Unfinished Story – A Quick Bite – Part 1
A QUICK BITE
SHORT STORY By VIKRAM KARVE
Circa – 1970’s
A QUICK BITE
IGATPURI RAILWAY STATION
The Punjab Mail started from Bombay VT (now called Mumbai CSMT) at 4:30 PM in the evening – one hour later – after a brief halt at Kalyan Junction – the train turned on the North East Main Line – stopped at Kasara for attachment of banker locomotives – to help push the train up the steep gradient of the Kasara Ghat (Thal Ghat) – and – around 7:30 PM – the Punjab Mail approached Igatpuri Railway Station – the locomotive changeover station from Electric to Diesel Locomotive.
In the 1970’s – there were two mail trains from Bombay (Mumbai) to New Delhi – the Frontier Mail on the Western Railway Route via Surat Baroda (Vadodara) Ratlam and Kota – and – the Punjab Mail on the Central Railway Route via Bhusaval Itarsi Jhansi and Agra – and – of course – the Superfast Rajdhani Express was introduced in 1972 – but – we were not entitled to travel by AC First Class Sleeper in Rajdhani – and – the Chair Car was quite uncomfortable – so – we preferred the Frontier Mail which started at around 7 PM from Bombay Central or the Punjab Mail which started at 4:30 PM from Bombay VT.
It seems both trains have been speeded up and the Punjab Mail now starts at around 8 PM from Bombay VT (Mumbai CSMT).
Also - in the 1970’s – only very senior officers were entitled air travel – so – most of us travelled by train – both on duty and while proceeding on leave.
I was told in the morning that I required to go to Naval Headquarters for some urgent work – and – I would have preferred to travel by the Frontier Mail – but it was absolutely full – and the MCO managed a first-class berth for me on the Punjab Mail.
As the Punjab Mail approached Igatpuri – the Train Conductor (TC) advised me to have a quick dinner at the refreshment room at Igatpuri Railway Station – since – there was no dinner halt later.
The train would halt for over 20 minutes for detaching the banker engines at the rear and for main locomotive changeover from Electric Traction to Diesel Traction.
At Igatpuri – the Electric Locomotive would be detached and a Diesel Locomotive would be attached which would haul the Punjab Mail till Jhansi – from where – a Steam Locomotive would haul the train to Delhi.
The TC said he could get a “thali” served in the compartment – but it would be much better to have a fresh hot biryani at the refreshment room – which would be very near where our first-class bogie would halt.
Punjab Mail didn’t have a restaurant car – so food had to brought from railway refreshment rooms at the meal halts – whereas the Frontier Mail had a lovely restaurant car – where you could sit and dine in comfort while watching the scenery.
The train halted – the refreshment room was right in front of me – the non-veg section to the left – and – the vegetarian section to the right.
I entered the non-veg section – bought a token for mutton biryani – picked up a plate of piping hot mutton biryani – and – I looked for a place to sit in the crowded refreshment room – all tables were occupied.
I spotted a vacant chair.
There was a couple sitting on a table for four – the man and woman sat opposite each other – and – there was a vacant chair on the side.
I recognized the man – he was a Naval Officer.
Though I didn’t know him well – I had seen him on a sister ship of our frigate squadron – and I knew that his name was “Khanna” – and – I assumed that he was a few years senior to me.
I walked towards their table.
“Sir – may I sit on the vacant chair…?” I asked Khanna.
Khanna looked up at me – and smiled at me.
He seemed to have recognized me.
“Oh – Hi – you are on Nilgiri – aren’t you…?” he said to me.
“Yes, Sir…” I said to him.
“Come. Come. Sit down and join us…” he said in a friendly voice.
I sat down on the vacant chair – with Khanna to my left – and the woman to my right.
I smiled at the woman.
“Good Evening, Ma’am…” I greeted her.
The woman smiled at me – a sweet, warm, genuine smile.
“This Biryani is really good…” the woman said.
Khanna was so engrossed in eating his Biryani that he forgot to introduce me to the lady – presumably his wife.
So – I decided to introduce myself to her.
“Hello Mrs. Khanna – I am Vikram…” I said to her politely.
The woman laughed – a vivacious laugh.
“I am not Mrs. Khanna…” she said, “I am Mrs. Puri…”
“Oh …” I said to her, taken aback.
I was confused and non-plussed.
From their friendly and intimate demeanor – they seemed husband and wife.
I felt contrite – and – I apologized for my faux pas.
“I am so sorry – you were sitting together – so – I thought you were husband and wife…” I said to both of them.
“It’s okay…” Khanna said to me, “we are both “non-veg” – so we are eating together over here in the non-vegetarian refreshment room – my wife and her husband are both vegetarians – so – they are eating a vegetarian meal in the vegetarian refreshment room next door…”
“Oh – a “food-swap”…!!!” I blurted out – imprudently – without thinking.
“Food-Swap…?” Khanna looked at me – questioningly.
“Sir – I meant you are non-veg – your wife is vegetarian – and – for Mrs. Puri – it is opposite – so…” I was explaining – when Khanna interrupted me.
“Okay – okay – you don’t have to spell it out…” Khanna said to me, “there is no “swap” going on over here – it’s just a matter of convenience – they have two separate refreshment rooms – you don’t get vegetarian food over here – so – the vegetarians have gone to the vegetarian refreshment room – that’s all…”
I regretted using the word “swap” – it gave a wrong connotation – and – I felt contrite.
“I am very sorry – it was very indiscreet of me…” I said to both of them.
“Come on – it’s okay – now – let’s finish our Biryani – before our train starts…” Mrs. Puri said to me.
I focused on my Biryani.
Lieutenant Khanna and Mrs. Puri were finishing their Biryani.
A waiter announced:
“Punjab Mail Passengers – Please Finish Quickly – Your Train will leave in 5 minutes…”
I quickly finished my Biryani.
Lieutenant Khanna got up from his seat.
“Let’s go…” he said to us.
We walked outside onto the platform.
We saw a couple coming out of the Vegetarian Refreshment Room.
I rightly guessed that they were the “Vegetarian Couple” Lieutenant Puri and Mrs. Khanna.
Both of them – the “Vegetarian Couple” Lieutenant Puri and Mrs. Khanna - they seemed rather serious types – whereas – the “Non-Vegetarian” couple I had dined with – Lieutenant Khanna and Mrs. Puri - they were more friendly and cheerful – in fact – I liked Mrs. Puri a lot – she was quite bubbly and talkative.
My coach was right in front of where we were standing.
“This is my bogie…” I said to them, “are you in the same bogie…?”
“No – we are in the one ahead…” Lieutenant Khanna said to me, “okay – Bye – see you in Bombay after a month when we return from leave…”
(Mumbai was known as Bombay in the 1970’s)
I smiled at the vivacious Mrs. Puri with whom I had shared a table in the Refreshment Room – eating Biryani.
She gave me a vivacious smile.
Her husband – the serious type Lieutenant Puri – he seemed to be observing us – and – seeing his rather disapproving look – I started walking towards my coach – and – I saw them walking ahead to the First Class Coach ahead.
A few minutes later – the guard blew his whistle – the engine blew its horn – and – the Punjab Mail started its journey to its next halt – Devlali (Deolali).
The train was not vestibuled – so – I did not meet the two couples for the rest of the journey to New Delhi.
story to be continued in part 2
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