When we got into the train it promised to be just another ride. But half way through we knew that this journey was not only different but also exciting.
Summer for us always meant a lovely holiday. Up in the hills where we lived, we did not feel the need to rush from one camp to another brushing up skills and developing our personality. Summer was a time to laze around, endless picnics and of course entertaining and being entertained by the numerous cousins and relations who came visiting.
One such holiday was memorable. My sister and I were informed that our Great Aunt Tara was arriving the next day. Great Aunt Tara was neither great nor an aunt. She was related to a cousin’s wife’s brother’s wife’s someone or the other. She was a thin, tall lady with a persistently sour expression. She was the principal of an elite school in the foothills. The purpose of her visit, as stated in her letter, was that she proposed to take the senior children of her school on the hill train. But before she sanctioned the trip, she wanted to ensure that it was safe and comfortable for her students, many of whom were from other countries.
Great Aunt Tara arrived promptly in the morning at the time she said she would. After breakfast, she was dressed and ready for the train journey. She carried a very large bag. Since it was holiday time, my sister and I were hastily packed off with Great Aunt Tara.
As we entered the station premises, we were happy to hear the shrill whistle of the train as it turned its last bend and came into view. A word about the station — built almost a century ago, it still maintained its old world charm. It was small and quaint and had a couple of iron benches for passengers to cool their heels while waiting for the train.
It was chilly and dark inside the station. Only a few people waited on the platform as the little blue train came bustling in. We opened the door and rushed in to grab the window seats. Great Aunt Tara sat near the window beside the door. The carriages in the hill train are not fully closed. So passengers have a few of almost the rest of the train.
Soon the whistle blew and the train chugged out of the station. The train wound its way through the beautiful countryside, passing small villages, tea estates and sholas. In a distance we could see water cascading off the rocks and birds and monkeys chattered from the trees near the tracks. Every time we took this train we hoped to sight a Nilgiri gaur and this time was no exception.
We were passing through a particularly thick shola when all of a sudden there was a loud thud on the train. We were shocked and a few passengers even screamed. The train shuddered to a stop. All around us was quiet. We could hear the wind in the trees and the leaves rustling in the soft breeze. Far away we heard the cry of the hoopoe and the flap of its wings as it flew out of the shelter of the trees. And then we heard the scratching on the roof.
Just then a Chinese whisper found its way down the length of the train. By the time it got to us it sounded something like, “Beans on the train. Don’t get out of the train.”
“It can’t be,” said Great Aunt Tara disdainfully. “Beans on trains? That should not stop the train.”
Great Aunt Tara looked at her watch and then out of the window. She did the same thing a couple of more times…each time more impatiently than before.
Then another whisper made its way through. “Not beans, bears…”
Great Aunt Tara, with a sigh of exasperation opened the door and stepped out. There was a collective gasp from the passengers. There was a surge as passengers cramped up at the windows looking out. We saw her start, as she spotted something.
From her bag, she drew out a long bamboo cane. She walked the length of the train and then standing below what we thought was the bear, she waved her stick and began to shout.
“Come down, now. This is no way to behave! What do you think you are doing?” She shouted for some more time in the same vein. Nothing happened.
Great Aunt Tara realised that the bear was not as disciplined as her students. She put away her cane and pulled out a bottle of honey. We were surprised — a cane, honey…whatever next?
She began to wave the bottle of honey. There was no reaction. A couple of minutes later, she delved into her bag once again. She pulled out a large syringe. She opened the bottle and with the syringe sucked out a whole tube of honey. Then holding the open bottle of honey in one hand and the syringe in the other, she walked closer to the train. When she was close, she lifted her hand and pressed the syringe. A spray of honey shot up on to the roof. The silence in the train was broken by a hasty scrambling on the roof. And then we saw a black mass of fur hurtling down almost on Great Aunt Tara.
She was quick, though. With great ease, she side stepped the falling bear (we now knew it was a bear), threw the bottle of honey at it and walked with great dignity towards our carriage and got in.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. We returned rather late. Great Aunt Tara went back to her school.
Needless to say, she never did bring her students on a trip.