The railways and the army have a pan-India presence. The latter heavily dependent on the former for moving its personnel and equipment both during war and peace and the former for the substantial revenue it earns in the bargain. Both have a profile and a culture that spells unity in diversity.
The other day, while viewing a photo exhibition, 'From Earth to Sky', a virtual train journey from Kalka to Shimla, I was reminded of my first train journey before joining the forces followed by the exciting experiences with the Indian Railways while serving the army.
As a newly commissioned officer travelling to join his regiment for the first time, I was proudly dressed in uniform and carrying the trademark box and bedding. I was seen off at the Ambala station by my parents. Thinking the train would wait for me, I was in for a rude shock, for we were 10 minutes late. I approached the railway office for help. The station superintendent politely offered to book me in the following train the next morning. My joining the regiment late was unacceptable for obvious reasons. Realising the gravity of the situation, the superintendent got on his phone to ascertain the location of the train. He gave out some instructions on the heavy-duty instrument, a virtual Graham Bell original, and turned towards me, "Lieutenant saab, if you can catch the train at the next station in half an hour, we will be pleased to have you on board."
My commanding officer was a stickler for punctuality, so the timely favour by the railways that day laid a strong bedrock of our lasting relationship.
During one of our permanent moves from one station to another, I was the officer in-charge of the special train allotted to the regiment to ferry our tanks, vehicles, equipment, soldiers and their families. The journey, though overnight, was to be covered in more than two days since such routine moves are not accorded a priority over mail and express trains. I was woken up by the night sentry, "Saab, Sowar Rampal's wife who is in the family way is experiencing labour pains."
We were in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, I got through to the driver on our improvised 'one to one' phone and shared the dilemma with him. He stopped the train at the next lay bye and asked me to despatch a man to the next station by bus or any other means to garner medical help. Meanwhile, the driver chugged along and made an unscheduled stop at the next non-descript station. This was enough to ease the lady of a smiling baby boy, who was thereafter named Lunkaransar Singh, after his place of birth.
Once, proceeding on a course to Ahmadnagar, our alma mater, we were unable to load my new motorcycle in the luggage van. I was advised to approach the luggage office fellow along with a bottled gift (considered to have the power and charisma of a dollar) to do the needful. When we alighted at our destination the next day, I was surprised to find my black beauty parked on the platform and the local luggage office fellow waiting to hand it over to me in return for a similar gift. I wondered if this was sheer professionalism or the power of the bottle. The bike had arrived by superfast, while I had travelled by a mail train. Long live the bonhomie between these two lifelines of the nation.