A creased and much-taped Indian railway map of 1956; black and white photographs; service discharge booklet; ID cards and a yellowing bunch of notes on how to handle explosives. These are just some of the mementoes that help visitors navigate the life of A. Ignatius Muthu, the 100-year-old former cabin assistant station master who made news recently as the oldest former employee in Tiruchi Railway Division.
His modest abode in Kalpalayam, Samayapuram that he shares with his wife Marie Antoinette, 94, reflects his simplicity. “Having spent 34 years as a railway staffer, my father has always lived close to the station. He always walked to work, and the only vehicle he used was a Hercules bicycle until he was in his 60s,” says his elder son I. Simon Arokiaraj, who is his parents’ chief caregiver, and lives close by.
Going down memory lane with the centenarian throws up some unusual stories. “My family is from Varaganeri, Tiruchi. I was born on July 22, 1922 and I studied up to SSLC. I joined the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) in 1943, and worked as a mechanic in the Armaments section,” says Muthu. Though it was nerve-wracking to handle bombs and other explosive devices, it was also a thrilling time of his life, he says.
“I was sent to Secunderabad, Lahore (in undivided India) and Ambala for training. The British officers who supervised our work were very friendly and treated us on a par with other RIAF staff. We were stationed in Cox’s Bazaar near Chittagong for a while during World War II,” recounts Muthu.
He quit the RIAF to take care of his parents in 1946, having completed precisely, as his discharge certificate says, three years, four months and three days in service.
Muthu joined the Indian Railways in December 2, 1946, as a clerk in South Indian Railway (now known as Southern Railway) in the ex-serviceman quota. “I started my career on Platform 1 of the Egmore railway station (in Madras), where my main job was to issue slips for trespassers, those crossing unmanned gates and ticketless travellers. Later, I was able to progress to station master cadre,” he says.
His itinerant career took him to Pattukottai, Valavanur, Mayavaram and Adirampatnam, besides other places in Tamil Nadu, before he retired from his post as assistant cabin station master from Mayiladuthurai in 1980.
“During my time, the station master and the cabin had a key role to play in the smooth functioning of the daily traffic. We used a signal called the ‘token’, where a metal ball was shown to the train driver, permitting him to enter the next station. Now this has become an automated process,” says Muthu.
Though he cannot recall any major events occurring during his tenure of 34 years in the railways, he does remember the public seeking refuge in the stations during natural disasters. “During a cyclone in Virudhachalam in the 1950s, we opened up all the rooms in the railway station to allow the stranded people of the nearby village to stay safe,” he says.
As the conversation veers towards his youth, Muthu talks about his marriage in 1948 to Marie Antoinette, at the Sahaya Matha Church in Varaganeri. “It was a happy day, and we had a simple ceremony. There were no marriage halls in those days, so we just erected a ‘kottagai’ (thatched shed) near our main gate and hosted all the guests there,” he says. Muthu’s elder brother and two younger sisters are no more. “I have had some good friends who have also gone away. I miss the days we used to enjoy doing everything together,” he says.
Mantras for living
His wife, whom he addresses simply as ‘Antoinette’, has been by his side through all these years. “’Thatha’ never scolds me, he is a very calm and kind person,” she blushingly reveals.
“Marriages can be happy only when husband and wife respect each other as individuals,” says Muthu.
Besides Simon, who retired as a passenger railway guard, the couple’s other son Stephen Sahayaraj, is a headmaster in a school at Tiruchi and is due for retirement in September. Their two daughters Jasintha Peter and Emilda Soosai are homemakers based in France and Bengaluru respectively.
Muthu’s birthday celebrations last year were muted by the lockdown. But this year, the family was pleasantly surprised when Senior Divisional Operations Manager of Tiruchi, M. Harikumar personally came calling on the senior citizen to extend his greetings.
“None of us were expecting such a kind gesture; we were all so proud for Appa to be felicitated on his special day,” says Simon.
There was more good news for the birthday boy: having completed a 100 years, Ignatius Muthu became eligible for a cent per cent hike of his basic pension.