Didi's Gift -- On the Howrah Mumbai Duronto Express

Satish Kulkarni

AT LONG LAST FULFILLED a 30 years old yearning as I traveled the Howrah Mumbai via Nagpur train route on Mamata Didi's gift - the Duronto Express. Reached the Hallowed precincts of the Howrah Station at 6.50 AM for a train that was to depart at 8.20AM - this was coloured by earlier experiences of a literal traffic jam 30 years ago wherein I had made it by the skin of my teeth by sprinting across the howrah bridge with my yes - The HOLDALL!! . Howrah bridge now no longer has trams running on it so the hotel concierge wondered why I was leaving for the station so early - so I regaled him off my narrative 3 decades ago.. The only side-effect of this narrative being that the beautiful young lady at the reception got a fair idea of the age of this Uncle leaving me no option but to be at my avuncular best as I completed my check out formalities.

Howrah Station now has a new wing for South Eastern railway departure trains. It was cold misty and foggy but the station ambience is the same. Porters mostly from Bihar speaking bhojpuri/maithili - (kaa ho khaini khavatani baa?) - Roughly translating to how are you would you like some khaini i.e. tobacco with Lime/chun). The method of kneading khaini with chuna is the same replete with a deft toss between the mouth and lower lip. The children being with me and my having to be a model parent prevented me from (once again) trying this after 36 years ! People from all walks of life, representing a microcosm of India that one can only experience via long distance train journeys.

Gave reassurance to an elderly bengali couple at the platform in Bengali that .the Duronto indeed leaves from here (ai platform theke hi chaadbe). The feeling of reassurance that the couple had after I volunteered to help them find their coach/seat can only be experienced but cant be described (this was similar when I personally negotiated a lower berth for my mother whilst she was travelling pune to bangalore). The train glided off smoothly and promptly at 8:20AMwith with a post office maroon coloured Santragachi 4000HP WAP4 doing the honours. This loco would haul this train right upto Igatpuri. The train attendant welcomed us with a Rose -( "Welcome aboard the Duronto SIr") and soon we were past Santragachi into the lush green bengal countryside. Simple folk bathing in the pond soaking in the lingering winter sun, women washing clothes, some carrying water, the occasioinal bullock being given a bath, children waving at level crossings, banana trees, swaying cocunut/palm's - got goosebumps as I experienced the bucolic ambience of a fast vanishing era.

The train's music system jockey must be a great philosopher. Lovely piano versions of old kishore da melodies of yore suitable for all genre of passengres wafted through the music system on the train - sample these

- musafir hoon yaron na ghar hai na thikana..., meet na milaa re manakaa, jaane man jaane man tere do nayan, nain tumhare mazeedar o janabe aali, ghoongroo ki tarah bajata hi rahaa hoon main, teri galiyon mein na rakhenge kadam, raahi manwa dukh ki chinta kyon sataati hai, some numbers very very nostalgic and touching for chaps like me, yet some romantic numbers that were apt for the flirtatious couples in the coupe's for two..

Kharagpur went past and breakfast arrived - fruit juice, the best railway omelette you can ever get, the classic what only the khansama of the railways can prepare - cutlets superbly done with bread crumbs - shallow fried golden brown to perfection with a delicious beet, green peas, potato, onion filling, baked beans, finger chips cooked in mustard oil and tea...

Got talking with my fellow passenger Mr.Raychaudhuri a retired life sciences Prof., caught up with him with old text books of yore Gray's Anatomy (costing a princelely some of Rs2.50 in his father's days in Dacca as he told me), maths/kc.nag, algebra/kalipada basu, datta's botany - yet another dream fulfilled meeting and having an "adda" session with a bengali master moshai/intellectual on a journey.

The train pounding the miles- some changes as I missed the lingering windhorn of the WDM2 diesel loco as this route is fully electrified. Arrived at Tatanagar(Jamshedpur) and saw goods boxcars loaded with steel being hauled by coupled WAM4's with TATA stenciled on them - another reminder of the past. This marked coming into the second state of the journey - jharkhand. Came into Orissa at rourkela, and felt the sheer power of the 5 coupled 5000 HP bandamunda WAG5 loco's hauling a long boxcar goods traiin.

Lunch was soup with bread soupsticks, chappati veg/panner curry, aloo bhaja(fry) rice, dal and curd - very tasty children loved it too. My daughter's initiation into railfanning came with an innoccous question what do the devanagari initials "da pu" on the loco stand for. Patiently explained they stood for South Eastern (Dakhshin Purva) Railway and that this train route has been in existence since 1900 then run by the then Bengal Nagpur Railway(BNR) and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway(GIPR).

