Bob Muir

Bob Muir's Page

 January 27 2012 

We are pleased to have this story of a trip by train in the early sixties taken by Bob Muir who now relates it for our benefit-thanks Bob

An Assamese Rail Journey

It might have been 1962 or 1963 when I was working in the Aviation Section of the Marketing department of Burmah Oil Trading Limited in Digboi that I found myself visiting the town of Silchar in Assam.

As the Aviation Engineer and assistant to Patrick O'Connor Byrne, with whom I shared alternately the monthly tours of inspection of our small up-country airfields which served the State of Assam, I  occasionally went on trips travelling overland in one of the Department's green Hindustan Ambassador cars, with the driver which took in visits to those airfields where the Company had aircraft fuelling facilities such as Chabua, Mohanbari, Gauhati, Silchar and Agartala; each of these forenamed were places respectively becoming, geographically more remote from the comforts of Digboi.

Not every one of those were visited every month and for this trip I was driving to Chabua, Mohanbari and Gauhati by car then flying over to the more distant Silchar for my final airfield inspection before then completing the tour by air to Calcutta and back to Digboi.

Inspection check lists were long and went into detail in matters covering: aviation fuel quality control procedures and their records, mechanical items on the product dispensing equipment, transfer pumps etc., down to smartness of dress of the staff. Each page of the report had several carbon copies and every page had to be signed and countersigned by the visiting Inspector and the local Superintendant in charge. It was all very thorough as it had to be for illustrating the maintenance of stringent quality standards as required by the service.

For the tour one tried to plan strategic overnight stops at various Dak Bungalows. These places were Government sponsored and had been set up in the days of the Raj for such as visiting District Commissioners going on their rounds. Any person could use them by booking their seat (the traditional name for a room). An evening meal was sometimes provided and we relied on the Company agents to pre-book. I do not remember hot water on tap for ablutions although a galvanized bucket of clear cold water was always provided. One drawback for civilians using the facility of a Government Bungalow was that they had no priority and if a Government officer turned up before 6pm he had that priority, and I had on one occasion been displaced at the very last minute by a Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Luckily on that occasion the Agent's home had a spare room with a palliasse on the floor.

In between the overnight stops I found that railway stations were about the best places where one could get in daytime a reasonably palatable meal even if it were only an omelette swimming in hot ghee.

Silchar Club was very much more secure than the Dak Bungalow if one wanted to stay overnight although my plan this time was to arrive, inspect the Silchar airfield, (named Khumbirgram) during daytime and fly on to Calcutta the same day. The benefit of this was that one was able to stay overnight in the vastly more comfortable Calcutta Oberoi Grand Hotel which promised a hot bath, good restaurant meal and comfortable bed before catching the morning flight back to Mohanbari for return to Digboi.

On this occasion it was Thursday before I reached Silchar by air from Gauhati having dispensed with my driver therei. I completed the routine inspection at Khumbergram then proceeded to await the arrival of the Indian Airlines flight from Dum Dum, Calcutta. The airport building at Khumbergram was a simple brick structure with the air traffic control unit situated on the first floor which gave good views of the airstrip and surrounding tea garden estates. It was accessed by an outside steel staircase, all typical of a service aerodrome and probably a left-over from wartime operations in that area.

Our Aviation Superintendant naturally maintained a good relationship with the Airport staff and through that I was allowed to sit upstairs in the control office awaiting my flight and could overhear the conversation with pilots. It was at this point when I became aware that due to monsoon bad weather my flight was diverting to Agartala and would then return directly to Calcutta and the Silchar passengers were to be left to their own devices. A quick decision was made to contact our Agent who arranged to obtain a rail ticket and speedily transfer me to the railway station down in Silchar town where by good fortune I was just in time to board the last train out that Thursday afternoon.

Silchar Station was a rail terminus on a branch line which meanders westward alongside the route of the Barak River for about twelve miles until it reaches a junction at Badarpurghat. There the main rail direction turns northward rising up into the Cachar Hills through a valley following the Jatinga River north of the Barail Range and all the time climbing towards the hill town of Haflong although cleverly managing to stay below the 1,000 feet elevation and thereafter crossing the range to descend into the Brahmaputra Valley and down into Lumding.

My train compartment was most luxurious even for the first class ticket in my pocket. The compartment was not in the usual rectangular shape of the conventional railway compartment but was long as it was wide that is, a square room, spacious with two large L-shaped green leather corner couchettes built into hardwood fixings and placed diagonally opposite each other. The compartment doors were also placed diagonally opposite each other and all this exclusively for my use. Here I was in a Raja's compartment. Night fell and I was asleep on one of the couchettes well before Haflong was reached. It was still Thursday.

I awoke the next morning without feeling hungry despite the fact that I'd only eaten breakfast the day before. The train was still pulling along through the hills with a beautiful jungle vista outside the window. At one point during the day we passed a single grave set a few feet from the track side; a simple mound of earth with a cross signifying a lonely Christian burial in the middle of the Assam hills. What was the story?

