Backseat drivers, Wagnerian sounds, rossogolla bribes, bungalow peons, heart palpitations, magical clotheslines, galloping engines, secret handshakes, big dogs & Bihar.
Travels with My Father
M y father was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things for ordinary people. He had a short fuse and a huge heart—and a penchant for the dramatic. In the family, we called him Bapi, but everybody else called him Shanti-da. Shanti was his real name, and in Bengali culture, folks added a “da” to show respect for an older person. He lived large, chain-smoked, enjoyed good food and could crack a green coconut with his bare fist.
I was a brat as a child and was always up to mischief, some of it bordering on the outrageous, and was a twenty-four seven menace to my mother. She was tolerant—mostly—but for particularly egregious acts would “report” me to my father when he returned from work. My father was an old-fashioned disciplinarian. The rod and my rear end became good friends and renewed their friendship on many occasions. In later life, when he became annoying to all of us (as aging fathers are wont to do) and engaged, among other annoying things, in backseat driving of the worst kind whenever someone drove the family car, I was the only one he spared from that torture. When I drove with the family through the congested streets of Calcutta, he would sit quietly next to me in the car. He once told me, “When you drive, I have complete confidence in your ability. I am at peace.” I’ll never forget that compliment, and it made up for all the beatings I received from him years ago in our sprawling bungalow in the wilds of Bihar state.
Our language is inadequate to capture the joy and terror of that sound.
He retired as an operations manager in the Indian Railways, having worked his way up from an entry-level apprentice to the ranks of middle management. He was responsible for the movement of goods trains in a section of the Eastern Railway and travelled throughout the system touring and inspecting operations activity spanning dozens of stations.
We were stationed for a while in the town of Sahibganj in the Santal Parganas region of Bihar. He was a big dog there. His immediate staff and others in the chain of command, stretching through several stations from Sahibganj to Bhagalpur (the Sahibganj loop) adored him, mostly because he never behaved like a big dog, more comfortable, rather, in sitting around with the workers, smoking cigarettes with them and downing endless cups of tea. He was one of them, and they loved him for it. I have lost count of the number of people he found jobs for in the Railway organization, from office clerks to office peons and bungalow peons. (Yes, the Railways actually had funding for a few of those who came to our home—their “office”—and fulfilled various duties.)
In those days, the Railways ran almost entirely on steam. Electric and diesel engines came many years later. The great steam engines grew into my soul and featured in all my dreams. I knew them all. There were the small engines that shunted wagon cars and switched them around the tracks, patiently creating payloads of forty or fifty cars that they would haul to the loading areas to be packed with commerce of all kinds—coal, cement, lumber, produce and, occasionally, even cows and goats…
And then there were the big engines, massive monsters of iron and steel that would thunder through our local station (which was too small to qualify as a stop) hauling the express trains carrying passengers coming from a faraway place and going to a faraway place. Every time I saw one of these engines galloping across the land, my heart rate would rise, and I would feel an adrenaline rush unlike any I know. The model WG engine, someone had explained to me, hauled really heavy loads, mostly goods, with almost a hundred four-wheeled cars in one payload. The WG’s whistle, however, sounded a bit wussy to my ears: Koooooook. The WG payloads did not get up to very high speeds.
The model WP, on the other hand, was something else. It embodied every ounce of romance I associated with the Railways. With its blunt nose and massive wheels almost twice the height of an average man, there was an aura of menace that shrouded it. It was used exclusively to haul passenger express trains. Many a time, while wandering around the local station, I would see one of these hulking behemoths approaching from a distance as it rounded a bend in the tracks, shimmering in the heat haze, gently swaying from side to side, scaring a hundred birds into flight from a clump of trees as it roared past… And as it approached, I could hear the heart-throbbing sound of the engine, that mind-blowing, out-of-body trembling Wagnerian sound: chagga-chagga chagga-chagga chagga-chagga. Approaching a station where the train wouldn’t stop, the engine driver, as both a courtesy and a warning, would sound his whistle. And the WP whistle was a spectacular musical offering, perfectly aligned with the massive hulk whence it emanated: Vreeeep. Our language is inadequate to capture the joy and terror of that sound. Darther than Vader. And the driver would sound the whistle for several seconds and keep it going until the train cleared the station, and I would marvel at how the tonal pitch of the whistle changed as the train approached, flew through the station and disappeared into the gathering twilight—Vreeeeeee-EEEEE-eeeeeeeeeeeeep—goading the Doppler effect into one of its finest performances. How I longed to get close to one of those WPs.