After a snooze came evening and then the most introspective part of the journey at dusk. Somehow late evenings on a train are always a time for reflection/introspection as one watches the sun go down the dark red horizon and as the evening mist settles in over the plains. Its almost as though one rewinds one's life's journey at this time of the day - times of bygone childhood, schooldays, one's first crush...

As night settled in went past bilaspur, durg, temple town of dongargarsh, rajnandangaon as I prepared to settle in for the night. Got up early at 4.00am and after a wash in a swaying railway carriage toilet got ready for dawn. (If one can hold one's aim in a swaying moving train one has arrived as a seasoned rail traveler :-))

Dawn at winter is one of the most fulfilling aspects of a rail journey. On the plains one can be amongst the mist and see the lingering fog as the upcoming day portends hope and aspiration. The railway town of Bhusawal went by - this place was one of the worlds largest steam loco sheds in the pre-independence days. Experienced dawn as the Sun broke out somewhere between Manmad and Deolali - O what a glorious sight. As my bangla copassenger remarked "O we are but mere children in front of Mother Nature and there is some divine power orchestrating this nature's dance and play"...(translation imperfect as this is best heard in bangla).

Stopped at Igatpuri and had the best ever masala and adrak chai's of my life. So much so that made sure that I had two cups of each but also made sure that both the children enjoyed this once in lifetime flavour - they loved it. Also cajoled my co-passenger who had given up drinking chai to have - just one (shoodoo taste 'er jonno i.e. just for the flavour) - he loved it. Tried maska paav at the Irani's stall - beautiful. Our adrak chaiwala being a Marathi Manoos - got talking and in his words "Igatpuri madhe chahaa/jewan madhe paisa wasool" you get value for money for food at Igatpuri and the weather is good only until kasara. Was touched by his humility and his happiness and contentment in life with what he enjoyed doing - something for me to learn as I continue in this IT rat race. Personally saw the AC to DC loco change as an Igatpuri DC/AC WCAM3 loco too charge. Bid adieu to the Santragachi WAP4 loco - this would return back with the return howrah duronto again at Igatpuri in the evening.

By now we had traversed 5 states (bengal, jharkhand, orissa, madhya pradesh, maharashtra), I had spoken bengali, hindi, maithili/bjojpuri, understood oriya, marathi and of course english. Suuun timing che - remarked the pretty young gujrati girl as the train rolled in at on the dot at 10.20AM Mumbai VT oops Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Taxi guy Dalvi was a Marathi Manoos from Kanjur Marg so he loved taking us from VT to Powai at IIT.

All in all very very fulfilling.

The Approach to Itwari Station...

Here are two pictures showing the charm of railway heritage.

The approach to Itwari station...

And the station itself...

The Punjab Mail at Ludhiana

Selections from the Memoirs of
Sukhdev Singh,  B.E.,
Late Superintending Engineer,
Public Works Department, 

November 1956

THE DAZZLING SHOW OF exquisite goods on display in the fashionable bazaars have never held any charm for me, except perhaps to buy a few necessaries that are basic to the business of living.

How does it come about that people throng the bazaar dressed in their evening best, and flit from shop to shop, carrying back basketfuls of fancily wrought goods, half of which they might never use throughout the year, is beyond my power of comprehension. I suppose these folks like to stock up on merchandise in competition with their neighbours. It is a universal trait that may be found all over the civilized world.

These then are my views with regard to the acquisition of goods.  But of late, I find a change taking place within me. There is one object here in the marketplace which has cast a spell over me. I have often halted beside the New India Radio & Gramophone Company on my way to Harminder’s home. Each time I am here, a sweet melody may be heard floating out of the shop, a melody that is both soothing and pleasurable, mostly film numbers, but at other times English tunes.

The gramophone shop has an interesting assortment of goods. There are record players and stacks of records ; then there are radio sets on sale (Harpreet loves to listen to Radio Ceylon) ; and there are microphones and tape recorders and all the associated circuitry. As an added attraction, the shop also stocks on prismatic binoculars, slide projectors and magnifying glasses.

I wish I could get a record player for Harpreet, but a better idea would be to get her a radio set, so that they can tune in to their favourite stations. The girl often makes her way to her friend’s home a few blocks away, her frame swaying awkwardly with every step she takes, to sit by the radio and listen to Radio Ceylon. Here at the gramophone shop the latest British made Pye radio sets are on sale, but each set costs no less than Rs 300, and you need a license besides to own a radio receiver.  

