Idly riffling through a popular Kerala weekly, with its pages dedicated to the long-running Vivek Express bridging the south to the North East, brought in memories of a childhood spent in defence cantonments and unique train travel.
The year was 1970. My brother Sunil and I could hardly rein in our excitement at the prospects of a move to Panagar, a tiny little but very strategically placed cantonment where my father, then a young captain in the 27 Air Defence Regiment, was posted. Daddy was posted in NEFA (North East Frontier Area) during the late sixties which being a non-family station, we were ensconced safely in good old Kozhikode (where I write from now).
Tearful goodbyes were bid from doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, favourite cousins and the neighbour’s Tabby and of course the red rooster next door, both of whom incredulously cuddled together in Valiyamma’s cosy bed during wet rainy nights! My boisterous little cousin Nannu and I took it upon ourselves to bid goodbye to the lovely little rented house we stayed in Nadakkavu by pencilling our feelings and left touching messages all over the walls for the next tenant to read.
The stay in Panagar was short-lived. The air was pregnant with talk of an imminent war and we children often eavesdropped on adult conversation to gather details. Finally, when it was certain that the battle lines would have to be drawn, “we” got our marching orders. The entire regiment had to move to Ludhiana, not a cantonment then (or now for that matter) but at least we could stay in the city. Daddy pointed out Ludhiana in his much-thumbed Oxford Atlas, which was to be our next home and made us read how industrialised it was, how gutsy and hardworking the enterprising Punjabis were, about the Khalsa, about Lala and Bhagat Singh.
That, he felt, was enough for a fertile seven-year-old brain.
Most of the officers, soldiers, tanks and weaponry moved with the greatest skill and stealth in the army special train. The families moved under great protection and with camaraderie in the chilling winter of December 1970 from West Bengal to Punjab. We journeyed for nine days.
The special train comprised first-class bogies for the families, camouflaged wagons carrying defence gear and vehicles, a medical aid coach, a doctor, a pantry and dining car which incidentally also had rows and rows of books from the regimental library and tables for a game of rummy for the women. The officer in command of the special train made rounds to check on everybody’s welfare and also told us ahead of interesting stations en route where the train would halt for us to buy local trinkets from hawkers. Of course, none of them could venture in! Years later when I came across the Napoleon’s quote, “The army marches on its belly”, images of the appetising army train menus complete with garam garam pakodas, nuts and French fries to snack on, filled my mind.
Train journeys are not just unbeatably romantic and idyllic, they are also the best way to soak in the local countryside, interact with co-passengers besides being a fine geography teacher. Being responsive and thoughtful to the needs of strangers are lessons in life, making us a little wiser than we were when we boarded the train.