Sometime last year, the HINDU reported on the canopies that still remained fresh in the city and the Constable Road in Chennai, connecting Ayanavaram to Perambur, featured in it. This road belongs to the Southern Railways. This was the road that most of us took to go to school. Looking back, I still believe, that we were gifted with such a beautiful canopy to tread through. The British presence in India has given its landscape a lot of organization and beauty. Although its oppression is that which always hogs our mind first and was what our forefathers strongly opposed, I doubt whether each of us in our school, thank the British for the organization called the Railways and the facilities that it opened up for its employees like the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School, the Railway Headquarters Hospital, the Railway Quarters, the quiet roads like the Constable Road that further led into the inner quieter roads and the beautiful canopies that adorn most of these places even today.
When I started cycling to school, sometime in my 9th standard, I had a cluster of friends. Journeys to school were mostly solitary and we would get to meet classmates only by chance, as each would eject out from our homes with such speed and try and reach the school on time for our morning assembly. But, on the contrary, the return journeys were more relaxed, pleasurable and at ease. We drove together but the sad part was that we would reach home earlier, and so we had little time to wander around, primarily because, parents would be expecting us to get back in a certain span of time, unless some other schedules that they would be aware of, came in between.
But with the cycle in our hands, we had a different freedom, in that we could choose the route we wanted to take, while going back home, be it through the Perambur bridge, the Loco Works bridge or even the Carriage Works bridge although the last one involved some arduous times. But still we knew it was worth it. Our school was very close to the Carriage Works station and there was not a single day that we did not get to see a train whiz past. The Railways was very much a part of our daily life. That was the time that the steam locomotive was getting phased out and the diesel engines were taking their place. Watching the engine was like watching a beast, in all its roaring glory and domineering stature.
Through the Perambur bridge route, Pranav and Guna were the two with whom I would get together while Anarkesh, Ilu and Jammy would be another pack. When Anarkesh was not there, Ilu and Jammy would join our pack. The batch had students whose parents were at different income levels. So this had a bearing on how the clusters were getting formed. But still a few would be so modest and unassuming with all of us. Guna would be into his tricks with the cycle, trying to drive it with his hands free. I remember an incident where he got pretty close, trailing a bus, and when the bus stopped suddenly, the sharp point of his cycle’s front rim hit the bus and made a hole there. I could not believe a cycle could do that, but it happened. No one in the bus noticed though.
With Ilu, I had a company to discuss songs and we would sing some numbers while driving. Jammy and Pranav were humourous individuals and they kept the journey alive. We also had the female folk going as clusters alongside. Suni and Heera were in one and Nimi and Vidhu were into the other. Females were beautiful and adolescence kept eating into us, but the call of duty and responsibility, always kept us awake and oblivious of romantic encounters.
While on the Loco Works route, I had the company of Kandha and Ganapathy. With Kandha, the discussion would be mostly on study strategies. This really helped me a lot. Sometimes, I would stop at Ganapathy’s house for a while before moving ahead. He would mostly be answering my random questions but I liked his company. He was the Jackie Shroff of our batch. Have a look at him today and you will be stunned that he is all bald. To experience the Carriage Works bridge route, we have many times, even carried our cycles up and down the bridge. We took this route to experience more of the quiet canopies as the other routes had regular city traffic invading into them.
Prior to this stage, I went to school by walk. I had a clear six kilometres distance up and down, to cover, and I had never felt it to be a burden anytime during those days. I think walking that distance today for me is a big thing, although I do it sometimes. Pranav, Guna, Jammy and Jogs formed the cluster of friends, with whom I spent a long time in this period, walking to school and back to home. As little boys, Guna and I have kicked stones right from school all the way on the road to our home. I am not sure what pleasure we got out of this :) Sometimes we just stood on the Carriage Works bridge, to watch the acrobatics of the monkeys that were on the cranes inside the Carriage Works workshop. Walking up and then down on this bridge gave a special feeling each time. If we spotted a train approaching from yonder, we would wait to feel the rumble as it passed under us, and then again, wait to see it disappear in the distance.
On some other days we took a deviation on our return journey and went through the Railway Headquarters Hospital and then out through a gate near the Joint Office that was the building adjacent to it. This was primarily to enjoy watching the snails around the fountain near the Cardio Thoracic Unit inside the hospital. We would sit there on the edge of the pool and get the water sprinkles all over us. Sometimes, we would go through the street where Jammy stayed on Brock Road, which is a road close to the Railway Headquarters Hospital and then head for home. This way, we would get to spend more time with him. During one of these stints on a windy day, my umbrella parted with me and landed into the Railway Canal that runs parallel to this road. I had to bid good bye to it that day and spend an hour answering questions from my mother. I miss those wonderful moments where nature literally took us in her cradle right through. Jogs was mad about cricket and we spent a lot of time on discussions regarding bowling techniques. This was the period when the West Indian team had toured India under the captaincy of the dashing cricketer Alvin Kallicharan, who was a major contributor for the West Indies during their dominating periods at the World Cup. Jogs had pictures of all the cricketers with him and I believe cricket was the major thing that inundated Jog’s mind always.
Rains brought in a different dimension as we had water puddles and huge stretches of water, all over the place on this route. Guna and I have tried pelting stones, where there were huge stretches of rain water, to see the ripples we could create with the stone skidding over the surface. I should accept that he was pretty good at it. I don’t know how much my shoes would have loved it as they constantly went through these watery times. We also spent a lot of time, watching a variety of fishes, frogs and tadpoles during these stints. But the stealthy water snakes were those who garnered our special attention.
The advent of every month end brought in another dimension. There were vendors who lined up on both sides of the roads that we took on the Carriage Works bridge route. They sold so many trinkets and food items for the Railway staff to buy with their purses that were in full cry. It was a real sight. I remember spending some real time observing the things being sold, although I never ventured for a purchase anytime. We even witnessed the snake and mongoose fight that some hosted on these days.
The whole Railway area had parts of the railway system used in some form, either as a fence or as a divider at some place or the other. And so, parts like the rails, the fish plates or the sleepers, always got registered into our minds. A few yards away from the Carriage Works workshop, Guna, Pranav and myself have stopped many times to see the gas cutting of old carriage wheels. It was fun to watch the huge wheel that stood like a rock solid metal giant, give in and fall apart finally into pieces. At that point, I never knew that the surface of the wheel had a certain profile and that a lot of engineering went into its design.