He lived large, chain-smoked, enjoyed good food and could crack a green coconut with his bare fist.
My father would often take me on some of his work tours. I’m not sure he particularly wanted to. It was more of a requirement imposed by my mother, just to get me out of her hair. But it was the best thing that could have happened to a child of seven years old. Those trips with my father stoked my imagination and made me read the world in miraculous ways. For these trips, the Railways provided my father with a private four-wheeled carriage, a saloon car outfitted with a work area, a couple of bunk beds, a bathroom, a kitchen and a back area for his cook and other assistants. It was always connected to the end of a goods train or slow passenger train so that it could be de-coupled at any station where my father needed to spend a day or two. The rear of the car had a huge bay window, and since it was always the last car, you could look at the terrain falling away as the train moved. It was like being in a time machine that allowed you to see the past even as you were moving into the future. If my father needed to stay at a particular station stop, one of those small shunting engines would sneak up behind the carriage, haul it into a siding and reconnect it, a couple of days later, to another train and on to the next stop.
I recall a trip where my father’s saloon car was attached to a slow local passenger train. It was the middle of the night, and, as usual, I was sitting at a window with my nose sticking out, taking in the air heavy with the soot coming from the engine smoke, my hair and face gritty from the exposure. I wanted to get glimpses of the engine as it labored around curves, and the soot-filled air and the rush of wind with tiny coal particles in my face seemed like a small price to pay to experience the engine, in Emily Dickinson’s unforgettable phrase, “lap the miles and lick the valleys up.”
Suddenly, the train slowed dramatically and came to a grinding, screeching halt. It was puzzling, since there wasn’t a station in sight or a red signal. My father looked concerned.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Not sure,” he said as he stood up, getting ready to step out of the train to check out what was going on.
Then we heard the train whistle: woo woo wooooooo. And again, plaintive, mournful: woo woo woooooo. It sounded like a coded message.
Only my father could swing a deal like that: an illegal miracle.
“Ah, that’s it,” my father said.
“You hear that whistle? Two short, one long, repeating itself? That means someone has activated the emergency alarm in one of the passenger coaches, which automatically dumps the brakes on all the wheels of the train. It’s an emergency,” he said as he climbed down the steps into the night.
“Where are you going?” I asked, terrified that the train would start again and leave him behind.
“I need to check things out. Besides, all the folks running the train are my people, and some passenger who activated the alarm may need help.”
It turned out a passenger had experienced heart palpitations, panicked and activated the alarm. Fortunately, they found a doctor on the train, who examined the passenger and declared he was fine. My father stepped back in, the engine driver sounded the whistle—a long, clean wooooooooo—and we were off again.
In later years, whenever a train I was on stopped suddenly for no apparent reason, I would listen for that whistle—two short and one long, repeating—and know something others didn’t. It felt like a secret handshake.
Doug Perry and the WP Footplate
On a family vacation, we took the Howrah-Delhi-Kalka mail on our way to Shimla. The Howrah-Delhi-Kalka mail was code named “1 Up,” like a flight number in air travel; on its way back, it was called “2 Down.” It was one of the premier trains in the Indian Railways. Our train was due for an engine and crew change at Dhanbad, about a quarter of the way to Delhi. When we arrived in Dhanbad, Bapi turned to me and asked,
“Do you want to say hello to Doug Perry?”
“Who’s Doug Perry?” I asked.
“He’s the new engine driver taking over from here.”
“What kind of engine?” I asked.
“It’s a WP.”
Oh, my God, I thought. I would finally see one of those blunt-nosed engines up close. My heart started pounding.
My father was an old-fashioned disciplinarian. The rod and my rear end became good friends and renewed their friendship on many occasions.
