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Looking back at a little blue train

My mother ran downhill along a steep slope every day to catch her little blue train to get to the school where she taught. We lived in a small place nestled in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, where everybody knew everybody else.

Even though we might not have been invited to tea at the train driver’s house, he obviously knew my mother. He would see her pelting down the hill, practically skating on the little seeds dropped from the eucalyptus trees above, as he manoeuvred the train around the mountainside. He would wave a friendly hand to her telling her to slow down, and indicating that he would wait for her to board.

What is a minute here and a minute there, was his philosophy. And it was one that entirely suited the place and the times.

The joy of the journey

The Nilgiri Mountain Railways was not competing with the Rajdhani Express or the suburban fast trains of Mumbai. The little steam engine was a joy, and intended to show people that true joy in living came from hard work with a dose of huffing while going uphill and a friendly toot and speed moderation while going downhill.

The journey, it seemed, was the most important thing. Chug past the lakes and mountains, cling to the cliffs, take deep breaths of the nippy air, and keep moving while you can.

When people ask me today in America about the banes of urban living, I rank ‘not knowing the train driver’ quite high up on the list of grievances. I now have to run up 50 stairs like an asthmatic calf to get to the train platform each day. So many times, just by virtue of being stuck behind a set of folks who refuse to budge on the escalator, I have missed the train. More often, I charge into the train just in time to have the doors close behind me and then stand there panting and mooing for breath.

When one considers how often I have flown past steps and hopped past debris and skidded into the train, I suppose it is only fair. A matter of tempting fate long enough.

One day recently, a quick look at the watch (set to two minutes past the actual time), and another look at the car clock (set to three minutes past the actual time) revealed that I have a 30 per cent chance of making it to the train if it was on time, and a 43 per cent chance if it was a minute late.

Give me a chance at something like that and I mysteriously transform into a demonised matador bull: I will lower my head and point head train-ward and charge like a demon with horns. However, I was not feeling sufficiently bull-like that day; it was more like the Reluctant Dragon.

The Reluctant Dragon is a marvellous children’s book written by Kenneth Graham. In the book, the villagers are keen to slay the Dragon, assuming all dragons are vicious. The Dragon, however, wants no fighting or flame-spewing. He simply wants to rest his back against a rock, think, and write poetry.

Fateful step

The train doors above me opened and I looked upwards while running. I forgot about the raised platform around the 57th step. It was then that I took a toss. Now, when I say ‘toss’ in that casual manner, it does not truly capture how much of an ass it makes one look. Well, there really is no comparison with the animal kingdom. I mean, have you seen deer trip or donkeys slip on the mud? That is set aside for the two-footed, I believe.

The point is that the step hurled me and I fell spectacularly. My bag flew one way, my legs the other, while my knees scraped along trying to keep the bag and the legs together. I lay there in that supine position trying to resist a bizarre urge to laugh out loud, though I could feel the stinging pain in my scraped knees. I did chuckle to myself, though — I must have looked like a prized fool sprawled there first thing in the morning when folks have important things to do and places to be. One cyclist, evidently late for her own train, asked, “You okay?”, and I said “Yes”. She gave me the thumbs up and cycled off.

Efficient, indifferent

As I stared at the departing train to see if I could detect a smirk from anyone in it, I need not have worried. The shiny silver train streaked off, glinting against the morning sun, as efficient and indifferent as ever. I did not know which was worse, the physical pain from the bruises, or the indifference of the departing train. Just as quickly as laughter had come, I found, much to my embarrassment, that tears stung my eyes.

No one knows whether the kind train driver who waved to my mother is still around today, but I miss the likes of him in today’s world.

Indeed, in a fast, efficient world, you often miss the tranquillity of spirit provided by the quiet pace of life you grew up with.

The author, who grew up in the mountain village of Lovedale and studied in the Lawrence School, now lives in the Bay Area in California and commutes to work by train into San Francisco.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 6:03:05 PM |

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