February 13, 2010

Exploring railway life with Margaret (Part I)


It gives me great pleasure to announce that we have with us today no less a person than Margaret Deefholts, the well-known Anglo-Indian writer.
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Margaret Deefholts lives in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, B.C. Of Anglo-Indian parentage, she w
as born and grew up in India, and has many cherished memories of life as a “child of the Indian Railways”. Immigrating to Canada with her family in 1977, she began her writing career in 1994 and has won many Canadian magazine short fiction awards since then.
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While several of her stories are set in India and explore the lives and cultural diversity of its people, she also writes about the dichotomies that confront first and second generation Indo-Canadians who live in Surrey and Vancouver. Her article on “Rohinton Mistry’s Bombay” was included in an international publication Literary Trips: Following in the Footsteps of Fame.

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She is the author of Haunting India (CTR Publications), and has co-edited two more CTR books, Voices on the Verandah (with Sylvia Staub) and The Way We W
ere (with Glenn Deefholts). CTR (Calcutta Tiljallah Relief Inc.) uses the gross sales proceeds from its Anglo-Indian literary publications to assist impoverished Anglo Indians in India.
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Ms. Deefholts’ is also a well published professional free lance travel writer and editor, and her journeys through Canada, Britain, Europe, Australia and India, have been published in B.C. Magazines and community newspapers in Canada and abroad. Tourism Malaysia honoured her with the “Best Foreign Travel Writer” award in 2003.
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She is a member of the national organisation, Travel Media of Canada (TMAC) and founding member/Past President of the B.C. Association of Travel Writers. She is also a long-standing member of the Federation of British.Columbia Writers.
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So, then, how does this all fit into Railways of the Raj? It does, and in a splendid way! What makes Margaret so special for us is that her book ‘Haunting India’ has a chapter called ‘Railway Life in Anglo-India’, and Ms. Deefholts has very kindly authorized reproduction of the text here. Very generous, and we can never thank her enough. The book itself is a charity project and full details will be found on the following page:

