I was upset about having forgotten to get a few snaps taken with the DRM the previous day. As luck would have it, he happened along during the course of his morning walk and I got the opportunity to lighten my conscience, before setting off from Raipur.
Bilaspur is where I spent some of my best time in the Railways. It is more than 22 years since I left the Division and I never had an opportunity to return over the past two decades. Therefore, keen to get as much time in Bilaspur as possible, I decided on a 0630 start. I was apprehensive about the 110 km drive to Bilaspur on the NH200, with the NH6 experience still fresh and sore! The two lane highway was decent and I made good progress. I stopped at Nandghat for breakfast – feasted on hot samosas with potato purrie, freshly made juicy jalebees and spice tea for Rs. 25; Wah, the taste still lingers!
The first stop in Bilaspur was the Railway Station. The room of the Station Manager was full of inspectors, awaiting the arrival of the DRM, Bilaspur. I did not recognize any of them, but when I introduced myself to them some of them did recollect working with a Suresh Joseph who was fitter and had a fairer complexion! A tea and some snaps later I left on a tour of the railway colony. The first stop was the Narmada RH, where we were put up for a few weeks prior to the allotment of a house. Without any help to shop and cook, Beena had a torrid time – often lunch was cooked after I came back from office and took charge of Maya, which was close to 3 pm. In Bilaspur the working hours were long; the day ended after ensuring the interchange of trains at Jharsuguda with Chakradarpur Division at midnight. Not having worked in a heavy Division and suddenly being pitchforked into a crucial role of Divisional Operating Superintendent (DOS), Main Line, I had to literally burn the midnight oil to learn and perform at the same time. It is in such times that mentors play a crucial part. Lalit Lal as the Senior DOS was a super boss and the controllers and other support staff ensured that my learning curve was steep. For a few weeks Lalit Lal and I were neighbors in the RH – Sunday afternoons were reserved for Rum and Fish Fry.
The next visit was to the house were we lived for nearly 18 months. Achachan and Ammachi visited us a couple of times during our stay there. In fact, Ammachi travelled on the maiden journey of the new Trivandrum-Bilaspur service. Their visits were more to spend time with their favorite grandchild rather than to be with their son and his wife! On their last visit to Bilaspur they extended the stay as Maya fell ill and despite the attention of the best doctors in Bilaspur she did not recover fully. They were so concerned that they took Maya with them and pronounced that she would now grow up with them. Ammachi said that we could have another child if we wanted to remain in Bilaspur! How does one argue with parents such as these? In a few months from then I got a transfer back to Southern Railway to reclaim our daughter. I was mighty disappointed today to see that the house in which we had lived was knocked down to make way for a new house (I made a mention of it to the GM, when I met him later) – ironically, the bhoomi puja was done today.
The Bharat Matha School and the Sacred Heart Church were just a few houses down the road from where we lived. The Church has been spruced up and a few more structures have come up, but otherwise it all looked the same. I dropped by and met Fr. Babu Thomas at the gate from who I enquired about Fr. Johnny, who was like family to us. Surprise, surprise – he is the PrincipaI of the Hindi section. I found him trying to settle some plumbing issues in his inimitable rendition of the National language. Pleasantries out of the way, we decided to meet in the evening, which later got confirmed as a supper meeting in the priests’ residence.
The visit to the Control Office was an emotional trip down memory lane. The entire office looked different and modern as compared to what we had then. One of my most outstanding controllers, S. Adhikary, is now the Assistant Operations Manager; and many others had progressed well in their careers. With the help of Adhikary I met Varadarajan, another outstanding controller of my times and a diehard cricketer. Even at the age of 78 I found him fit and active. He had come to my help one late night in 1987 when I suffered spasms due to kidney stone. Even though he was on duty and the Control Office jeep was out of commission he came on his scooter and took me to the Railway Hospital. Such affection and help enrich the journey of one’s life. Kusumlata, a stalwart in the critical demurrage section, was beside herself with astonishment. She later came to the RH with two other colleagues with who I had worked and spent reminiscing about the old times and people and the challenges posed by the formation of the new Railway. They got me apples to have on the way as I could not find time to partake of a meal with them.
I had requested the GM to give me a testimonial of the visit. He got it done stylishly with the picture of the SECR HQ in the background – this building should surely rank as one of the best Zonal HQ on the Indian Railways and it is maintained well unlike many others. The Chief Operations Manager, Ajay Shukla, was the next target. He is an acclaimed writer in Hindi, besides being an accomplished railwayman. One of his plays, Taj Ka Tender, has been translated into many languages and has been staged all over the country and in many parts of the world. The Chief Freight Transportation Manager, CR Swain, had facilitated all the logistics in Raipur, Bilaspur and Ambikapur (for the 23rd). I met him and conveyed my gratitude.
I kept the appointed supper meeting in the priests’ residence and met with Fr. John Punnore, the parish priest, and Fr. Felix, who has many Hindi devotional albums to his credit. We were joined by Frs Babu and Johnny. The supper was preceded by an exchange of views about Kerala, the Church and such other subjects. Supper consisted of Soup, Chappati, Rice, Dal, ‘Achinga’, Fish, Chicken and Pickle. The preparations were super and I ate considerably more than what I should. Ripe bananas rounded up the meal. While leaving Fr. John gave me one of his books to read on the way – I have promised to complete the book in less than a year, because that is how proficient I am with Malayalam!