Romance of Military Special

Like millions of little boys, I used to dream of becoming a railway engine driver, too. Later, the desire to become a soldier took over. God granted one wish by making me a soldier albeit a flying one. The other wish was not neglected either. I couldn’t become an engine driver but the romance of railway trains blossomed in the teens when after joining the National Defence Academy I got the taste of the Military Special. 

The obliging drivers of the Military Specials rarely turned down the request  of the young passengers to get on board their engines. Those were the days of steam engines. The sweating fireman shoving coal into the fire chamber of the locomotive would be only too glad to let the young NDA volunteers take over his arduous task. But shoving coal into the boilers wasn’t the only pleasure to derive. The thrill of dodging the watchful eyes of the officer in-charge of the Special was no less after his repeated emphasis that the engine and the guards compartment were ‘out of bounds” for us.

As we flexed our muscles painstaking­ly, toughened up by a rigorous NDA training, to prove that we could shovel coal more efficiently than his seasoned khalasi, a bonus was dished out by the driver who let us blow the engine’s shrill whistle. It tickled us no end to hear the officer in-charge commenting that the engine driver seemed to have gone berserk in blowing the train’s whistle in such prolonged spasms. The Military Special was meant only for NDA cadets from Punjab, Delhi and western UP. Because of their fewer number, cadets coming from the rest of India only got special bogies in regular trains, which was no big deal.

The duration of the Special’s halt anywhere used to be a matter of great speculation. It ran nonstop for hours and then just went into prolonged slumber at any seedy little station. While its propensity for these long halts was boring, its hurtling through fairly big stations at great speed like a big bully terrorising all and sundry thrilled us.

When the halts were too long, the storage batteries packed up, the fans stopped whirring and we meekly sweated it out. At one such halt, two of my friends found the heat too oppressive. They decided to go take a cool dip in a stream some 100 yards away while the less adventurous watched enviously. But the envy turned into great comedy when we found the apparently dead engine suddenly coming alive, blowing its horn nonchalantly and picking up speed.

We saw the two running at top speed towards the train with just a towel wrap­ped over their underwear. They found the towel restraining their speed and took off even this fig leaf. Pulling the chain to stop the train would have led to severe punishment at the hands of the officer, so we just watched them slip back. Their moneyless, ticketless, bare-bodied, 300 km long odyssey to Delhi in a normal pa­ssenger train clad in a snowhite bath towel bearing the NDA monogram deserves more detailed reporting. Maybe later.

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