Exploring railway life with Margaret (Part II)


RAILWAY LIFE IN ANGLO-INDIA

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Continued from previous post
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Social Life:
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Neither of my parents had the slightest interest in attending Institute dances as they wouldn’t have known the difference between a fox-trot and a quick-step. Nor did they frequent the Officers’ Club, except to participate in inter-railway court tournaments, my father being a keen tennis and badminton player.
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When Independence was imminent and the long scarring line of partition was drawn up between India and West Pakistan, Dad—by then a relatively senior Accounts Officer—was sent to the non-family station of Jullunder to oversee the whole business of dividing up all the railway assets lying along the soon-to-be border between the two countries.
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Meanwhile my mother, myself and my toddler sister lived in Allahabad where my maternal grandparents had retired. This was the first time I recall attending the Railway Institute where my grandparents, my aunt, my mother and I, had been invited to join in housie (bingo) evenings whist drives and to various other social events, which took place over that Christmas season in ’46.
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This was something of an eye-opener for me. As kids we were ‘seen and not heard’ at home. When my parents entertained, my sister and I spent the evening in our nursery with the ayah, playing with our dolls, or colouring books and crayons, had an early dinner and after doing a polite round of wishing the adults ‘good night’, we were sent off to bed by 8 o’clock.
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The Institute, by contrast seemed to have kids swarming all over the place—and nobody seemed to mind if they stayed up until after midnight. Youngsters ran and slid along the French-chalked dance floor, babies sat on their grandmothers’ laps and toddlers were fussed over by friends and families. A wind-up gramophone blared above the din and confusion, and the music was lively and rhythmic. A bit different from listening to Chopin nocturnes on our gramophone at home. “Light” music (as distinguished from “classical” music) in my parents’ lexicon consisted of Irving Berlin tunes, music hall favorites, or vocals by Deanna Durbin, Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy. The music at the Institute was much more catchy—and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time jitterbugging and Lambeth-walking around the floor!
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It was not until many years later, when my sister and I were in our teens living in the Perambur Railway colony in the suburbs of Madras, that we again saw the inside of a Railway Institute at a dance. By then both of us had learned to jive, fox trot, samba and waltz, and enjoyed it all immensely—and my father had mellowed sufficiently to allow us to listen to pop music on Radio Ceylon (provided the volume was low!). Railway Institute dances weren’t restricted to just railway employees and it was not considered improper to accept an invitation onto the floor by a complete stranger. Etiquette, however, demanded that a partner escort a lady back to her seat and thank her formally after the dance was over.
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It couldn’t have been much fun for my parents to accompany my sister and myself to these Railway Institute dances, bur they did so as dutiful chaperons. If a date materialized as a result of a meeting at a dance, the young man was expected to come over to our home and make perhaps fifteen minutes of polite conversation with my parents before whisking my sister or myself off to the movies—preferably a Sunday afternoon matinee but in any event, never later than the 6.30 p.m. show.
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Although all this occurred a decade after Independence, little had changed in the interim, as Leon confirms that this was also customary (if not mandatory) in the up-country railway colonies where he recalls his older sister Joan, being courted by young hopefuls. Perhaps the only difference between those years and the mid-1950s was that it would have been unseemly ten years earlier for a woman to sip anything stronger than a glass or two of lemon and port, or an occasional shandy (beer and lemonade) at an Institute dance, whereas by the time my sister and I were old enough to legally down a gin and lime, no-one batted an eyelid.
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Considering the sheltered lives my sister and I led, brought up in an almost Edwardian environment—as were the daughters of other Anglo-Indian friends—I am constantly amazed at the portrayal of Anglo-Indian women as floozies in books and movies. Undoubtedly there were Anglo-Indian call girls in large cities such as Calcutta and Bombay, but they weren’t typical of the vast majority of Anglo-Indian women who led ordinary conventional lives as students, nurses, teachers, secretaries, wives and mothers.
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In our early twenties, as secretaries in Bombay in the ‘60s, we mixed with groups of young folks, some of them Anglo-Indian, others Goan, Punjabi, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, or Parsee. We had parties, we went to nightclubs and jam sessions, we flirted, joked and laughed; we smoked the occasional cigarette and drank in moderation. We weren’t priggish, but we weren’t promiscuous either. None of us were involved with drugs or interested in Bacchanalian revels. Most of us had ‘steady’ boy friends or fianc├ęs. And we weren’t the exception; we were the rule.
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Transfers:
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In the early years of his career, my father was subject to frequent transfers—sometimes as often as two or three times a year. It meant packing up the entire household.
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My mother eventually worked this down to a fine art, getting everything completed in three days flat. She personally packed all the china and glassware, wrapping each item in paper and cushioning it in nests of straw, (not so much as a single cup was chipped in a total of 25 transfers across the length and breadth of India), fitted our library of books into packing cases, packed clothes and linen, and supervised the crating all our heavy furniture (including enormous wooden wardrobes with beveled full-length mirrors) as they were padded with quilting and securely tied with rope and then stitched into jute gunny coverings! The piano had a specially built crate all to itself.
