On Guard!
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 chest.
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 his cross-belt!



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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