My sister and I were born in Railway hospitals. That’s what most Railway men’s children were wont to do. They also lived in Railway colonies — a gated community of bungalows and flats surrounded by greenery, often along with a pool, tennis courts and a club house that doubled up as venue for birthday parties and weddings — in the nicer part of town.

Compared to colonies of the other central services which depend on the meagre resources of the PWD, these areas were far better maintained. There always seemed to be ample manpower available — gardeners, plumbers, electricians, cooks. Railway officers can be transferred anywhere across 16 geographic divisions.

So families were used to being uprooted frequently, making new friends and serendipitously finding old ones. Boarding schools such as the 125-year-old Oak Grove at Jharipani, near Mussoorie, run by Northern Railway, ensured that education was not disrupted.

Like the army, it was a closed world. One of my earliest memories is that of my mother listening anxiously for news of casualties on the radio at night during the 1971 war. Like many Railway officers, my father had been sent to the border to ensure there was no disruption to trains carrying food, fuel, and provisions for the army. And there wasn’t.

The Other Side of the Coin

My civil engineer father designed and built railway lines and bridges or was in ‘construction’ to use Railway parlance. Since they were literally at the front line of expansion and maintenance, officers in construction presumably had a tougher life.

Long hours in the sun inspecting construction sites, ‘tracking’ every inch of a new line by travelling over them in a curious vehicle pushed by khalasis, rushing to accident sites in the middle of the night, and stationed for days in areas affected by floods in summer and fog in winter.

At a time when few homes had a personal telephone line, the Railways had wired up its people and offices with its own network. So, all officers could be contacted urgently. My father always kept a small briefcase packed and ready for emergency travel.

Railway families tend to be organised and efficient travellers. Luckily, the perks went a long way towards easing the pain. Officers in construction had a jeep and a driver, a bungalow peon whose job was akin to the orderly in the army, and enough manpower at hand to make life bearable when the going was tough. Even small (then Mofussil) towns like Moradabad and Panipat had a junior engineer posted there.

And the family lived in style — large and well-appointed bungalows, with manicured lawns, jeep, driver, cook and peon galore. The wives tended to be superb hostesses, and welcomed occasional visitors — official and familial — with equal warmth. They also knew the best shops in town. Senior officers used ‘saloon’ cars or a Railway coach fitted out as a home on wheels.

A few air-conditioned saloon cars were kept exclusively for general managers of zonal Railways and members of the Railway Board. Divisional Railway Managers had exclusive use of a non-AC saloon. Other senior officers usually had to share at the divisional level. The saloons of my childhood usually had two well-appointed bedrooms, a spacious drawing-cum-dining area, bathrooms, a pantry with white bone china crockery, a kitchen with fridge and sleepers for the peon and coach attendant.

Some saloons had an inspection room in the rear, with large windows on three sides to give a clear view of the track. Narrow gauge saloons were truly doll’s house-like in their appeal. We boarded the saloon at New Delhi station’s State Entry Road, had dinner and slept. All meals were cooked on board. At our destination, the saloon would be neatly parked at a special platform. So there was never any rush to get off on arrival. The saloon was a home away from home, an office and meeting room for my father.

In summers, saloons would become burning hot as the metal heated up. Khus-lined coolers would try to keep at least the nights bearable. But long winter journeys were a delight. We always looked forward to summer holidays and the October break. With six family passes in a year, there was always some enticing destination beckoning us. Railways allowed us to travel the length and breadth of the country, to enjoy the journey travelling first class as much as the destination.

The Vacations & the Spring Festival

Trains were frequently late, the water was from the shuddering, rusty platform cooler, and the food was basic aloo-puri from a Railway stall but we were never allowed to crib. Railway men like my father expected their kids to be tough. We spent hours in Railway retiring rooms, though I never remember seeing my father there.

He always used the time for a quick review with the station master or catching up with local officers. His most infuriating habit was to board the train almost as it was pulling out of the station, while we went frantic. Somehow, Railway men can never seem to share the anxiety that green signals and engine whistles evoke in the rest of us.

In most cities, the officers’ guest house was always within sight of the main station. In Shimla, the guest house is on the first floor of the station, a lovely log wood building. In hill stations with no railways, such as Mussoorie, Palampur and Nainital, the guest houses were often of British vintage. Awesome views were guaranteed.

Spring brought with it the annual mela organised by the Railways Women’s Welfare Organisation at Baroda House, the Northern Railway headquarters. It was a great opportunity to reunite with old friends amidst gleaming lawns and chrysanthemums in brilliant colours. Not unexpectedly, quite early in our lives we had figured jargon like points and switches, dual gauge lines, sidings, rolling stock, loose shunting, vestibules, etc.

My father believed that the ability to use the Railway timetable, read passenger reservation charts and tie the ubiquitous hold-all were basic survival skills. He could be quite impatient if we mistook a train going up for down. We became trainspotters much before we realised there was such a word. Medical care was meted out through Railway hospitals that were better staffed, cleaner and less fraught than general hospitals. Since the senior doctors were part of the same social circle, Railway kids rarely kicked up a fuss about medical matters. We knew our way around the place.

Despite all this, things weren’t always easy. Frequent travel meant that we didn’t see my father for several days in a month. The absence was compounded by transfers and training stints at the Railway Staff College, Vadodara. Railway wives learn quickly to act like a single parent. Marriage effectively kicked me out of the Railway family. I could no longer travel on the family pass, or use the hospital and the club. It is the one thing I will always hold against my husband.

– Shubhra Dastidar (1984)


This write-up was posted by Shubhra Dastidar on  June 20, 2019 on a WhatsApp group of Old Oakgrovians. This is her first contribution to Oakgrovians Young & Old.

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