How i sneaked into the railways..........
Men may come and men may go, but the wheels roll on forever, i.e., if the tracksare not washed away by the mighty Brahmaputra during the monsoons. And talking of good old Brahmaputra, one is strongly reminded of a stretch of metre gauge track running from Agra (or is it Aligarh I am thinking about?) along the south slopes of the mighty Himalayas to somewhere near China— I was never very good at history— with a few loops and branches thrown in here and therefor good measure; and this stretch, as I was about to say, is commonly known in the official circles as the N.E. Rly, in short, the North Eastern Railway.
I don’t know if you know it, but it is so true that one half of the world does not know what the other three-quarters is eating; and that’s why I feel you must be more than wondering how the Dickens I came to be deposited in the above-mentioned Rly. sometime during the heavy monsoon rains of 1953. I’ll tell you how. Beg your pardon! Did I hear you say you were not the least interested in the subject? Very well! Then I shall proceed with my story.
The story that I am about to relate is an old one, and, before you fall asleep, let me ask you a very simple question. Does any one of my readers know how the alarm chain hanging harmlessly in your railway compartment work? No? Oh, what a shame. Now, I shall be compelled to tell you how. Of course you know if I ask people about anything, some will say this and some will say that, but the fact of the matter is that this is what really happens.
Say, for example, that you, Bloke A, travelling in the Lucknow Katihar mail all alone in a compartment, except for a thuggish looking Bloke (we shall call him bloke B) sitting opposite you. The train is buzzing along at a nifty 120 miles per three hours. OK, so far? Good. Now this is where you must follow me very closely. Suppose now that the thuggishlooking guy, viz., the guy we earmarked as Bloke B, gets funny ideas how to have a little fun and tries to give shape to these ideas. As soon as he tries to leap at you and choke you (or pinch you, depending on whether he has taken a fancy for your neck orfor the other end), you, Bloke A, break the sitting high jump record and make a grab for the alarm chain. Assuming that you managed to grab it and hold onto it on your downward journey, the job will be done, that is, the chain has been pulled as designed. This pulling exercise results in the ringing of a teeny, weeny bell in the guard sitting room. The guard, who has just gone to bed after a hard day’s guarding the train wakes up and, in a matter of minutes rings up the driver from his telephone booth. The poor driver, who can’t hear him for the noise in his engine cab, sops the train by a quick application of his foot brakes , changes into his walking shoes, and walks upto the back of the train to ask the guard what he devil he wants at that time of the night (or day, as the case might be). On his way to the guard he overhears you choking or scream (again, as the case might be), and like a true driver, drives the choker (or the pincher ) away.
Thus, you see, does the alarm chain work. Or at least that’s what I thought some years ago. In fact many years ago. To be truthful about it, I don’t even remember when. But this much I think I remember, namely, that the time was well before I joined the good old Indian Railways as a burra sahib in 1949. And let me tell you in all seriousness that nothing of the kind takes place. And furthermore if you are dying to find out what really happens in the deeply unfolding story of the alarm chain, read on dear reader, read on.
It all began when I was born as a bright littlebrat to a couple of unsuspecting citizens of this great nation. But that is neither here nor there. So let us skip the gory details. But how I managed to sneak past the censors into the dubious ranks of locomotive engineers is, as I have stated on many occasions, a long story. But to make the long story even longer, this is how things worked out for the Indian Railways Superior Revenue Services—or whatever they are called today.
Being a very observant sort of a chap, I realised within a short period of only 18 years, i.e., the first eighteen years of my existence on this planet, that the Railways were the stuff to be given to the troops. I mean to say that this was the best means of transportation available on land, in the air or on the high seas, or aboveor below the sea, depending entirely upon your taste. To top this off, I had once, reading between the lines (a kind of reading in which I have always excelled) of an advertisement in a local paper, learned that this department was looking for some very bright lads, tall dark and handsome, who were tops in Mathematics and under 19 years of age. Well, I was under 19 years of age, and this gave me ideas. So filled up an application form or two, and sent the SOS message to the then F.P.S.C. in New Delhi. To my utter surprise, within two to three short months I received a letter of summons from the commission (it was obvious to meanest intellect that they were not about to let goof such a golden opportunity).
And so it came to pass (you see, I like to use this expression from time to time), that on the morning of January 18 , 1949 a little bird saw me presenting myself at the then Council House in new Delhi at 10 o’clock AM sharp looking sharper in tiptop condition (I even combed my hair that AM). I was sweating profusely with the room temperature hovering around 53 degree F I declined the use of the fans provided in the room.
There is not much I remember of the oversized question paper, and for that matter, there isn’t much that I wish to remember, but this much I can say without fear of persecution (if that’s the word I am looking for—maybe , I mean , contradiction) that every paper had an unearthly number of questions to be answered in a very earthly number of minutes and seconds. The Mathematics paper, if I am not mistaken, had about 80 questions to be answered in 30 short mts. Whatever else you might say about the questions, there was at least one good thing to be said about them. You either knew the answer, or you didn’t. I mean there was no hanky panky about the whole thing. And this saved us from getting confused, and this I must confess, was no small matter.
The examiner told us not to talk to each other during the exams, and personally, I think it was rather unsporting of him. But I guess he had his orders. Can’t blame the poor chap, and all that, you know. So we had to be content by just passing our answer papers around till the bell rang (not to be confused with the alarm chain bell in the guard’s sitting room).
In fact, now that I think of it, there was something else that the examiner told us not to do. And that was that we should not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at the same time—also that we should write on at least one side. This, I admit was rather helpful of him, because this saved us a great deal of thinking. And everyone knows we could hardly afford to think at such an important landmark of our young lives!