It was now Friday and almost mid-day by the time we pulled into Lumding station. We had made it with less than an hour to spare before the Calcutta to Tinsukia train came in. The station was packed with people and it was clear that my ticket would not continue to provide the exclusive travel luxury which it had produced in the sector just completed.

The train when it arrived was already seriously overcrowded and a search over the length of all the carriages indicated that if I wanted to join I would have to climb on the roof and that was a bridge too far. What use was a first class ticket now? Then I saw the guard halfway along the station platform; not that it took much effort to identify such an imposing tall figure as he presented, resplendent in a spotlessly white uniform combined with black leather belt and bandolier burnished like patent leather and that set off with polished silver buckle and badge. Apart from the uniform he was a big man, over six feet in his socks I'd guess and his handsome face with his full moustache would have given him an ability to bring pride to any military regiment as their RSM. How did he keep his gear all so smart and clean?

In desperation I approached him holding up my fist in which openly displayed were my first class ticket, married to a more discrete but visible showing of ten rupee note. I told him it was imperative that I get a seat.

As much as I was anxious, he was the epitome of cool. Disregarding my bribe he said the best he could do until the next station was allow me to use a carriage reserved for railway employees and he led me forward, opened a door and made some space by ordering the inmates to squeeze up which allowed me to press onto the bench seat of wooden laths which extended the width of the carriage. I thought back to the recently enjoyed green leather couchettes of the Silchar train but reminded myself this was better than being up on the roof or standing on the Lumding platform watching a train depart without knowledge of when the next one would arrive, perhaps a day later. It was mid-day, Friday.

At least I had a window seat with my back to the engine; a window without glass but nevertheless it had the benefit that it was to windward which gave me fresh air while the exhaled smoke from my erstwhile fellow travellers' bidi's (local cigarettes) drifted out at the leeward side.

We pulled slowly out of Lumding and I had time now to think about things. Firstly I resolved that if the guard returned as promised at the next stop I would honour my debt and give him the ten rupee note which he had spurned. Second, I recalled the recent newspaper report only two weeks previously when a group of armed Nagas had picked off three or four unfortunate rail passengers somewhere between Lumding and Dimapur. My contemplation continued with the concerning realisation that the next stop was Dimapur!

Despite such distracting ponderings I now became aware of a fresh sensation - as happens when the stomach gets in direct communication with the brain. I hadn't eaten a meal for well over 24 hours, and I hadn't used a toilet for just as long, so what would I do if needs arose? Here I was with a chance to spend time considering ‘existence', ‘space and time'. ‘cause and effect' but instead metaphysics took a back seat to the need to prove the truth of the old saying: ‘Mind over matter'.

My next destination was a town called Tinsukia just over a hundred miles distant where it would be necessary again to change trains as the track thereafter was still on the old metre gauge. Slowly we went along, sometimes it seemed at walking pace; perfect for such as any discumfited Naga looking for a bit of target practice. Fortunately nothing happened, so possibly they had used up their annual defence budget.

Station after station passed without the guard's reappearance; obviously he was on a good railway salary which allowed him to forsake my measly 10 rupee offer. Dimapur, Borajan, Naojan, Golaghat, Mariani, Nazira, Namrup were passed without incident and finally we crawled into Tinsukia at sometime around midnight. For the first time in about the twelve hours that had elapsed since the Lumding departure I risked movement to rise, release the corrugations which had set into my frame from the corresponding seat laths and detach myself from the adjacent fellow passenger. Stiffly I clambered out of the train.

Tinsukia station at that time of night was a dormitory and with some care I picked my way forward trying to avoid standing on snoring bodies. It was now into Saturday and I had left Silchar station on Thursday. There was no need to hurry now because the connecting train to Ledo did not leave until nearly one in the morning.

When I eventually boarded the Ledo train the seat I found was even more basic than the Lumding to Tinsukia express (which had averaged about 9mph). The seat was constructed of plywood about the same dimension as a tea chest fixed to both the floor and bulkhead visibly by nails. This was even further from the high standard enjoyed at the start of this rail journey and although the Lumding - Tinsukia train's lathed seating was not exactly wonderful there had been an attempt to shape the seat to the contours of the human outline. Now for this final stage of the journey one had to try to ensure that the bit of box one sat on bore only pan marks which had matured sufficiently to have dried into the wood so that they would not transfer stains onto clothing.

At approximately 2:15 am the train pulled into Digboi station and I disembarked. As I walked from the station a light refreshing shower of rain began. No umbrella but what did that matter, I was merely a ten minute walk from my bungalow and could use my grip popped on top of my head as cover against the weather. Had there been witnesses about they might have taken this bearded vagrant for an itinerant box wallah with insomnia. As it was I had just completed a minor travel adventure involving an interesting railway journey through Assam which would have been missed if I had got that flight to Calcutta.

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