By Shoaib Hashmi
It could only happen here, and
to us! A hapless minister of the state was unable
to preside over a meeting he himself had called
because... he had no clothes! His hotel room caught
fire and all his clothes were burnt to a cinder,
and new ones had to be brought from his home town
of Faisalabad or whatever, and I have spent a sleepless
night thinking about the minister sitting around
with a borrowed towel round his midriff freezing
his butt off.
Meanwhile the other gentleman who is supposed to
travel every day between Lahore and India, 'Guarding'
the Samjhota Express, has not had his visa renewed
and the train has been running around without a
'Guard'. I am a leftover from the Railway Age and
I had further visions of this poor little lonely
driver running all the way to the back of the train
to wave his green flag and blow his whistle, then
run forward to blow the train whistle and start
the train, then wave his red flag...
Getting a train going was a whole ritual, see, and
the Guard was the kingpin. Actually all public transport
used to have two people to run it then, buses had
'conductors' and trucks had 'cleanders' and trains
had a 'guard'. I seem to recall he was always very
smart and impressive in his starched white uniform
in summer and black serge in winter, with a peaked
cap and a Sam-Brown crossbelt swathed across his
He had a shiny whistle on a shiny chain round his
neck, and a pair of small flags, one red one green,
which at night were exchanged for an oil lantern
with red and green filters, and he had this peculiar
shaped caboose right at the end of the train. We
always wondered what he did in that caboose, sitting
all by himself, writing his name on the wall!
We wondered about other things also. Like for instance
that the driver was at the front where he could
see the signals himself, so why did the he need
clearance from the Guard at the back? Maybe the
Guard made sure there were no freebooters hanging
on to the back of the train! For it was part of
train culture to try to sneak a ride on a train
without paying for it. It was called 'Withaut' as
in, "Pssssst, he is traveling 'withaut'!"
I suppose the 'Guard' was there to check any kind
of skulduggery on his train. Each compartment had,
high up on the wall, this little red contraption
which was an emergency brake signal. If you ever
needed to stop a train in the middle of nowhere
for some reason, you pulled the handle and the guard
got the signal and the train stopped. We never tried
it because the only legend on the thing was, "Penalty
for improper use Rs: 50".
That was a good deterrent when the train business
started, and fifty rupees was a princely sum. For
some time now it has been chicken feed, and we were
surprised that they had not bothered to change it.
The story is that they have not changed the sum
due to nostalgia but they have changed the rules.
Now if you pull the chain without reason, you still
have to pay only fifty -- then they get you to push
the train to the next station!
It just struck me that all the time I have been
writing, the image in my mind has been -- a steam
train! Somehow a steam engine with its myriads of
exposed moving parts had a romance which a cold
blooded sleek bloody diesel electric cannot match.
And the nice thing is that in all the world, the
one great railway system that still cherishes its
steam engines is the Indian. So maybe I was right
and the guard too had his impeccable uniform and