Doug Perry used to drive passenger trains on the Sahibganj Loop when my father was the big dog there. He was one of the top drivers in the organization, and Bapi had recommended him for a big promotion so he could drive the high-speed mail trains. As we walked up to the front of the train, I saw the WP engine, which had just been hitched on, a massive hundred-ton hulk of iron and steel, black smoke emanating from its chimney, wisps of white steam around it, like some monstrous animal about to be unleashed. On the footplate—similar to a cockpit; the driver and his crew operate the engine from there—stood a short, stocky man in heavy dungarees and a blue cap with ER (Eastern Railway) embroidered on it, wiping his greasy hands on a wad of jute.
“Hey, Perry, you son of a gun!” Bapi yelled. Perry was an Anglo-Indian, and my father had a special bond with him.
Perry was not expecting Bapi to show up like this. As soon as he realized who it was, he started jumping up and down animatedly. He slid down the metal steps from the footplate, ran up to Bapi and gave him a big hug.
“Shanti-da! Wow, what a surprise. Are you on my train?”
“Yes!” Bapi said. They were clearly delighted to see each other.
“And who’s this?” Perry asked, turning to me.
“My son. I wanted him to meet the crack driver of the Eastern Railway!”
“Hey, Junior,” Perry said. “Wanna come up to the footplate and look around?”
Oh, boy, did I ever! My wildest fantasy was coming true!
With its blunt nose and massive wheels almost twice the height of an average man, there was an aura of menace that shrouded it.
It was an absolute wonderland. Doug Perry explained all the mysteries of the pipes and gauges, delighted that a wild-eyed kid had finally realized what all kids dream about.
These engines have two parts. The front part comprises the firebox, the boiler above it and various gauges showing steam pressure, firebox temperature and boiler water levels, among other things. Mounted on the sides of this section, toward the front, outside, are two massive cylinders with a piston in each that connects to a crankshaft mounted onto the three huge drive wheels on each side. High-pressure steam is piped into the cylinders to move the pistons back and forth, with intake and exit valves that open and close in rapid motion to power the pistons, activating the crankshaft to move the wheels to propel the engine forward. On the front panel inside the footplate, there is a hinged hatch, much like a doggy door, through which coal is shoveled into the firebox. Mounted at the center of the panel was a long iron rod that stuck out like a tree branch. That was the throttle regulator. It had several settings, much like the gear shaft in an automobile, except in this case it controlled the amount of steam that flowed through the long pipes to the cylinders. From Bapi’s saloon car on my trips with him, I had observed from a distance many an engine driver on the footplate of an engine give that regulator handle an upward push, opening the throttle and starting the chain reaction that got the wheels moving. And that act created a magical sound as the steam with built-up pressure was given an opening to race its way to the cylinders outside.
The second part of the engine is a separate container on wheels, called a tender, which carries the coal used to feed the firebox. When I got up on the footplate, the fireman was already busy feeding the firebox. I was struck by his dance-like movement, going back and forth on a 180-degree plane, taking a shovelful of coal from the tender and dumping it into the hatch. A couple of other assistants were monitoring the gauges to ensure optimal conditions for the long journey that was about to begin.
“Any questions, Junior?” Perry asked.
“Yes. Where’s the whistle?”
“Ah, I knew you’d ask.”
On the footplate—similar to a cockpit; the driver and his crew operate the engine from there—stood a short, stocky man in heavy dungarees and a blue cap with ER (Eastern Railway) embroidered on it, wiping his greasy hands on a wad of jute.
He pointed to a long cable strung laterally across, side to side, just above head height, like a clothesline. I kept staring at it in awe.
“You want to see how it works?”
He grabbed me and hoisted me up and I gave the clothesline a quick yank, sending some high-pressure steam to the whistle mounted atop the engine.
There, I had done it! I had activated the famous WP whistle. You could have killed me right then and I would have died happy.
Then it was time to go. We said goodbye to Perry and headed back to our compartment. As we thundered across the miles that night, sleeping and waking through the stops and listening to the tea vendors walking along the train at every stop (“Chai garam…garam chai”), I imagined Perry yanking on that magical clothesline, supremely envious of him, jealous that it wasn’t me who was doing it. I decided then that I wanted to be an engine driver when I grew up.
