In 1951, my parents had moved from Madras to Kandla in Gujarat leaving me behind at Loyola College. Since my father worked for the Railways, I was entitled to a First Class pass.
Sixty years ago, to travel from Madras to Kandla, one had to first reach Bombay by train, change stations for Viramgam, and change to yet another train for Navlakhi, a small station on the west coast of Saurashtra. I could barely manage my Hindi, let alone Marathi and Gujarati.
Leaving Madras at around 8 pm, I observed my co-passenger, an orthodox Iyengar gentleman of about 60 years, looking at me closely. I had ordered a vegetarian dinner from the railway caterers, Spencer’s.
As my meal arrived, Iyengar asked me my name. “Had you ordered from the Indian Railways catering service, you could have had sambar rice and curd rice, instead of this bread, butter and omelette.” I explained that my railway pass entitled me to a substantial discount with Spencer’s. He smiled, hopefully in understanding.
We arrived at Victoria Terminus and I headed towards Bombay Central. After sprucing myself up, I boarded the train to Viramgam. Chugging into Viramgam, I switched to another train for Navlakhi. But as luck would have it, I had to get off at Wankaner to board a ‘through bogey’ at some station after Viramgam. But at Wankaner, an intimidating and large-proportioned woman entered the compartment, picked up my trunk and hold-all and ran down the train.
Shaken, I struggled to catch up, saw her put my luggage on a berth in another bogey and turn around. The next moment, I was hauled up. Flashing a big, toothy grin, she stretched out her hand for money. Dazed, as I had never seen women porters before, I paid her. At about 7 am on Day 3, I was in Navlakhi, where a horde of very tall men entered the bogey, picked up my luggage and raced down to a ferry.
Once again I panicked; heaving a sigh of relief only when they returned and hauled me up on to the top deck of the waiting ferry — and then asked for payment. I must say that the women porters of Wankaner and Arab-looking porters of Navlakhi were all scrupulously honest.
Over three hours later, I finally reached Kandla, all in one piece.