These were my musings as I seated Biji and Harpreet in a III Class Sleeper carriage of 6 Down Mail. But this is no time to think about music and radio sets and licenses. I am here at the railway station with Harpreet and her mother, and after a wait of nearly an hour in the Waiting Room, the train has steamed in. The Punjab Mail standing at the platform arouses a sense of urgency ; there is no telling when the locomotive at the head of the train will commence to exert its tractive pull at the drop of the signal. There is the unmistakable feeling that an event of the first magnitude is about to take place, and event that will irreversibly change the destiny of those seated meekly within the train.  The yellow board on the carriage side is tilted over to one side; it reads ‘Howrah—Amritsar—Howrah’.  Another carriage down the train declares its destination to be Dehradun. This, I am told, is a through carriage that will be detached when the train pulls into Laksar in the dead of the night. I think I must study the timetable; this is the place that will furnish me full partculars of through carriages on this train.

Having settled Biji and Harpreet, I bid them farewell and hurriedly moved up the platform hoping to catch a view of the locomotive as it drew out with the train. I stumbled along, dodging handcarts laden with luggage and passengers scurrying to and fro. I reached the end of the platform canopy—oh dear, there were still four more carriages to go, out under the night sky—when the engine gives out a deep sonorous whistle, like a ship's siren. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the driver opening his regulator but missed the event. With a great roar, those mighty cylinders let out plumes of steam setting those steel rods into motion. There were three men in charge, active in the brightly lit cab. One blast, then another, WHOOOF—WHOOF—WHOOF , and the locomotive slowly began to move out with the train. I glanced at the yard ahead where a semaphore meekly pointed the way down shining a feeble green light towards us. “Gentlemen, all is clear, you are authorized to proceed…”  it seemed to say.

The rest of today's evening was uneventful. As the train pulled out, I made my way to the station restaurant for a vegetarian meal. Once out of the building I turned, as I often do, to glance at this great railway junction. Ludhiana railway station. A cold mist has descended on the night; the concourse feebly lit with incandescent lamps; tongas wait in uncertainty for passengers emerging from the main portico.

The main line that sails into this great centre comes from Amritsar and Pathankot further up north, moving down in a south-easterly direction to Ambala, Saharanpur and Delhi. A line leads to Ferozepur, while another branches off to Hisar down south. The town itself is home to a large number of private industries manufacturing blankets and woolen garments. The residents of this province are an industrious race. There is hardly a lane of the old city where you will not come upon signs of manufacturing progress. Every by-lane has its share of power looms, their shuttles busily clicking away at all odd hours of the day.
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The Sikh on Platform No. 4

The winter here is harsh, as indeed it is over the whole of north western India. You dip your hands in water and find it is nearly freezing cold. There is a delicious feeling as you step out into the open, when the gentle, orange rays of the sun kiss you with a warmth that is so inviting. But none of this seems to trouble Satpal. As he bends over to wash himself at the tap, there is no sign of a grimace on his face. He cups his hand, splashes water vigorously on his face, then looks up at me with piercing eyes. His hair is tied up into a knot on his head, for he has left his turban near his bundle a little way off.

I stroll over to the end of the platform where the sikh joins me shortly. The Express from Pathankot pulls in with a big noise and grinds to a halt. Passengers begin to pour out but Satpal seems unconcerned. He brushes his hair and does up his turban. Then he begins to arrange his little bundle. Beside him is a girl, aged about ten. She looks up at me and smiles engagingly. She knows I have brought along something for her. The girl is such a pet, I can't help getting along a tiny gift of some sort whenever I drop into the station. Last week I got for her a pink frock with a yellow border, but Satpal won’t let her wear it. He says if Amrita wears good clothes no one is likely to give her alms...  His argument was a perfectly valid one, so I didn’t argue. Today it is a packet of cream biscuits for the girl. I know the girl likes biscuits. All children do.

Satpal and his girl are one of the oldest residents of this station. The man has been around for over fifty years. 'Business' is slack with the morning passenger, but whenever a passing train calls at the station during the day, Satpal and his girl cross tracks to reach the platform. Their equipment is meagre, and consists of only two dull looking aluminium bowls. These bowls are their life.

"I have been here ever since I was a boy," recalls the sikh. The station staff all know him, and others of his kind, but no one seems to care. Most of their earnings come from passengers peering through carriage windows finding an old man and his girl alongside looking up expectantly.

"I used to know Munroe Saab," Satpal once told me. "He was Station Master, and a thoroughly good man. He was often on his rounds and whenever he came upon me, he would fish out a naya paisa or two for me."