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http://www.margaretdeefholts.com/hauntingindiacontents.html
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So here we go . Thank you Margaret for a top class contribution, you have shown what true generosity can be at its best !!
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     RAILWAY LIFE IN ANGLO-INDIA       
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Part I : Introduction
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Although many things have changed in modern India, Britain’s legacy to the country in terms of institutions such as a parliamentary form of democracy, the judicial system, the civil service, the postal infrastructure and last, but far from least, the Indian Railways, have endured for over half a century.
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Up to the time of India’s Independence, the Railways offered the Anglo-Indian Community preferential employment in the upper and lower subordinate cadres. As a result, during the first half of the 20th century, the majority of guards, drivers, firemen, loco-foremen and line maintenance staff—were Anglo-Indians who took enormous pride in their gleaming iron horses. They ran their trains with split-second punctuality, and even during the turmoil of the Quit India Movement, were resolute in their determination to keep the railways functioning in the teeth of demonstrations, processions and blockades. Without their unquestioning loyalty, the entire railway system would have been seriously crippled, if not completely paralyzed.
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Part II: Social Activities
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Before most of the Anglo-Indians left India in the years following Independence, the Railway Institute was the focal point of social activity. Every Railway Institute had an Entertainment Committee which organized and ran whist drives, housie (bingo) nights, dances, amateur theatricals, costume parties, tin-and-bottle badminton tournaments and sports day events.
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The Officers’ Club had their own functions, but these tended to be more staid and formal than the boisterous goings-on at the Railway Institute. During the war years, many of the up-country divisions (such as Allahabad, where I lived as a child) opened the Railway Institute doors to homesick British Tommies and American GIs. It was almost a foregone conclusion that by the end of a dance there would be fisticuffs between the Anglo-Indian young bucks who jealously guarded their very attractive sisters or fiancĂ©es from the attention of soldiers, who may have been bored and sex starved but were also hungry for the chance to merely twirl around the dance floor with a pretty girl, and enjoy chatting to her in a common language.
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Christmas (“Burra Din”—or “big day”) was an event which was eagerly anticipated by the Railway colony Anglo-Indians. For weeks beforehand, the Railway Institute Committee were drawing up plans for :
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The children’s Christmas Tree function. A carol-singing session would be followed by a tea-time spread of striped barley-sugar sticks, home-made fudge, biscuits, a slice of cake, a glass of fizzy lemonade and always, always an orange. The evening culminated with the arrival of Santa, a bit sweaty under his red “fur” trimmed coat, and the distribution of gifts (wrapped and tagged by parents) to a crowd of breathlessly eager children.
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The children’s Christmas Tree festivities were tied in with an adult-and-children’s sports day event. An essential part of the afternoon’s entertainment included egg and spoon races, obstacle courses and three legged races. Kids were treated to a “lucky dip” from a small sack yielding plastic toys or a bon-bon.
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The Christmas Fete—a Jumble Sale of home-made pickles, jams, cakes, hand-knitted woollies, embroidered table linen, a raffle for a Christmas hamper, and the chance to try your luck at guessing the weight of a bright pink frosted cake.
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A Christmas “Tableau”—a theatrical production involving a blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked baby doll filling in as Jesus, and an assortment of aspiring thespians in the roles of Mary, Joseph, Inn-keeper, Shepherds, Angels and Wise Men.
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A fancy dress ball usually took place in the weeks preceding Christmas, and the New Year’s Eve gala was a stellar event with the women resplendent in their darzi (tailor) made gowns, and the men togged up in suits and ties. Railway employees received free passes on trains, so it wasn’t uncommon for several nearby railway communities to band together at one of the larger Institutes—in which case arrangements would be made for a special “bogey” to be attached to a train and parked on a station siding, thereby providing transport and accommodation for visitors.
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Apart from functions at the Railway Institute, Anglo-Indian railway communities celebrated Christmas in their own inimitable fashion. The lead up to the big day, involved a special trip by one or more members of the Community to the nearest city—in my experience, Calcutta—where, armed with a shopping list for themselves and friends, they would troop off to the New Market to buy dress material and trimmings (for the house tailor to work with on a bungalow verandah), toys for the children, a selection of dried fruit and nuts, as well as barley sugar (striped candy), marzipan, and a Christmas pudding from one of the Calcutta confectioners like Nahums, Flurys or Trincas.
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Christmas cake making was a ritual. In mid November or early December, the family (often three generations) would gather around the dining table washing, pitting and de-stemming raisins and sultanas, and chopping candied peel into slivers, all of which would be laid out under a net canopy to dry in the sun for a day, and then soaked in rum or brandy. The ingredients would be hand mixed—flour, semolina, butter, eggs, powdered cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, nuts and fruit, (plus other closely guarded secret ingredients!)—and poured into half a dozen round cake tins. Since most railway families didn’t own large ovens, the cake batter would be taken off to the local bakery to cook for a few hours until it had risen and browned to rich fruity perfection.
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Preparing traditional Christmas sweets were also part of the excitement of the Season. “Kul-kul” dough strips were laboriously rolled on fork tines (or a comb) into small curler-like confections, deep fried and then stored away in large tins. Pink coconut toffee, chocolate fudge, cookies, cashew nut toffee and home made marzipan were all part of every railway Anglo-Indian household’s Christmas fare, and offered to family and friends throughout Christmas week.
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During the days leading up to December 25th, families were also busy setting out freshly washed and ironed curtains, lace antimacassars, and placing miniature mangers with china figurines in one section of the living room. Family members would sit down to a session of fashioning yards of paper chains—usually green and red kite paper sheets cut, looped and pasted (with flour or boiled rice paste) to festoon the ceiling and doorways—and since no evergreen pines dot the Indian plains, a feathery leafed cryptomarian bough would be inserted into a gumla (clay planter) and decorated with cotton strips (“snow”), crepe-paper, tinsel and cut out silver paper stars and angels.
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Christmas Eve culminated at either Midnight Mass or a Watch Night service in one or more of the churches outlying the boundaries of the Railway colony. Christmas Day was a social time within the colony, with friends and neighbours dropping in to wish each other, and then returning home for a festive lunch - after which replete with chicken curry and pilau rice, everyone retired to bed under the whirring punkah (fan) for an afternoon siesta. Visitors dropped in again in the evening to sip on home made wine, milk punch or stronger libations. Christmas dinner was an elaborate affair—often Duck a la Orange, a green salad, crisp-coated roast potatoes, and peas—and as a finale, a rich Christmas pudding topped with brandy butter or rum sauce.
