August 17, 2009

The Railway Colony

Good old ROBIN PARRIE is one of the few persons who loves to reminisce of his days back here in a railway colony. One interesting and little known fact that emerges is that the location of railway towns which sprang up had something to do with the water capacity of the locomotives then in use. These memoirs which first appeared on the ANGLO INDIAN PORTAL make fascinating reading:
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THE RAILWAY COLONY was a vital cell of Colonial India, each one strategically placed in the synapses of the largest land transport system in the 19th-20th century world. An age when no geographical barrier or financial restraint would get in the way of opening up the frontiers of uncharted territory in the hither-to undeveloped world.
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From the valley of Castle Rock where the sun rose late and set early, to the plains of the Deccan, where vacuum drawn tumble-weeds would chase every passing passenger train for a while and then be left in it's wake, moving at high speed, with maxim effort to escape the devil-sent heat and dust.
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The natives in each territory would vary in looks, dress and manner, as their surroundings would encourage. The folk who lived in the hills for instance were generally longer necked and maybe therefore taller, as opposed to the shorter sturdier necked plains people whose women were always seen balancing large pots of water or bundles of firewood on their heads (sorry about the Darwinian jibe, only kidding) how tough and skilled they were to balance 5 gallons of water on a few delicate vertebra, carrying them over long distances, giggling all the way and still moving with elegance.
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Don't know and can't tell if my great grandmother had sturdier shoulders than the norm as she was a teapickin-mountain-climbin-scottishmarryin-sodadrinkin-mama who was taught to assist my great grandpa in eye surgery, dance the jig, wear an Ascot hat and host "Tea Garden Parties" (1802) which of course was the forerunner of the exclusively British "Garden Tea Parties". Yes there was a railway colony up there too in the Nilgiris (blue mountains) of the dinkiest kind. Toy passenger trains, no more, on narrow gauge tracks with cog slots for the locomotive to engage and keep the train from slip-sliding back to base before it's scheduled return journey. What a world! What a life!
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We would play between the neat rows of trellised bungalows, hide behind the outhouses and kitchens, which were away from the dwelling because coal would always be the cooking fuel, (no better way to cook marsala chops) generating unbearable heat and unmanageable smoke at start-up. One had to blow through a Woudhancole (mini didgeridoo) or fan the flames to get the fire biting, a very difficult job to ignite pure anthracite or indeed to snuff it out. Straight sandy rutted roads would connect small clusters of these smartly designed semi-detached houses, the living quarters of railwaymen; some were larger and built of stone when rank had to be observed. The road would stroll along lazily for a while, fairly well maintained till the last house in the colony, and then suddenly disappear under a leafy glade where a spring-water pool (blind well) would hide from the sizzling evaporating rays of the blazing sun.
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Self-contained and whole, every colony had two churches (Church of England and Roman Catholic), a school, a surgery, an Institute, a few multi-purpose midhans, a market, and a graveyard where you left your mark even if you didn't make one in life! Not forgetting the station, that often came first, around which a town would spring up with all its amenities, they were spaced scientifically apart (a maximum of XXX miles) which had something to do with the water and fuel capacity of a broad or narrow gauge locomotive moving between the major far flung Indian cities of the time. The service stops were the railway colonies.
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Tall Palmyra trees in the compounds of the lucky few who, if not agile enough to climb, would pay the box-boy or peon to frog-jump up one, and harvest the most sought after fruit of those hell-hot summer days. The Thati Noongue (Ice-apple), an always cool purple coconut look-alike fruit, with four pods of melting, liquid soft edible porcelain flesh, the taste of which made you feel momentarily religious (Uber-alles). If that don't beat all! Wait a couple of months till the rich deep orange fruity fibre ripens with a pungency that calls the parrots in from miles away to a shrill screechy wing fluttering feast! Is this the fruit for all seasons? No, that doesn't do it justice, because it now has a new name Punchuké which I guess should mean lingering taste! You can chew it till the cows come home and beat them at their own game. Sure beats standing and staring! The favourite early-evening pastime of the long gone pre-TV railway generation. Nothing much to do before 7:30 pm and "The Binaca Hit Parade" or "The Ovaltine Hour" or "The Colgate Pop Parade", with David Jacobs and company on Radio Ceylon or SEAC. Oh! yes, and "Cavalcade". Such a lovely name for a radio show, that I forget what-'n'-when-'n'-where. My memory fades, much like those radio waves in the middle of your favorite song . . . . .
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Holding back the years!