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This done, my father would then direct a gang of coolies as they loaded up a goods wagon with all our household possessions. Some transfers involved trans-shipping all this paraphernalia from a broad gauge wagon to a meter-gauge one, en-route. It was not something my father enjoyed, particularly in the searing days of May and June, or the drenching monsoon months, and he tended to grow increasingly irascible as operations proceeded. At the other end, the whole process went into reverse, and unpacking and settling up a new bungalow, hiring a set of domestics (our cook and ayah, however, accompanied us) and generally getting comfortable again, must have been a daunting task for my mother.
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Schools:
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Despite these frequent moves, and unlike Leon’s folks, my family didn’t send my sister and myself up to boarding schools .in the hills. As a result we hop-scotched between educational establishments and, by the time I eventually graduated with my Senior Cambridge High School Certificate, I’d attended twelve different schools (three of them as a boarder) and made fifteen changes having gone to some schools more than once on being re-transferred back to a previous station. By the time my sister started kindergarten, the frequency of Dad’s transfers had abated somewhat, so she only went to about half-a-dozen different schools scattered through Howrah, Calcutta, Nagpur, Madras and Gauhati.
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Travelling by Rail:
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Probably the most delightful part of railway life for me as a child (apart from the fun of exploring yet another new bungalow and town) was the unmitigated thrill of travelling on the rails. And we did a great deal of this right through the ‘40s and ‘50s, until we eventually moved to Bombay in the ‘60s. Dad sometimes took us “on line” (during our school holidays) when he went on tour to one of the outlying stations within his jurisdiction.
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As a junior officer, he had an Officers’ Carriage—a capacious four berth compartment with an attached kitchen and an alcove with two tiered sleeping berths for our cook and bearer. My mother would pack a large wicker tiffin (food) hamper with bread, butter, eggs, jam, tea, sugar and condensed milk tins, and the cook would be dispatched to the local market each day for fresh meat, vegetables and fruit, while the O.C. stood parked on an off-platform siding. Remembering the sound of the wheels clacking over the points, the jog and sway of the carriage, the smell and prickle of coal dust on skin and scalp (this was in the days before diesel engines) and the taste of hardboiled eggs (smeared with sooty fingerprints!), still evokes a feeling of wistful nostalgia.
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When my father became a Department Head, the Officers’ Carriage was replaced by an Officers’ Saloon—a 3-bedroom bogey with a wash basin in each bedroom, a private toilet and shower, a kitchen and pantry with a fridge, a dining area with a fold-away table, and a lounge with comfortably upholstered sofas and curtains framing the windows. Sometimes, though not always, the saloon was air conditioned rather than fan-cooled.
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Indian railway first class carriages until the ‘60s were self-contained four berth compartments with their own attached toilets. These have all now disappeared and been replaced by relatively cramped four berth cubicles leading off a long corridor, with common toilets situated at each end. When on holiday, we traveled in those roomy first class compartments, (rather than in officers’ carriages or saloons) but although my mother still packed a snack food hamper, we didn’t have a cook or bearer accompanying us. Our meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—were catered from either the railway restaurant car (now non-existent) or from railway catering establishments at junction stations. A meal order would be telegraphed down the line, and delivered at the next major train stop. Dining room contractors such as Kellners (north India) produced excellent meals, and their caramel custard was legendary!
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When it was necessary to stay overnight before making a train connection, we were accommodated at the Railway Officers restrooms at the station. In those days they were impeccably clean, (although the rooms smelt of phenol swabbed floors!) and the Railway station dining rooms had heavy cutlery, and crockery/glassware embossed with the insignia of the Indian Railways. The bearers (waiters) wore starched white jackets, and their belts and turbans were surmounted by a badge or buckle with the Indian Railways logo.
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For me, no return trip to India is complete without a train journey, even though the engines are diesel and the wheels no longer beat to the rhythm of our ayah’s chant of “Chay-chay paisa, chal-Calcutta…” (six-six paise, go Calcutta!) and breakfast now comes pre-packaged in a soggy cardboard box containing equally an equally soggy “amlet” and leathery “toas”. Gone forever too, is beef curry with fluffy scented rice—and also vanished, alas, is the best caramel custard in the universe!
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Daily Routine:
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Like the majority of railway wives of her generation, my mother never sought employment outside the home. She was at the kernel of our family life, organizing household routine, supervising the servants, planning meals and managing domestic expenses.