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Easter was usually a quieter festival, and the activities of the Institute over Lent were relatively subdued. Easter Sunday church service over, most railway families enjoyed a celebratory lunch, while children broke open their hollow chocolate or marzipan Easter eggs (bought from a local confectionery shop, or ordered specially from Calcutta) to nibble on the silver-paper wrapped chocolates or toffees nestled inside.
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As a Community, the Anglo-Indians needed little or no excuse to whoop it up, and since everyone knew everyone else in the Railway colony, occasions such as birthdays, First Holy Communions, and weddings were celebrated with gusto. Funerals were sombre affairs, but again almost the entire Railway Anglo-Indian community could be counted on to attend the service for one of its departed members.
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In the cooler winter months, there were organized picnics (sometimes by moonlight) and as shikar (hunting) was a popular sport, shooting parties would take off to the surrounding marshlands to bag duck, partridge and snipe. On big game shoots, overnight camps would be set up, and beaters (groups of local villagers) would “beat” the jungle with drums, sticks and noisy shouts, to funnel wild boar, deer, panther or tiger towards machaan platforms where hunters lay in wait.
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For the most part, the Railway Anglo-Indians shared a sense of camaraderie and fellowship both at work and play. But as in all small, tightly-knit communities, the colony was also a hotbed of gossip, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social one-upmanship, and political maneuvering. Tempers flared, small jealousies smoldered and petty resentments sometimes led to heated arguments—although this rarely caused serious repercussions since more often than not, one party or the other was, in the usual course, transferred to another station!
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Part III: Personal Reminiscences
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Leon Deefholts:
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My husband Leon’s background encompasses a fairly typical example of a railway family living in small towns in north Bengal in the ‘30s and ‘40’s. His father was a Permanent Way Inspector—today labeled as “Class C”, but then known as “Class III”—senior subordinate position. A PWI had a specific jurisdiction and a crew of maintenance staff under his supervision and his primary job was to ensure that line tracks were properly repaired and maintained. This included not only rail replacements but the condition of every nut and bolt, sleepers (ties), fish plates, ballast and grade standards. He reported to the appropriate sub-divisional officer.
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The family lived in typically comfortable and well maintained bungalows assigned to Class III senior subordinates. On the salary of a senior subordinate in those days it was possible to afford domestic help—a cook, an ayah for the children, a sweeper, dhobi (washerman) and a mali (gardener), the last usually a railway employee assigned to maintain several railway bungalow compounds.
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Because of frequent transfers, often to very small railway stations, the two older boys were packed off to Goethals Memorial school in Kurseong (run by the Christian Brothers) and, for about three years during the war, to St. Edmunds College Shillong, while the girls were boarders at Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. Boarding schools in the hills were expensive, but the Railways recognizing the absence of educational facilities in many smaller up-country locations, subsidized school fees and expenses for the children of subordinate and senior subordinate employees. The youngest child, Keith, born shortly before his father’s retirement, went to St. Vincent’s School in Asansol.
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Leon and his older brother Colin (as well as both their younger sisters) lived, from the age of five to sixteen in the regimented world of boarding school routine. The only time spent with their family in the Railway colony was over the 3-month winter vacation.
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Leon remembers the thrill of accompanying his father on shikar trips or riding along with him on his trolley as he undertook line inspection tours. He recalls the gaiety of Christmas festivities, and shopping trips to Calcutta. He also remembers how involved his father was in the organization of social events at the Railway Institute, and the spontaneous hospitality extended to visitors (whether family, friends, or total strangers) who stayed and boarded with the family from time to time.
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Margaret Deefholts (nee Penn-Anthony):.
Not all Railway posts were reserved for Anglo-Indians. The upper echelons of the administration were made up of British officers, Indian officers and a sprinkling of Anglo-Indians—my father among them. The requirements were stringent: a University post graduate degree and a competitive all-India entrance examination modeled after the Indian Civil Service pattern.
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After obtaining his Master’s degree, my father sat for the I.R.A.S. (Indian Railway Administrative Service) examination and was then admitted to the ranks of the Class I Officer cadre with all its attendant privileges. While most Anglo-Indians had post graduate degrees in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering, my Dad was an accountant.
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During the early years of my father’s career we lived in railway stations such as Dinapur and Asansol. As a four year old, my recollections are fuzzy, but my memory is aided by photographs of bungalows with deep verandahs, long drive-ways, flower bordered lawns, badminton courts and servants’ quarters. As Dad moved up the hierarchy from Assistant Divisional Accounts Officer, to Divisional Accounts Officer, we lived in larger railway stations: Allahabad, Jamalpur and Chittaranjan.
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Later in his career when he was Assistant Financial Advisor, and then as Department Head, with the cumbersome, title of “Financial Advisor and Chief Accounts Officer” he was responsible for what seemed like a small army of lesser employees at Regional Headquarters (Madras, Gauhati and Bombay). Heads of Departments received extra perks and our entourage of domestic servants included a railway employed house peon (he ran errands and did light housework such as dusting and tidying up) and a mali to maintain the garden. Other domestics hired privately by us, included a cook, a bearer (to wait at table), an ayah (to look after my sister and myself, wash and iron our clothes), a washerman (who also lived on the premises in the servants’ quarters) and a sweeper, whose family living quarters, for caste reasons stood a little way off from the ones occupied by the cook, bearer etc.
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During the tumultuous years in the mid-forties, just prior to Independence, a vague memory hovers in my mind’s eye of being shepherded one afternoon into a heavily guarded Railway Institute building (or perhaps it was the Officers’ Club) along with other women and children as Dinapur lay along the route of Gandhi’s salt march and it was feared that there could be violent demonstrations. Nothing untoward happened, however, and it all seemed rather like a rather tranquil afternoon soiree, nibbling on egg and cucumber sandwiches and mutton patties while the servants hovered in the background and served up endless cups of tea. A little more unnerving was the discovery of a cache of firearms concealed under a culvert fronting the entrance gate to our bungalow in Jamalpur in ‘47.

(Continued below)