February 26, 2014

Let's halt by the level crossing


THE ROAD TO Miss Clifford’s school wound through an area that was both progressive and rural in outlook. Taking a turn at the main square, it took me beside the stadium, then an attractive colony housing railway folks, tiny brick bungalows each with its garden and its hedge. To my right was a dismal looking area, tiny lanes leading into a maze of traditional style houses. Herds of buffaloes would sometimes be seen crossing the street as I made my way to school. Further on was a tiny post office, a flour mill, and a few shops that resembled a village bazaar. When I reached this spot, there was always excitement, for ahead lay the level crossing. I would fervently hope that a train was due for this would give me enough reason to halt for a while and treat myself to the sight of a rushing train.

It was an old fashioned level crossing and the gates, all four in number, were of the swing-out type, painted in white. Beside the gate was a tiny hut and a sleepy eyed attendant was often seen next to the hut which I was naïve enough to believe was the gateman’s home.

I do not see any of those kind of level crossings today—where have all those white painted gates disappeared? Picturesque in appearance, so restful to look at. I think the gateman found his task a wee bit cumbersome walking up in the face of oncoming road traffic to swing the gate shut, and to ease his job, a new kind of gate was in due time installed.

The new design hardly met with my approval. It did not look like a gate, it was more like a road barrier; a long steel pipe painted alternately in yellow and black with flimsy tin strips dangling all along its length to check our passage when a train was passing. This clumsy looking thing stood tall pointing skyward all the while as road vehicles crossed over the tracks. Then quite suddenly without warning a bell would begin to ring. Cyclists would be seen hurrying up the pathway fearing that the gate would come crashing on top of them. I never hurried; instead I dismounted and stood at one side watching the proceedings with fascination.

With the bell ringing its warning the gateman emerged from his hut and began to gently turn a large crank. As the cable is paid out the gate begins to descend slowly until finally it comes to rest with a noisy clang. Motorists and rickshawalas come to a halt looking around helplessly. None dare challenge the right of the railway. The king himself might be passing this way; he must heed the law which requires him to bow before the passage of the train. Automobiles engines are switched off, the constant purr of traffic dies down.

From the distance comes a screeching whistle, then a chug-chug-chug which grows louder and louder. Schoolchildren may be seen eager to catch a glimpse of the train, now furiously moving up the line as though saying out of my way, out of my way. . .  The majestic engine thunders past and for a moment all eyes are riveted on the smoke billowing creature that is riding past in a sheer display of strength and determination.

A moment later the engine has rumbled past and the tension eases. The carriages ride past, tame enough creatures, none possessing the fire and strength of the motive power far ahead. They hurl themselves one by one in a mad frenzy, till at last the Guard’s van comes into view and with a final clunk clunk, passes away noisily into the distance.

The train has passed and life returns to its former zest. The gateman is back to his post cranking up the barrier. Motorcars roar into power, and as the gate lifts, all rush forward, there is no time to lose. The train was an intrusion but only momentary; all are eager to get on with the business of living.

I wheel my bike slowly over the level crossing, gazing pensively at the gleaming tracks stretching away to the horizon. When is the next train due, I wonder, as I begin my slow pedal to school.
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Ravindra Bhalerao