanathan's book has a remarkable levelling influence. It helps to dispel some of these notions held by the railfan, creating a more balanced perspective. Let a man but read this volume, and if he be a rail enthusiast, he will find himself better equipped in his mind when he sets his sights on the next train due at the station.

This is a wonderfully evocative book peopled by engine foremen, guards and drivers, rail travellers, ticket examiners, station masters and railway superintendents of old. One may dip into it at leisure and draw inspiration and enjoyment. It is a perennial source of merriment and pleasure, a lively voice that conjures up India's steam age in all its hues and colours.