June 20, 2010

The Mysterious Station Master

I have been asked to pen a few lines telling about the railways of India back when I was a child. Sadly I never paid close attention to what I saw around me while at a station or riding a train then. Had I known that seventy years hence I would be required to record my travels for someone keenly devoted to steam engines and trains, I would have been more observant, maybe I would even have kept a diary.
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My memories of those days are as vague as the view across a valley on a foggy day. We were three sisters staying a house tucked away in a tiny sub-district of Maharashtra. Of all the places why this tiny hamlet no one has ever heard of ? Had he wanted, dad could easily have secured an appointment in a bustling hospital in Bombay, or some other big place. Many of his friends had set up flourishing practices in big towns and earned handsome fees, but dad was a man of ideals. After completing his LCPS in 1924 he had set up his medical practice in this small town with a population of a few thousand. He was here to serve the poor at a time when a villager would have to travel several miles in a bullock cart along dusty roads in the wilderness in search of medical help. The tiny clinic father had set up in the town of Karmala saw an interesting assortment of cases from tapeworm and rabies to scorpion bite and cases where a villager was brought in a cart from afar with his intestines gouged out by the horns of a bullock running amok.
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In 1936, five years before she died, mamma had joined the medical centre in Miraj for pursuing an LCPS in medicine. This ushered in a new phase in our lives for we would shuttle between our home and Miraj two or three times a year. One thing which strikes me about rail travel in those days was the absence of bustling, sweating crowds in a train. Kurduwadi, being the nearest rail terminal for us, we would ride in a bus to this place to take the tiny train, the Barsi Light Railway, a night’s run bringing us to Miraj without hassles of any kind. The little steam engine did its work faithfully, chugging along forests and valleys carrying along a line of red carriages. For those interested in details, the seats were of wood running lengthways, two along the carriage sides where you would sit with your back to the window, and two in the centre laid back to back.
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Kurduwadi was an interesting location, being a big junction at the intersection of the Barsi Light Railway and the Bombay-Madras main line, and our trips to Miraj and other places often found us at this station.
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During war days the electric lights in the tiny train looked incredibly feeble with their glass covers smeared with red paint, and if I remember correctly, even the engine headlight was half painted in red. When we asked dad the reason for this, he explained that the lights had been dimmed down to make it difficult for enemy planes to detect a train during night hours.
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The Barsi Light Railway ran on narrow gauge, 2 feet 6 inches I understand, but the route from Miraj to Kolhapur was served by a wider track, meter gauge, as I now know. It is one thing to see an animal in a zoo, how many of you can boast seeing a tiger from the window of a running train? It did happen with us. Miraj is about an hour’s run from Kolhapur and we were seated once in a third class carriage. As the train chugged along my mother suddenly raised a cry and pointed out. We all gathered around the window, and there in the light of the setting sun was a full grown tiger with blazing yellow stripes at the edge of the jungle about fifty yards away. I was greatly distressed and frantically urged mum and dad to shut the windows. Hearing the rumble of the train, the tiger had emerged from the forest and stood silently, regarding the train with a quizzical look. “What’s going on here? Clear out fast and leave me alone,” he seemed to be saying. I am glad the train did not halt here in the middle of nowhere. Trains often halt for no obvious reason, and had this happened the tiger would have been tempted to regard us with more interest than mere curiosity !
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Those were the days when Anglo Indians could be found everywhere on the railways. As a young girl I greatly admired these folks. Anglo Indian Station Masters were dressed in impeccable uniform, they carried themselves with great dignity and spoke flawless English, and their womenfolk in their gorgeous dresses were a always a pleasure to watch. Once on a trip to Poona, our train had halted at a small station, maybe Dhond or some such place. Across the tracks I spotted a lovely bungalow with a sloping roof. The garden was all a riot of colour. All of a sudden a European looking man in Station Master’s uniform emerged followed by a group of ladies dressed in colourful flowing dresses, all laughing and pointing at something. As my eyes wandered over the garden I saw something that almost made me cry out with delight—the lawn seemed to come alive like paradise with turkeys of the most attractive plumage moving around unhindered, pecking at what came their way. It was a sight I never forgot.
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All throughout the 1930s and 40s we had a mysterious Anglo Indian visitor who would drop in, even staying overnight with us at times. Mr Williams was Station Master of Kurduwadi Junction, tall, and very fair in complexion. He spoke Marathi with the same ease as he spoke English. Somehow none of us could get up enough courage to ask dad the reason why Mr Williams came, and sadly this has remained a mystery till this day. I suppose he was afflicted with an ailment of some kind and not being able to find a good enough practitioner in Kurduwadi he would ride the bus to Karmala to have himself examined by dad. But at best this is only a conjecture.
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We shared a close and friendly rapport with Mr Williams although we never had an occasion to meet his family. I still remember that evening at Kurduwadi station while we were on our way to Bombay. Mum, dad and I were seated in the waiting room awaiting our train when daddy spotted the tall figure of Mr Williams as it passed across the doorway. I was immediately dispatched to fetch the gentleman. “Uncle! Uncle!” I cried as I stumbled behind the man striding along the platform. Finally he turned round and as his glance rested on me his face broke into a smile. Mum and dad were pleased to see Mr Williams and they chatted briefly. He was on duty at the time and so could not linger much longer. Before he left he had given instructions to a bearer to bring us a meal consisting of excellent mutton curry, rice and parathas from the station refreshment room nearby.
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In 1941 mamma passed away and a new mum stepped in shortly and took over affairs at home. The years rolled on and in time we married and moved on in life. Many years later, I received news that our mum had passed on, so in the summer of 1970 I found myself back again in my ancestral home after an absence of many years. Dad looked much the same as before, although a bit pulled down in health. Before we left the place, I asked dad about the good Station Master whom we had known years ago. Mr Williams had died several years ago, my father said wistfully. Strangely, it never occurred to me to enquire about the precise reason for his visits to our home. The truth of the matter will probably never be known. And now it is too late to ask. All that remains with me is a fading vision of an impeccably dressed gentleman, station master of a great junction, who shared with us a friendship and camaraderie ages ago while we stayed in that tiny hamlet in the western part of Maharashtra.
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KAMLA BHALERAO