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Highlights In The Shadows: 11 - By Rail To Calcutta

“We left our house in Fourth Avenue in a horse drawn gharry well before dawn. I sat up on the seat next to the old driver much to my sister's annoyance, as she was made to stay inside the carriage with her Ayah, Asa Bathi, and Mum and Dad…’’

Owen Clement, in the latest episode of his life story, vividly recalls the sights, sounds and smells experienced on a day trip to Calcutta. To read earlier chapters of Owen’s book click on Highlights In The Shadows in the menu on this page.

Now that the Bengal Nagpur Railway School in Kharagpur was the only other alternative for both Gloria and me, my parents decided to bring forward their long-proposed emigration from India.

Their considered destinations at that time were South Africa, Canada, Australia and Britain. Northern Rhodesia and Kenya, their first choices, were rejected because of the similar racial problems to India. Canada was not in the running at that time. My mother rejected Australia out of hand as she had once met two Australian missionary families and considered their behaviour crass and uncouth. That left Britain where four of my father’s sisters Beata, Catherine, Eva and Enid had already migrated.

My father, with over twenty years experience with the Bengal Nagpur Railway, believed that he stood a good chance of finding suitable employment in England.

After consulting this matter with his father, Dad booked our passages on the SS California scheduled to sail in March that same year from Bombay.

I have a strong nostalgic memory of our day trip to Calcutta in early January for the rest of the family to outfit themselves for the colder conditions (I had my boarding school clothes). My parents also had to organize our British-Indian passports and complete our travel arrangements with Thomas Cook's travel agency.

We left our house in Fourth Avenue in a horse drawn gharry well before dawn. I sat up on the seat next to the old driver much to my sister's annoyance, as she was made to stay inside the carriage with her Ayah, Asa Bathi, and Mum and Dad.

Second Avenue was virtually deserted with all but a very few houses along the way in darkness. The only sounds were the steel-rimmed wooden wheels and the clip clop of the old horse's hooves on the empty metal road.

The atmosphere at the platform at Kharagpur station was in direct contrast to what we had just experienced as we heard the clanging of carriages being shuttled into place, the occasional whoosh of steam, the strident hawker’s cries and the clamour of fellow travellers. There were the gorgeous sights of a rich merchant with his entourage, Moslem women wearing chuddars and pitiful self-maimed beggars.

Pompous railway station staff bustled among shrouded sleeping bodies indistinguishable from their bedrolls and bundles. I also saw uniformed school students on their way to boarding schools being fussed over by parents. There were servicemen and women in their prickly woollen kit rubbing shoulders with cliques of baboos (clerks) with their unfurled black umbrellas, the unofficial badge of their calling.

The most evocative for me were the aromas of spicy food, heady perfumes, cigarette and hand-rolled Biri smoke and most importantly the oily sooty smell of the panting steel monster up ahead who asserted his majestic pomposity with the occasional stentorian toot. Most transport objects are allotted female names; the steam engine with its thrusting pumping pistons and levers is all-male; a 'Colonel Blimp' puffing on his cigar while reflecting on the state of the world. The steam engine may have lost some of his puff these days, but it has not lost any of his importance for past achievements. The hawkers wandered through the crowd calling out "Chai garam Chai, Paan Biri Cigarette, Chunna Wallah, and Mittai. India's traditional sweetmeats of Rasaghoolas, Gulab Jamooms, Jalabees, Ludoos, Hulva and Bhurfi were displayed in glass covered cases on wheels. These images are just as vivid to me today.

I had wanted to go and see our friend Mr. Mead, the driver of the huge locomotive. "You stay right here young man,’’ my mother said grabbing my hand. My father nodded his agreement. My resistance soon evaporated, when I saw the beggars and other sinister looking characters lurking in the shadows. The sun had still not risen.

After climbing into our Second Class carriage, Gloria and I immediately knelt on the leather seat placing our forearms on the gritty windowsill where we could safely watch the passing spectacle.

The distance between Kharagpur and Calcutta is only seventy-two miles however the sooty grimy journey lasted over four hours. I did not find the trip boring, as I have always loved people-watching, particularly if they were unaware of being watched. I saw farmers ploughing their rice paddies, villagers daubing the mud-walled houses with cow-dung slurry, fellow travellers on bullock carts, bicycles and the occasional motor vehicle on the trunk road running alongside the track. The most fascinating of all for me were the railway platforms. Anyone who has travelled in India will agree that railway stations are a microcosm of India itself. The train finally pulled into Howrah’s huge soot-soiled glass domed building with the echoing sounds of banging doors, tooting and wheezing engines, conductors whistles and people, hoards of people. For me it is an unforgettable cacophony and symphony of sound.

We bathed and freshened up in a rest room of the magnificent Victorian designed station before taking a taxi over the congested Bally Bridge into Calcutta.

Our first stop was internationally renowned Firpo's Italian restaurant and patisserie on Chowringhee Road. I believe that Mogg cooks staffed it. Chefs from France had originally trained these Indian men in the early years of French colonization. When the French left India after the collapse of their colony in South India, these resourceful Indian cooks adapted the French recipes using local ingredients and became an elite class of their own. I believe that their Petit Fours, Pistachio, Walnut and Chocolate cakes and other specialties were still being flown to England to fill out orders a number of years after the Second World War had ended. Kharagpur's own Mogg cook, whose name I have forgotten, travelled around the town with a battered black tin trunk tied to the back of his rickety bicycle delivering his delicious orders for birthdays or other parties for as long as I can remember.

After wandering all day around the shops, Thomas Cook's booking agency and government offices in Calcutta, hot and weary we boarded the six-thirty Madras Mail train for another long gritty and filthy trip home.


© Clement 2006


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