Residents and former Railways employees recall the magic of Podanur Junction that dates back to the Raj
Wooden columns that bear the weight of history, an intricately carved iron staircase in the dining room, safety chains so strong they can hold a train on the tracks — memories of the Raj are palpable at Podanur Railway Junction, which came into being in the 1860s.
Walk down the platform, once paved with cobblestones, and peek into the past — British couples walk arm-in-arm to catch the train; Anglo Indian drivers and guards rush to work the trains; gentlemen doff their hats in greeting and people head to the refreshment rooms where a winch of sorts brings down food from the wood-fired kitchens above.
There are remnants of its hoary past — elegantly engraved porcelain bowls and plates, glass jars, an ancient aatukal and vintage wooden benches that have been polished by time.
Clement Joseph Coelho, 90, worked as a guard in the Railways. He was posted to Podanur in 1977 and worked on the trains going to Pollachi and Mettupalayam. He remembers a time when Podanur was the junction and the platform used to hold just 18 carriages. “There's so much development now. And, no dust. By the end of our shift, we used to be covered from head to toe in fine coal dust!”
Fifty-nine-year-old Milford McCoy's family has a history of serving in the Railways, beginning with his grandfather Sam McCoy, who was a steam loco driver. He remembers a time when steam locomotives were maintained at the junction and it served as a goods train yard.
Kadeeja Aliyar, 73, came to Podanur in 1960 to work in the Railway Hospital. She remembers a station teeming with people en route to Coonoor and Ooty. “There was a vegetarian restaurant run by Lakshmana Iyer, which served a breakfast of sada dosa, idli and upma. He would also supply food to some of us at the Railway quarters,” says the retired chief matron. Her husband P. Aliyar, 76, recalls walking to Podanur junction from Cox Street impressed by the scenic road. “I would then catch the train back to Coimbatore.”
There used to be a lot of trees, especially Flame of the Forest, around the railway station. “It looked just like Malgudi,” he says.
Mohammed Shakeer, 55, runs the 112-year-old Bright Dawn Bakery just outside the station. He remembers his father, Mohammed Haroon, speaking about a stable where the post office now stands. “People used to ride their horses, leave them there and board the train.” Britishers and Anglo-Indians used to buy bread, buns, butter and jam from the bakery, originally run by A.L. Dawn. Shakeer remembers Podanur being a crowded station and maatu vandis and kudhirai vandis being the only mode of transport.
Barbara Kumar, 56, whose father, the late A.L.J.E. Moore, was a guard in the Railways, says that for ‘Railway kids', “the station was part of our lives”. They went to school by train, often jumping into either the metre gauge train from Pollachi or the broad gauge one from Palakkad. “We had such competition, wondering which would reach Coimbatore faster,” she laughs. Many a time, she says, while travelling in the upper berth, the station's unique cobblestone platform helped her figure she was home.
“It had such a quaint, old-world charm about it.”
She recalls her mother, the late Gladys Moore, telling them the railway junction was Podanur's beach — the one place everyone headed to.
The move to reroute more trains through Coimbatore junction has not gone down well with most people. A railway employee recalls the time when almost all the trains stopped in Podanur. “One by one, they all skipped our station. At this rate, this will soon become a ghost station,” he says.
However, some admit that connectivity to the city is an issue — those alighting in Podanur junction at night have to rely on private taxis and autorickshaws.
Asks Barbara: “What is the point in investing in infrastructure improvement in Podanur if trains are going to skip the station? Think of all the retired railway employees who've settled here. Their life revolves around this station.”
Mr. Moore, who was bedridden for long, wanted to see the junction in his last days. “I could not take him because there was simply no way I could take him across the over bridge.
He died in February this year without seeing the station he so loved.”
Says a wistful Barbara: “The junction used to feel like home. Not any more.”