On another trip with my father in his saloon car attached to a passenger train, we realized we were running twenty minutes late. The train’s destination was Sahibganj, our home base. It was ten stops away. I was ten years old at the time. At one of the stops, my father got off the train and made a phone call from the stationmaster’s office. Then he asked one of the station staffers to run up to the engine and convey a message to the driver. All of this went like clockwork. He knew all these people, and they worshipped him, not because he was a god, but rather because he was someone just like them, only with god-like abilities.
“What is going on?” I asked him as the train left that station.
“Well,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “I sent a message to the driver that if he could get into Sahibganj on time, there would be a reward of a huge bowl of rossogollas waiting for him. I phoned one of my guys in Sahibganj to buy the rossogollas and stand at the spot where the engine would come to a stop—and hand them to the driver with my compliments for a job well done.”
A totally random act of drama—and appreciation. Also totally unnecessary. So what if the train was twenty minutes late? Happens all the time. But my father knew how to motivate the troops, and he wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to have some fun. He must have known it would work.
The great steam engines grew into my soul and featured in all my dreams. I knew them all.
“What if the driver can’t make up the lost time?” I asked.
“Oh, he will. I know this stretch well, all the stops and signals. His best opportunity is the ten-mile uninterrupted stretch between Mirjachowki and Sahibganj, where he can really open up the throttle.” A good operations manager knows these things, I guessed. (Years later, while driving with my father in Calcutta after he was long retired, I turned the car into a particular street, and he said, “Hey, this is Lansdowne Road. Watch out for the manholes. There’s nine of them over the next two miles.”)
“Besides,” he continued, “I know the driver well. His name is Shankar Bhowmick. He’s a Bengali with a wife and six children. Bengalis will do anything for rossogollas. Heh, heh—I ordered a large amount so he can take some home for the family.”
The train pulled into Sahibganj two minutes early! Shankar Bhowmick stepped off the footplate and was greeted by a staffer holding the bowl of promised sweets. Shankar waited for my father to walk up from way back of the train and thanked him.
It was almost as if his heart was breaking up in pieces at the thought of those glorious beasts being consigned to the scrap yard.
“But Shanti-da, what was the need to do this?” he said. “I had enough time and distance to get in on time anyway.”
And my father said, “Shankar, you are one of my finest drivers on the Sahibganj loop. You make us proud. I wanted to make sure your spotless record remained spotless. Here, I’ll take one of the rossogollas myself, but you make sure you take them home and enjoy them with your family.”
The passengers filing past had no idea what was going on—the driver with a bowl of sweets in his hands, the small cluster of Railway staffers, a Railway officer smiling triumphantly as he lit another cigarette. But the small group of Railwaymen knew. It was just another example of an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing for another ordinary man. No other officer of the Indian Railways would dream of engineering such an event. And they all loved him for it.
Time passed. My father completed his assignments as a field operations manager and was promoted to a senior position at Eastern Railway Headquarters at Fairlie Place in Calcutta. It was the late sixties, and the transition from steam to diesel and electric engines was well underway. He did not go on field tours in a special saloon car anymore.
An Unscheduled Stop in Liluah
This train will stop in Liluah,” the fellow said through the train-compartment window at Burdawan station, some fifty miles away on the way to the Howrah train terminal.
It was almost 11 p.m., and the Barauni Express, with my older sister and me aboard returning from a weekend with college friends in Shantiniketan, was running late. Our plan was to get to Howrah and catch a local train to Liluah, one stop back, where we lived. The Barauni Express did not stop in Liluah. It would be too late for us to catch the last local of the day, and we would be stranded.
Of course, unbeknownst to us, Bapi was tracking our progress. He had already devised a plan to get us home and was making phone calls to activate the plan.
As our train pulled into Burdawan, I heard a man walking along the platform, stopping at every compartment:
“Is there anybody called Nikhil Banerjee here?”
“Yes?” I said, with some trepidation.
The man came up close and, through the window, in a hushed tone, said,
“This train will stop in Liluah. Please get off when it does.”
“But this train is not supposed to stop there,” I said.
“This train will stop in Liluah,” he repeated. This time his voice was almost conspiratorial. Then he vanished.
He was specter thin with spindly legs and arms, and I had heard rumors that he drank upwards of seventeen cups of tea per day.
It took only a second for my sister and I to realize what had happened. Bapi had waved his magic wand and a small, probably borderline illegal miracle would happen. Only my father could swing a deal like that: an illegal miracle.