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After breakfast my father would cycle off to office, we would be dispatched to school, and my mother would settle down to taking the khansamah’s (cook’s) bazaar hissab, (accounts) and doling out provisions from the pantry cupboard for the day’s meals—scoops of rice, flour, sugar, ghee (cooking medium) and spices. Those were the years before we acquired a fridge, so the doodh wallah (milkman) with his cow in tow would arrive in the early morning and the animal would be milked, under the watchful eye of our bungalow peon to ensure that the frothy milk was not diluted with water in its passage between udder and milk can! A little later the butter man arrived, and six little pats (measured in “chattacks”) of butter would be stored in earthenware saucers filled with cold water.
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Sometimes John Chinaman (as all itinerant Chinese box-wallahs were labeled in that less politically correct world) would cycle up our driveway mid-morning, and lay out his goods on the verandah for inspection: embroidered doilies, table-cloths, appliqued blouses, skirts, rompers and dragon embossed dressing gowns. As the morning sun rose higher, the fruit and vegetable wallahs yodeled their presence as they walked door to door. The neighborhood baker too, dropped by our bungalow, lowering the tin box he carried on his head, to reveal fresh baked biscuits and sponge cakes.
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While the servants swept, dusted and cleaned the bungalow rooms each morning, my mother wrote letters, read, embroidered, knitted, and tackled her mending kitty—a bag filled with socks that needed darning, shirts with missing buttons and hemlines that either required lowering or raising depending upon the style of the day.
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By mid-morning the sun threw hard slabs of light across the verandah and the cane chiks (slatted blinds) would be lowered to keep out the glare. My father would come in from the office, hang his solar topee (pith helmet) on the hat stand and join my mother for a curry-and-rice lunch. Lunch over, he usually lay down for a short forty-winks before returning to work.
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The afternoons were somnolescent, lazy with chitter of mynah-birds in the trees, and the occasional whoop of a langoor monkey. We, my younger sister and I back from school in the late afternoon, would join my mother, a little bleary-eyed after her siesta and still in her dressing gown, as she sipped her tea at the dining table. My sister and I meanwhile compared our white milk moustaches and relished slices of bread and butter slathered with apricot IXL jam (imported from Australia).
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After tea, the ayah hustled us off to the bathroom, where buckets of blended hot and cold water stood on the stone-flagged floor. Scrubbed clean, powdered liberally, and adorned in ironed cotton dresses, ribbons drawn into bows, sitting like butterflies on our hair, white socks and shoes, we were ready for our evening visit to the park.
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By the time we returned home from these outings, my parents—also freshly bathed and changed—would have set off for their evening stroll (they did this every day of their married life!) and my sister and I would settle down to piano practice or homework. As young children we had an early supper and were tucked into bed no later than 8 o’clock. Routine was relaxed on weekends—we had lunch, tea and dinner as a family—and bedtime was pushed back to 9 o’clock.
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In the blistering months of April and May, when even the fan in our bedrooms did nothing to alleviate the furnace-like heat, we slept outside on the lawns. Our beds, light khattiyas (nivar canvas strips strung on wooden frames), would be set up under mosquito nets. The mattresses were light cotton rezais, (quilts) but although it was marginally cooler outdoors, the sheets and pillow cases still felt as though a hot iron had just been run across them.. The croak of frogs, shrilling of crickets, the bark of a dog, the distant yowl of a jackal, the whistle of a train, the low rumble of carriages along the nearby railway lines, and the steady tap-tap-tap of the chowkidar’s lathi (watchman’s stick) as he did his nightly rounds—all of this still echoes down the corridors of memory.
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Looking back to those early years of railway life, it seems to me that despite the upheavals that India was going through at the time, the days were unhurried and tranquil. Our household routine went on as usual; the servants were gentle, kindly and respectful, We were part of a gracious life style—much of it born out of an Anglo-Indian tradition that had endured for three centuries.
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But of course, this became an anachronism in Independent India. As Anglo-Indian up-country railway employees left in droves for England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., their Indian replacements gave the railway colony an entirely different ethos—one which was more fitting to Indian sensibilities. We, as a family chose to “stay on”, largely because of the obvious privileges of my father’s position in the Indian Railways. I am grateful he made that choice as it gave me the opportunity of stepping across the threshold of Raj into an India I would never have known otherwise in terms of its astonishing cultural diversity.
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In the early 60s we moved from Assam to Bombay, catapulted from an idyllic, if sequestered environment, into a seething and sophisticated cosmopolitan city. The change brought with it a fresh set of priorities as my sister and I started work and made new friends. We continued to live with my parents in an Officers’ Railway Colony (Badhwar Park) until we each married and moved into an entirely different phase of our lives.
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Today my parents have passed on, and my sister and I have been in Canada for over 25 years. Yet a part of us still remains in the hot, dusty plains of India and wraith-like dodges in and out of the shadows of that long vanished era of Railway life in the mid-1900s.
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(Reprinted with kind permission of the author from “Haunting India” by Margaret Deefholts, CTR Publications.)