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Tales from the running box

Years after my father’s retirement, rummaging through his running box (the wooden box railwaymen carry on duty), I found a letter censoring him for delaying a Mail train. I asked him what happened, and he said it was a case of crossing of a goods train and a Mail on a single track.

He gave clearance to receive the goods train first, but it took unusually long to arrive and delayed the departure of the Mail. In those days, without any centralised traffic control, it was those men on the lines who kept trains running and on their judgment depended the safety and comfort of passengers.

It was a revelation to me that my father too could be fallible. He was my childhood hero and teacher till I went to school from Class 3. He was a good volleyball player and made his own team in the stations he was posted. He was academically brilliant with an acute mathematical brain. He joined the old South Indian Railway just after his matriculation results when he was all of 18. His marks were good and the Railways’ offer came too soon. He put aside the thoughts of further studies and joined as a rookie stationmaster. It was also a desire on his part not to burden my grandfather financially.

His first posting was at Manamadurai Junction in Tamil Nadu and after duty hours, he slept on running boxes because the British-owned SIR did not provide accommodation to probationary stationmasters. The SIR was spread out in the most arid regions of southern Tamil Nadu with just a branch line to Kerala, and in many stations, it was difficult to get drinking water, which was supplied by passing trains.

Yet, he and my mother spent their young lives in places such as Vayyampetti, Devakottai Road, Kulathur, Dindigul and Sivakasi, all dusty, dry places. All the while my parents were very particular that we three sons would have our schooling only in Kerala, to be near their roots which entailed great pains to them and hard work, troubling grandparents and relatives and depending on boarding schools. It meant constant travelling between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, extra expenditure on so many eventualities and hardly any savings left.

Yet they gave us a good education and decent upbringing which has helped all three of us secure good positions in life. Every year, during the two months of summer vacation, we had to live together as a family, and it was our motivation for a whole year.

During that two months, mother experimented with all her culinary skills to assure herself that we children got the taste of all the wonderful dishes she knew. It was a constant refrain of my grandmother on our return from holidays that mother had spoilt our tummies with oily food.

By the time I entered college, father got a transfer to Kerala. But the constant travelling and night shifts had taken its toll and he developed diabetes which eventually affected even his brain. But the greatest devastation was when he had to amputate his left leg. By that time, he had already taken voluntary retirement.

Seeing one’s father on crutches is a most painful sight and he insisted on attending the church ceremony of my brother’s marriage. His greatest joy, however, was that he could spend his last days in the house he built for us after spending so many years in crammed railway houses.

ptrmailster@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 10:53:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/tales-from-the-running-box/article34458308.ece

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