I stuck my head out of the window and looked ahead in the direction the train was headed. I had no idea how the engine driver would know to stop in Liluah. There are many stations between Burdawan and Howrah, and the Barauni Express typically flew through all of them straight to Howrah. I watched as the train picked up speed. After about an hour, we were only four stops away from Howrah, and there were no signs the train was slowing down in order to make the message from the mystery man come true. I remember my heart sinking as the train seemed to gather speed. I knew the sequence of the last few stations: Uttarpara, Bally, Belur, Liluah, Howrah Terminal. We flew through Uttarpara, Bally and Belur. The train maintained its speed. My heart sank further. I kept looking out through the window toward the front of the train. All the signals along the way were green. I could hear the triumphant chagga-chagga-chagga sound floating back from the engine. Almost home, it seemed to say. Then, as the train approached Liluah, I saw the green signal at the far end of Liluah station flicker and turn red. Holy shit! I thought. The driver has to stop now. We stepped off the train as it pulled in, and we noticed several others, no doubt in the same predicament as ours, jump off as well, grateful for this random intervention by God. I wished they knew that God was my dad!
As we disembarked, Bapi, who had come to the station to greet us, approached, along with an entourage of six people, including Santosh Ray, the stationmaster. Ray-da was a loyalist; he may have owed his job to my father. He was specter thin with spindly legs and arms, and I had heard rumors that he drank upwards of seventeen cups of tea per day. (I don’t think he ever ate anything.) He was Bapi’s go-to guy who could solve problems, no matter how difficult.
It was like being in a time machine that allowed you to see the past even as you were moving into the future.
On our walk back to our home, a short distance away, I asked Bapi how he had managed to engineer the signal change to stop the train.
“No problem,” he said. “Mr. Ray phoned the control center that managed the signals. He probably called in a favor. The folks at the control center created a ‘glitch’ that needed to be taken care of at the appropriate time. A byproduct of the event was the Liluah signal had to be changed from green to red for a few seconds to ensure the train could proceed safely.”
Yeah, right, I thought with a smile.
The End of an Era
But all good things come to an end. Soon these steam engines would be gone; some would be preserved as heritage objects in museums or for special excursions, but most of them were dispatched to junkyards to be auctioned off as scrap.
I think parts of my father’s soul began to vanish with these steam engines. He retired from the Railways around the same time the great steam engines were being decommissioned. It was almost as if his heart was breaking up in pieces at the thought of those glorious beasts being consigned to the scrap yard.
But the small group of Railwaymen knew. It was just another example of an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing for another ordinary man.
He died of a sudden heart attack, a few years after retirement, at our ancestral home outside Calcutta. I recall that night clearly. I was living in Chicago, now with a family of my own, and when my younger sister called with the news, I went through a hallucinatory moment; memories of my childhood trips with my father, the coal dust in my hair, the hot smell of steam from the engine wafting back toward me as I peered through the train window trying to catch one more glimpse of the engine screaming its way into the night, came flooding back. I imagined the news of my father’ passing—the end of an era—spreading through the Sahibganj loop where Bapi had spent a large part of his career, from the guards to the trolley men to the maintenance workers and the stationmasters and finally to all the engines and their drivers, the shunters to the WGs and finally the grand WPs. It was probably the middle of the night when the drivers, through some mysterious messaging among themselves, all through the network, from Bhagalpur to Shakrikali Ghat, all the way to Sahibganj, decided to pay one last tribute to their beloved Shanti-da.
Their boss, mentor, advocate, friend was gone. It was an emergency. And in unison all of them sounded their engine whistles. Woo woo wooooooooo. Woo woo woooooo. Plaintive, mournful. On and on, into the night.
Two short and one long.
Nikhilesh Banerjee is a former English professor who obtained his PhD from the University of Maryland. He then reinvented himself and became a banker after attending business school at the University of Virginia. He has held senior-management positions in banking over three decades at brands such as Bank of America, Charles Schwab and Wells Fargo. In his free time, he reads (voraciously), plays golf (poorly) and cooks gourmet dishes on weekends (to the delight of his friends). He has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly thirty years and is currently based in the Berkeley Hills. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Neelkamal Deka