Silence on the train

A simple train-ride taken in 1972 turns into a memorable journey for Mini Krishnan

humour

I am a hundred kilometers and nearly half a century away from this incident, but the recent conflict and war-cries triggered the memory of what happened in the year of the second Indo-Pak conflict (1972) when I was travelling between my home town Bengaluru and the University of Delhi where I was studying.

My friend and fellow student, Brinda, whose parents were stationed in Coimbatore, joined me on the train which would take us to Madras Central where we were booked to board the Grand Trunk Express.

As was the case in those days, clutching our 10 cm/4 cm tickets (printed on cardboard which no traveller would recognise today), we scanned the lists of names stuck outside the second-class sleeper bogies. As we settled our boxes and water bottles, we noticed at least a hundred young Air Force men boarding the same train. Every one of them walked past our enclosure. To our dismay, we found that we were the only girls in that entire bogey.

“They are headed to the Air Force Centre in Agra,” said Brinda, as we talked in low voices about what we feared might happen between India and Pakistan. Would the war escalate? As it is we had been told to paste dark brown paper on the widows of our hostel rooms so that no light would escape at night to guide enemy aircraft. Those were times when no digitised long-distance missile attack was possible. “Blackouts” protected populations from attacks at night.

To come back to two young women who were travelling in growing discomfort. Forty-odd years ago, young men were much more restrained than they are today, but there was still a certain tension as they smirked and asked us our names. We ignored all of them and wondered how we would manage the 1,500 km that lay ahead. As the train roared along, we hoped we would get some strongwilled and older travelling companions in the women’s section where we were rattling about alone.

At Jollarpettai, the train stopped. We couldn’t step down to buy anything because the doorway was jammed by the men in uniform. We could hardly wave anyone down through the window of the compartment because many of them were hanging about there as well, too close for comfort.

Quite suddenly, a hush fell on all the fighter pilots or whatever they were. Some sort of murmur ran through the bogey followed by a marked alteration in the atmosphere. Someone signalled to the group lounging at our window and they melted away. One of the gentlemen approached us politely with fruit and a query, “Do you need drinking water?” In those days, there was no such thing as bottled water. We either carried ‘supplies’ for two days or refilled at stations at a tap marked ‘Drinking water here’.

We gaped at his respectful manner and transformation. What had brought about this profound change? 

As we declined the offer of fruit, the young man asked Brinda, “Are you from Coimbatore?” Brinda said she was, and suddenly realisation dawned.

Some of the airmen had stepped out to check our names (Brinda Srihari and Mini Menon) at the station of departure and realised that Brinda’s father was their ultimate boss: Air Vice Marshal Victor Srihari.

Thus were we saved by a name!

The rest of the two-day journey was heaven because we were waited on hand and foot till we reached Delhi.

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