The exams were over in about 15 minutes. Or so it appeared to me. Actually the whole thing took us all the way to 12:30 PM, and we were asked to shove off and return at 5 O’clock to look up the notice board. Those whose names were printed in golden letters, were required to come back at 10 the next morning. Of course, whether you returned to look up the notice board was entirely up to you. No compulsion at all, you see.
So, one by one, the 50 gallant guys staggered out of the Council House, and for the sake of some quite relaxation, I purchased a ticket for a horror movie in a local cinema.
My name, as you might have guessed by now, was among the martyrs, but this did not encourage me at all. I knew that one look at my mug, and the interview board would go into an uncontrollable laughter and throw me out before I could say hello. After all, they were not looking for Frankenstein’s ugly brother!
So I was punctual the next morning and waited to be given, as they say in the vernacular, the bird. They called me into the slaughter room at about 2:30 in the afternoon when I was already very hungry. Taking advantage of my weakened condition, the three fiends who constituted the selection board, and who, it may be noted here, had a strong resemblance to human beings, began firing questions at me one before the other. I am sure that if they had been the least bit observant, they would have noticed that I had not yet said hello before the target practice started. But that, as you no doubt know, is life.
The gang started with comparatively simple questions like: So, you are Mr. Malik? Eh? What’s your father’s name? What is he? You needn’t be funny Mr. M., we know he is a man, But what does he do for a living? I see! What is the meaning of Veterinary Services (you see, my dad was a horse doctor of sorts)? What train did you take to Delhi? Did you say Railway train? Ha, Ha, Ha! I mean which one, dummy? Oh, the Delhi Express? How far is Delhi from Calcutta? And so on and so forth for 15 minutes.
When they realised that I was quite a match for their silly questions, they moved over to sillier ones. They came down to technical questions, and this is where they slipped very badly. You see, I only look dumb. I am not really that dumb. But, how could they tell! One of them asked me: Why do they call it the East Indian Railway? “Because,” I answered, “we would all look dashed silly calling it the East African Railway”, but he didn’t seem to hear me at all and said: What is the gauge of the track? How does the vacuum brake in a railway compartment work (sounds familiar?), etc. On my giving the approximate answers, they resorted to another angle of attack. They took up the English language.
Well, Mr. M., can you give us a proverb in English which has something to do with clouds? You know what English is , don’t you, Mr. M. ? “Of course, gentlemen, I do”, and rattled off the one about the silver lining and what not, and I may have put a little enthusiasm into my delivery. “There is no need to sing here”, he interrupted, “and, by the way, what does all this mean”? He nearly got me there, but true to my past tradition, I answered with a straight face and uttered something about never giving up hope and all that sort of rot (you will be surprised what a straight face can do for you, especially if it has the brains to match). “Now, tell me who wrote: ‘Tell me not in mournful numbers, life is but an empty dream’?” “Honest, I didn’t”, was what came to me at first, but with a little bit of quick thinking, I said, instead: I really don’t know the guy, never met him, you know”. “Long fellow, wouldn’t you say?” The fiend said with a Cheshire cat grin. “Oh, yes, I think you are right there”, I answered, and I think I must have given him a friendly smile in return, because the very next moment he told me in not too friendly a manner not to make faces at him.
This much for English literature. After peering down at my certificates, one of them looked up at me and said kind of sadly: “ So, you got distinction in Urdu, did you?” “Yes, sir, I surely did, and I was the only one in my school to accomplish this commendable feat and…” “Never mind,” he interrupted, cheering up a bit but not enough, “Can you recite a poem by any one of the well known Urdu poets?” ‘You mean a whole poem?”, I piped when I started breathing again, “I really don’t know if I can. But I can give you a couplet or two if it is all right with you.” He saidit was all right with him, but as I was about to come up with the juiciest and the fruitiest one I could recall from the works of good old Ghalib, the wolfish looking fellow on my right who obviously had no poetic inclinations changed the subject 360 degrees by asking me : “Can you make a rough guess of the dimensions of this room?” “In feet, do you mean?” I asked, not one to be caught napping. “In miles, if you prefer.” “Well,” I ventured, “I should say 15’ X 15’ X 15’.” “So you think it is a cube we are sitting in, eh, what?” “Of course not, how silly of me to suggest that,” I replied after having a second look at the walls. I even raised my eyes at the ceiling, not so much to gauge its measurements, but more towards a being far above the ceiling who could have come in pretty handy at this time. “How about 15’ X 15’ X 12’?” not mentioning anything about the ceiling, I said gingerly. “That’s better”, he grunted and looked very glum for the rest of the interview.
I felt quite cubical myself at that time andthis other bloke completely and hopelessly flattened me by wanting to know why I wanted to join the railways. I noticed he became almost humanly bright seeing what a terrible soup I was in. As for me, I thought a great deal about Home Sweet Home for about3 and a quarter seconds, but soon regained consciousness. Why indeed, I thought, did I ever get into this soup, and tried to pass it off with a faint grin and a few jolly nods. But a look at the whole bang lot across the table convinced me that escape was beyond ordinary human comprehension. It is very difficult to speak fluently when one has lost one’s voice, but I looked once again at the ceiling and muttered something about my natural urge for mechanical engineering and an uncontrollable urge to serve Mother India in a constructive manner. They obviously swallowed the stuff, because all three of them sang out as if with one voice: “That will be all Mr. M., and good luck to you.”
“Good bye,” I said and meant it to sting. It didn’t bother them a bit. Or at least that’s what I thought. They didn’t care for the sarcasm, because in another split second I had to make all possible use of my speed and dexterity in order to duck under the table as a brass paperweight came sailing towards me rapidly. I rushed out of the room and never looked back again.