August 18, 2009

The Ghostly Railway Bridge

"Railway briges are always a sight to watch for hours and hours," says an eminent rail historian of our times. Robin Parrie agrees, but his fascination for bridges goes much deeper than that. Here's a chilling tale, first published in the ANGLO INDIAN PORTAL where he narrates his experience when he once tried to make closer acquaintance with a bridge by walking along its length.
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TELEGU-SPEAKING RAMU, my alter-ego friend from the village, was a buffalo-boy and was summonsed by Freddy Fernandez and myself. Ramu's village was a bullock-cart ride away and we became friends after my mum, a midwife, performed a caesarean on his mother one fateful stormy monsoon night, saving her life and that of his baby sister who grew up to be dead cute. We wanted him to let us accompany him on his daily trip to the dry-season muddy ponds of the 2nd Bridge river.
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One afternoon in Ravkalam (an inauspicious time of day) we set out to slay the myth or be devoured by it! Freddy had a buffalo to himself. I had to double ride and cling to Ramu (my friends know and understand why I am unable to grip an animal with my knees and stay aloft). We jaunted along at a negative speed of knots wondering what on earth lay in store, but in the bright light of day nothing really scares you. We waded through the hoof high ford at 1st Bridge, a relief tributary of the main river we were heading for! Approaching 2nd Bridge we could see a full flowing river. Who knows how deep it was, but about 100 ft high over the water level was this imposing iron bridge with a single broadguage track. We scrambled up the embankment with a view to walk across and complete our mission. Between the tracks lay an 18-inch-wide steel pathway stretching the length of the bridge, put there for maintenance men to walk along in the course of their duty. Freddy and Ramu decided to speed-walk across because the iron plate was hot enough to make a dancing bear jive. Freddy, the danger-smart kid, looked up and down track then pulled his shirt up to his face and covering his ear he put it on the hot rail to listen for vibrations, giving Ramu the thumbs up as an all-clear signal. They stretched their arms out sideways like tightrope walkers and took off.
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Alone now, I decided to venture no further than the third sleeper-rung, sat on it and dipped my head as low as possible between my knees to get a glimpse of the river that appeared diminutive from that height! That is when I heard the ear-piercing, pig-squealing, rusty-brake-screeching cacophony of swirling high frequency singing of a 1000-voice choir. My whole short mischievous life flashed past me ... too late to make amends now ... this is IT ... my pulse rate shot up, then down again to a slow thudding, backing zero! My ubiquitous dog Bonzo appeared, whining with his tail between his legs, barking frantically, but would come no nearer than 20 feet. Holy Hell! Now there's a train coming.
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Got to get out of here, but there is no panic because to a railway child the close proximity of a broad gauge steam train is no scarier than a few lorries in convoy driving down your average suburban street. Off the bridge now I slide, rough-bellying down the steep embankment, clawing the roots of dry grass to control my decent, but a babul (Acacia nilotica) thorn bush stopped me - Ouch! Choking from the dust and smarting from the scratches-'n'-pricks inflicted by this plant from Satan's garden, I crawled back up with Bonzo willing me on. I sat on the chips of granite by the trackside, legs akimbo, and sneezed my brains out. After each sneeze and another stop-go intake of nostril-tickling dust, I'd do it again and again and again, until my weary neck muscles gave up and left me slouched with Bonzo-boy licking my face. With replenished nerve I climbed back to the trauma spot as Freddy and Ramu retraced their steps to rejoin me. That's when the penny dropped! This screaming on 2nd Bridge was nothing more than the singing of bare wire telephone lines running parallel, anchored to the metal bridge, causing an amplification of vibrating wires, like holding a struck tuning fork down on a table! Of course on that high wind-swept bridge it could get even worse when the air is heavily ionised before a storm.
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Time to mount up and head home before dusk. So Ramu, Freddy and I, with my tail-wagging mongrel, got moving again with one more bridge to cross!