When you join the armed forces, you are perpetually on the move: you are transferred every now and then so that like rolling stones you’d not gather moss as also to learn all the ropes at all the stations; you are also sent on temporary duties. Hence, you become as much familiar with railways as railways are with you.
Three years back I wrote a piece on The Great Indian Train Journey. Although I didn’t describe the armed forces part of it, the armed forces personnel are at home with the railways.
If one were to travel from Bombay to New Delhi and beyond, the one train that was ‘fauji‘ friendly was the Frontier Mail; you could find many armed forces personnel taking the plunge into the train at the last minute and the TTEs generally obliged the ‘faujis‘, not because of their love for the armed forces but because of the promise of unadulterated armed forces quota rum that accompanied the ‘faujis’ like faithful dogs.
The Frontier Mail, started in September 1928 derived its name from its run of more than 2000 kms from Bombay (Churchgate) to Peshawar, the city at India’s border or frontier with Afghanistan. It was the nation’s first high-speed train and did the journey of 2335 kms in 72 hours.
In 1930 the London Times had rated Frontier MaIl as the world’s best train. In 1996, its name was changed to Golden Temple Mail. However, it was still the Frontier Mail when I was to board it at Mumbai. And, this time I had a proper reservation and hence no need to exchange good rum for a berth.
When I was at Mumbai Central Railway station waiting for the train, I spotted at least two other fauji officers also waiting. How did I make out that they were fauji? Well, one had Ray Ban goggles in their cover on his belt. The second was a Sikh and his demeanour exuded army. One look at the reservation chart confirmed my inference.
One of them, the one with Ray Ban introduced himself as Major Mehta. I wanted to avoid conversation as I had come to the last part of a James Hedley Chase book that I was reading after my boyhood days, just for fun, and the suspense was killing me.
But it was not to be. Mehta said, “So Ravi Sir, up to where are you going?”
“Delhi” I retorted sharply so that he’d get the hint and shut up.
Army ensures its officers are made of sterner stuff. Undeterred Mehta asked, “Proper Delhi or beyond that?”
How would Major Mehta know anything about my home station Kandaghat in Shimla Hills near Solan? (Read: ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is – Kandaghat In Shimla Hills’)
“Beyond that” I answered whilst turning the page.
“Up to where, Ravi Sir” he asked.
I suspected Mehta’s family were lawyers of repute and adept at cross-examining hardened criminals.
“I might take a bus from outside Ambala Cantt”, I told him irritably.
“Bus to where, Ravi Sir” he asked me ignoring my irritability.
“Bus to hell” I nearly blurted out but at the last minute replaced it with, “Bus to North.”
I had decided that even though Mark Woodward in the Chase novel was certain to face the music because of the dead body having been found behind the roses; but, I would kill Major Mehta if he were to ask me, “North? Where in North, Sir?” and then dispose of the body when the train would cross over a river.
He looked straight into my eyes and asked calmly, “North? Where in North, Sir?”
‘Should I be a Gandhian or should I become Bhagat Singh?’ was for me the equivalent of the Shakespearian ‘To be or not to be’. I had clenched my fists.
Major Mehta suddenly through chuckles asked me, “Ain’t you going to Kandaghat, Ravi bhaiyya?”
“What the hell. …..”, I started; but he continued, “I am going to Solan. I am a class mate of your younger brother JP. I have been to your house Whispering Winds several times.”
To hell with Mark Woodward and JH Chase. In any case I was trying to reread it after many many years.
We had a marvellous time together in the train and later bus. And we didn’t know how time flew. And yes, the rum bottle was opened not for the TTE but for two of us who had crossed several frontiers in the Frontier Mail.
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