I don’t know how to ride a bike. I never learnt it, and I don’t know why. But, I will learn it soon. Having said this, it doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything.
I love trains. I was born and brought up in a suburban section of New Delhi. Shakur Basti. I lived half a kilometre away from Shakur Basti Railway Station and I would listen to the loud horns of trains throughout the day from home. In the night, you can hear even the sound of rails, when the metallic wheels of trains crawl on them. I would wait to visit my maternal grandparents. Not that I loved them or anything. I mean, I somewhat did, but mainly because of two reasons – we would cross the river on the way, and we would travel by train! An Electric Multi-Unit (EMU) train that would leave every day around 11am from Shakur Basti to East of Delhi via Delhi’s biggest Railway Station that had a particular smell of its own. It was a mix of filth, frying food, diesel, fresh tea, and more. I somehow liked it. White coconut meat being sold on trays, the loud noise of the chaos on railway stations, the railway announcements of arrivals, departures and delays in funny monotonous voice following ting-ding-dong; watching and waving at the people from the window of the train were my favourite activities on the train. I would see the historic walls of Red Fort on the way and then we’d cross River Yamuna.
When at home, I’d often mimic the sound of a train with my brother. To be honest, summer vacations were the most awaited time of the year. Not just because there was no school for almost two months, but also because we’d go to pilgrimage in Jammu and Kashmir, the shrine of Goddess Vaishno Devi in the Chitrakoot mountains, by train with a 12 hour-long journey. That was an annual ritual until my mother fell to her illness in 1998 and we never revisited as a family ever since. In India, the doors of trains are often not closed so you could hang on to them even when the train is moving. Standing close to the door when the train is passing over the bridge on a river or through a tunnel were the most satisfying moments of a train journey. We would often offer coins as prayers to some of those rivers. Sometime I would throw them, sometimes I’d hide them in my pocket to secretly munch on sweets later.
Amid all this, it was abandoned for any of us as kids to visit Railway Station all by ourselves. I’d often visit with my father on his bicycle to get milk from the vendors from nearby villages who’d travel to the station to sell their dairy produce every morning. Maybe my parents thought we were too stupid to maintain a safe distance from the trains. Maybe they were scared that we might get lost, or kidnapped, or worse, make bad friends. Maybe they were scared because of some of the family members they had lost in train accidents and they thought us too would be run over by one of them. Maybe the stories of trains from Punjab (modern-day Pakistan) that would carry hundreds of dead bodies, were still fresh in their memories and they saw train as some kind of threat. I don’t know what was the reason, and I never even asked.
However, whenever cousins would visit us during vacation, we’d visit a park that was barely 200m away from the railway crossing. From the park, I’d see the trains passing by. One of those evening, all of us agreed that we’d set out for our lives’ ultimate adventure. To visit Railway Station, all of by ourselves, and walk on the railway tracks. It was a promise – no one is going to tell anything to our parents, and no one did until a fight broke off during a cricket match and all the secrets were revealed in the pursuit of revenge. We got some thrashing, but I was now more determined to visit again by myself.
There was a shrine my elder cousin would visit every Thursday to perform certain rituals. One of those days, my mother agreed to send me with him and offer the prayers in the shrine. That was my day. Suddenly, I was feeling like a grown up at the age of 9. On our way back, my cousin challenged me to walk on the rails when there stood an engine on the track, all fired up, ready to move any moment. In the hype of the newly gained confidence and the moment, I accepted the challenge and started walking on the track – one baseplate at a time. I was talking to him, walking on the rails and before I could realize the engine was just a couple of feet away from me. The pilot blew the loud air horn and I fell down on the track. Fortunately, the engine stopped and I survived. That was the realization of why my parents never allowed me to go by myself.
Following that, I continued to visit the rails secretly but maintained a somewhat safe distance from the trains. Years passed, I grew older and started playing cricket for juniors Railways from my town. We’d play in the ground next to the Railway Station and when waiting for my batting, I’d just gaze the trains going in and out of the shed. Cricket field was next to the Shakur Basti Diesel Shed, where trains from all of Northern Delhi would come for servicing and other works. Secretly, I’d admire those pilots driving the engines and would think of being one myself, someday.
However, then education happened, things turned and I became a Software Engineer like any other Indian. Six years ago, in 2012, one of my friends had his summer internship in the Shakur Basti Diesel Shed. When I got to know about that, I decided to company him to see for myself what happens in the Diesel Shed. I had resigned from my previous job, was waiting for results for Graduate School admissions, so I had plenty of time. On the first day, I figured out, no one cared about interns and no one even kept track of who’s who until you know the answer to any question you’re asked: “I’m the new intern”, and you’ll be passed. Whenever. Wherever.
I visited the whole week, even a few days on my friend’s behalf, and got to learn a lot about locomotives, their architecture, engines, controls, the repairs, brakes, shunting, valves and the functioning of diesel-powered locomotives. On last day, I figured out, the man who explained us the shunting, was going to demonstrate it to others and he asked for two volunteers. Since I was among the students who were actually interested in learning, he chose me and one more to be in the engine WDS 4. A Wide Diesel Shunter, class 4D that was stationed in there since the time before I was even born.
Our job was to assist, and then take lead, in starting the engine, drive a kilometre, change the rail, push three coaches back to the shed and shunt it with a passenger train. That was like living the dream. WDS engines suck diesel like anything and that engine took at least an hour to get ready. Our supervisor handled all the major communications and controls, and once ready he accepted my request to almost take a complete control, and he would just supervise. Speaking good English helps in India, I learned that day. People automatically think you’re more educated than you originally are and thus, can be trusted. When you do not have a strong regional accent, things just get easier.
Check the air compression, pressure in the hydraulic pipes, gearbox, push in the key, turn left, push up the three black knobs on left, look at the rails, watch the signal, push the two red buttons, pull the left chain to release the pressure and go. The engine started moving, 1-2-3-4-6-8 kilometres per hour. The speed limit is 15 kph. It never gets on autopilot mode, one has to keep eyes on the pressure valves, release the air pressure and keep an eye on the track. The supervisor made sure there was a smooth change of rails and bam, then happened the collision. WDS collided with the three coaches, as intended. The next part of the journey was driving in reverse. Most of the dynamics stay the same, just that there is a lot more talking that happens in the engine. We pushed the three coaches back to the shed after them being cleaned and ready to be attached to DEMU train that connects Delhi with nearby cities, the same ones that used to bring milk every morning.
That one week was quite a thrilling experience. I got to spend almost a week in the diesel shed, got to learn what all happens in a locomotive circle check, maintenance, installation and repair of tonnes heavy engines, hydraulic in railways, shunting, electric transmission in coaches, replacing the breaks, dozen other workshop tasks using bladesmithing and last but not the least, the first hand experience of shunting a train!
One might think, what stupid blog was that. What’s so special about it? There is no answer to it. I’m a dreamer. I dream of things and love to follow my heart to make them real, if possible. Seeking pleasure in these tiny things as I grow and walk on my path, is my way of life. If nothing at all, at least I can say I drove a train – whatever distance, whatever locomotive, for whatever purpose – what did you do?