When I was in New Delhi’s rail museum, I was told about a steam locomotive. ‘It is the world’s oldest commercially working steam engine’, said the guide. Curious, I googled to find out more.
‘What? It costs a bomb to go in a steam locomotive?’, I laughed in shock. I mean, I knew it was expensive but I had failed to realise just how much it could be.
Back, when I was a little girl, steam locomotives, chugged in and out of our village all the time. It was the only means that connected us to the grand cities. I still remember the days when mom dressed us up in not-so-good clothes and led us to the train station — because, travelling in trains, back then, meant, getting covered in soot!
Ours was the only village that boasted of a train station and two passenger trains stopped there for ten whole minutes while many other diesel trains chugged on by.
I still remember the times we spent waiting for the train at our railway station. The station master, would walk in slowly and we would all queue up near the little window of his office to buy our tickets.
The station master, on the other side of the window, would give us each a small rectangular ticket printed in a small piece of cardboard, after punching in the date. After this would start the long wait for the train. Sitting on the small square benches along the pillars of the tin-roofed station, we would watch the wagons stationed on the tracks and wonder how the engine driver managed to keep the trains on the tracks and not let it slip off onto the ground.
The most magical moment was of course to catch the first glimpse of the train. The black engine with a huge cloud of smoke always enthralled us. The engine usually had a huge star or a big red dot in the middle of its face. Once inside the train, we would wait for the thrilling ‘toot toot’ sound and then settle near the window to watch the trees and fields rush past. Many times, we would peer through the window panes and end up with coal dust in our eyes. The train would chug along slowly and stop at quaint little stations. It was in these stations that we shopped for roasted peanuts wrapped in paper cones and watch the engine top up its coal or water. What is most surprising is that, I don’t remember any of us complaining about long hours spent on those journeys. We simply took in the motions well in our stride.
When I was in high school, our village got its first diesel engine stop — and we all began to travel by this train though it was expensive. Our travel time was reduced as it skipped many stations in between. Besides, it was cleaner and less noisy. The steam engine would stop, wait and then leave, but with fewer passengers. Over time, I stopped seeing those steam locomotives.
Today, as I take in the news of the only steam engine, I cannot help laugh at the irony — the once cheap and only way of travel, now comes at a premium. I was laughed at for being covered in soot but, today, it is a rich man’s prerogative. I have travelled dozens of times for a few rupees, and today, it is a luxury. Yet, when I think about it, I have a longing — yes, the magic never fails. I still would like that train ride just to listen to it chugging along. That dream train would stop in all those little stations from where I would buy roasted peanuts in paper cones and watch the engine top up its coal and water. And, that would be one hell of a trip down memory track.