Only the first time on an airplane is a flight of fancy. The monotony and ennui of long up-in-the-air journeys watching the clouds at the end of which you discover neither God, Amma or M S Subbulakshmi is going to perch on the wing outside your window and treat you to an epiphany is all it takes to turn a plane journey into a chore that needs getting done as quickly as possible.
A train journey, however, has been around for two hundred years, but its thrill quotient has endured with such vigor that I am convinced the frisson of excitement that I remember from those half-a-day journey to Madras on the Brindavan Express is the same that coursed down Appa’s nine-year-old spine eighty years ago, when the family travelled often and long, passing charming little stations and watching little India display its quirks and colours, the fields and villages that whizzed past between stations.
S remembers vividly the large presence of trains in every day Belgaum life,. They watched the train winding its way steamily down the countryside, while playing in the fields near the Fort, and they often heard the siren wailing balefully , announcing an arrival or departure. Railway stations were easily accessible then and they often went to watch the exciting goings-on at the locomotive shed – engine shunting- there was a turntable for the engines, and it was manually operated. Of course in the eyes of S and friends, this was the most exciting job in the world. They played at shunting, pushing at the engine and pretending they moved it.
They often made short trips on the passenger trains to Dharwad or Hubli, and S and Pandu . Once an old man toting his toddler grandson on his shoulders loped up to their window asking “Does this train go to Haveri?” S and Pandu, being in a cheeky mood as little boys often are, informed him helpful, ” oh the next coach goes” , and had a good laugh. But S felt a twinge of remorse a few moments later when he saw the old man struggling to hop on as the train had begun to move, and the platform form was left behind, and he just about made it.
The trains of those days, with steam engines and coaches that looked like they were taking Cinderella to the ball, were 30-seaters . Sometimes they were 8-seaters, used by attendants of British officers travelling on duty, or the servants of the rich Indians who would be travelling royally in First Class. Occasionally even royalty travelled in these trains, and the Mysore Maharaja’s guards resplendent in their gear added intrigue and fascination to the journey. The Tungabhadra flowed merrily as the train wound its way in the June-July summer.
S remembers the “best idli and dosa ” that could be had at Harihar station, a stall run by a man from Kerala. Since the local people could never tel the difference between his Malayalam and Tamil, they enjoyed his offerings in what they assumed was Tamil. S and Pandu and his friends, of course knew their Tamil, and their idlis.
Most summer holidays they made the long journey to Bangalore, but they often went to Bombay and Poona or Kolhapur- . Bombay meant staying in the house of Bombay Ramaswamy, known to the family , whose bungalow off B P Wadia Road was a well-known landmark and is now a block of apartments still named Bombay House, It overlooks theDewan Madhava Rao Circle, and remains as picturesque as the whole of Bangalore used to be ion the 60s and 70s.
S had a wish in those days. They often clambered up a high mound on the field near the Fort, and watched the trains go by. His wish was to be on this high perch and look down on the train, and watch himself travelling grandly in the train as it wound its way towards Poona . Now is that possible? About as possible as the epiphany of God, Amma or M S Subbulakshmi waving us on our way from Cloud Nine.
A fine train of thought indeed. Or a flight of fnacy?