Satpal's girl has already begun to munch at the cream biscuits I got along for her. She takes a bite at one and looks out happily into the distance. Far away in the morning haze where the tracks mesh with each other, a signal dropped in a gantry. That would be another train in a short while from now. People arrive at this junction from all over the country in hoardes--from Delhi, from Howrah, from Madras. The station is a great center of commerce, of activity and movement. The little girl and her father live among these trains as do so many others of their class. For them movement rarely means anything more than crossing tracks to make their way to a more populous platform.
Continued below...

I Make Acquaintance with Mr Lal

That steam is raised in the boiler of a locomotive by the combustion of coal, whence it passes into the cylinders to do its work I knew from my boyhood days. Being a student of science I was acquainted one degree further with the principle of the piston valve whose job it is to admit steam alternately on each side of the piston as it moves within the cylinder.  Be that as it may, a close look at a locomotive at work always gives rise to an uneasy feeling, an overwhelming sense of ignorance of the inner working of the fire breathing creature Stephenson gave to the world.

Today was a remarkable day for I have quite unexpectedly received a most interesting tutorial in steam locomotive operation from Mr Lal, the shunting engine driver. After a fruitless search for an absorbing book at the Wheeler’s bookstall, I proceeded to Platform No 4 which is my usual hangout when at the station. The object that held my attention today was a tank loco, Class WM 2-6-4, busy shunting carriages. The engine heaved and puffed and after a labour of nearly half an hour came to a stand a little beyond the platform ramp. The driver got off and strolled into the station presumably for a cup of tea. He was a young man, thirty something with a face that seemed not too severe, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. It is quite possible that he had seen me several times on this side of the station, for not once did he give me a questioning glance.

After social preliminaries were over, I put before him the matter that was on my mind all along. I have often wondered how it comes about that on starting, an engine lets out clouds of steam from the cylinders, and after a while ceases to do so, thereafter expelling the whole volume of steam through the chimney in rhythmic puffs. Why does steam first issue forth from the cylinders, and why the changeover a few moments later?

We had our cups of tea and moved out into the yard where the engine stood. There, as we bent over together, Mr Lal showed me a stem that actuated two valves at the lower edge of the cylinder. “These are known as cylinder drain cocks,” Lal explained looking up at me. “When actuated from the cab, the drain cocks open and let out steam from the cylinder.”

It seems to be all a big fuss but drain cocks on a locomotive serve a vitally important purpose, I was told. When starting from rest, the cylinders of an engine are usually cold, so boiler steam, when admitted, tends to condense into water. The accumulation of water in a locomotive cylinder presents a grave danger, for trapped water can form an obstruction as impregnable as steel to the movement of the piston. Thus to prevent a piston from smashing into a barrier of trapped water, the drain cocks are opened at the start of the run, expelling any water that may have condensed together with the steam as it blows out. After a few minutes of this preliminary, the cocks are shut, the steam being now wholly discharged through the chimney.

And as though to make sure I understood the operation, Mr Lal invited me into the cab. The faceplate of a locomotive boiler has an impressive array of gadgets most of which make no sense to the layman. Lal quickly pulled a lever and began to open the regulator. Great clouds of steam engulf the engine at the front, and we begin to roll out amid a deafening roar.  A short while later Mr Lal deactivates the cylinder drain cocks. Leaning out of the footplate, I found that the discharge of steam had ceased, which was now being expelled in pleasant little puffs from the chimney above.

The demonstration over, Mr Lal actuated a lever. “This ,” he tells me, “is the ejector.” Seeing that I am a young man interested in technical detail he is eager to explain the various parts that go to make up a steam engine.

“The ejector creates the vacuum necessary for operating the train’s brakes,” he tells me. “There are three components of prime importance here,” he emphasized. “The ejector that creates the vacuum, the injector that forces water into the boiler against the pressure of the steam, and the lubricator which supplies a mixture of steam and mineral oil to lubricate the steam chests and cylinders.”

On regular passenger and goods trains the services of a fireman are indispensable, but shunting work seems to be more a relaxed job. A shunting engine working in a passenger yard is rarely required to remain in operation throughout. “Now that we have shunted the Hissar Passenger to the Carriage & Wagon examination line, there is little more to do till noon when I am called upon to shunt a sectional carriage that will be attached to the Deluxe,” he explains.

The shunting engine works only spasmodically and Mr Lal has enough time on hand to shovel coal himself. At 5 O’ clock he signs off and hands over charge to a colleague. Towards evening the engine will back at work shunting in the Ferozepur Passenger and other slow trains bound for nearby districts.
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