Boarding School Boy
(In the Days of the Raj)
*Please refer to the Glossary of Terms in the back of these sample pages for the meaning of Indian/Anglo-Indian words and colloquialisms that appear in italics throughout the text.
A shaft of brilliant sunlight streamed through the clouds and splashed against the white-robed figure standing on a rock, legs spread for balance, erect in posture, face lifted toward the sun, one arm extended to the side holding a massive staff about shoulder-high, the bottom end of which was firmly planted on a crevice in the rock for balance. The figure blazed brightly in the dark valley, dense with jungle but for the rocky clearing in which he stood. He posed still so long in this patient tableau that, from a distance, he looked like some ancient druid performing a pagan ritual. After several minutes he reached into his robe, pulled out an object, consulted it, and put it away. Then placing another object, which hung in a lanyard around his neck, into his mouth, he blew three long whistle blasts in three different directions, as though he were summoning the denizens of the jungle to emerge and worship at his feet. The shouts that erupted from either side of the valley corrected that notion and revealed that the blasts were the signal that action of some sort was now to commence.
The white-robed figure was Father Patrick, and, like that ancient druid, his life was indeed dedicated to his religious beliefs. He was a man content with his station, and his confidence showed in every action, every gesture he made. He took a seat on a nearby rock and reached down to massage the neck of his dark, chocolate-brown puppy, who frolicked at his feet. His contentment rose from the firm knowledge that his life was dedicated to, and spent in the pursuit of, a worthwhile goal. He loved what he was doing, knew he was good at it, and furthermore it was what God had called on him to do. The occasional doubts about his vocation that had begun to nag at him this year in weak moments he manfully crushed, refusing to let them get a foothold. Yes, he could still look someone in the eye and say his faith was strong.
“Bang Lenny!” The high-pitched voice of a young boy rang out in the valley. Lenny Middleton, caught in midstride as he dashed across a clearing from the shelter of the karouda bushes to the hoped-for safety of a rocky outcrop, stopped in chagrin. Disappointed, Lenny began his slow trudge down the hill, but soon, unable to contain his ebullient, youthful spirits, he picked up momentum, leaping from rock to rock, sliding on the loose gravel of the hillside, continuing his headlong descent with abandon toward the white-robed figure in the rocky clearing in the valley.
Silence enveloped the jungle once again, and the sound of humans was not to be heard in this pristine setting in the Aravalli range of Rajasthan. The silence was broken again a few minutes later when “Bang Ranji!” rang out. This time it was unaccompanied by a following echo, the other side of the valley not being favored with cliffs, the terrain more gently sloping and densely covered with jungle. Ranjit Singh, scion of a long line of legendary warrior princes, was not about to give up so easily.
“Where am I?” he challenged, his voice echoing off the cliffs and filling the valley below.
“In the mango tree,” came the voice of Trevor Post as he quickly scuttled from the rocky vantage point that Lenny had been trying to reach before. That position was no good to him now that he had revealed his location.
“Bang Trevor!” immediately rang out—the same voice that had shot Lenny. The owner of the voice had obviously set himself up to cover access to that favorite sniping position on the rocky outcrop.
More “Bangs” and names followed at varying intervals, and the group of casualties began to grow as the boys who were shot returned to home base and the white-robed class master at the bottom of the hill.
The boys of the sixth standard at St. Augustine’s were playing Bang Bang.
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While these conventional engagements of the game were being enacted, four other protagonists were practicing a more dramatic and personalized version.
The “Hare” scurried with quick darts and leaps behind rock and bush, pausing to listen with cocked ear and glance with darting eye for sound or motion that would betray his pursuers. Flight, escape, was especially thrilling to the primitive animal in him. He reveled in the thought of evading danger, to know that the only things that separated him from instant calamity were his speed, his cunning, his elusiveness, and his awareness. The Hare almost never got shot. All his sensory perceptions were on high alert. He knew his pursuers were behind him—one silently following him on the uphill side; the left. The other, soundlessly, methodically tracking him on the downhill side; the right. He knew from past experience that Hunter, the more dangerous of his pursuers, was the one on the downhill side, because eventually the Hare must come down to him. And Hunter had enough confidence in his own ability to make up for the downhill disadvantage. Best to lead them uphill to the left and dispose of Hardy first—that’s what he and Montagu had planned at the outset.
“Pfrrt! Pfrrt!” He uttered his signal silently and, behind the leafy cover of the jungle, scurried higher up the hill. He could hear Hardy change course to the left. He had to stay out of their sight, because, by their rules, if they caught sight of him he was considered shot. Whereas for him to catch sight of them was no advantage; since he was the quarry, he could not shoot. His job was to lure them past his partner, Montagu, who was waiting in ambush. Though he couldn’t see or hear Hunter, he knew Hunter would track his call to the left.
On his next change of direction, the Hare had to get to the outside of Hardy and make a call that only Hardy would hear. This he did. “Pfrrt! Pfrrt!” he called softly. Hardy turned sharply left to follow, straining through the undergrowth to catch a glimpse of the Hare, who seemed to have got quite a distance from him. Hardy followed swiftly, checking for danger all around him, but as he glided past a large Flame of the Forest tree he heard Montagu whisper in his ear, “Bang Hardy!”
Montagu stepped out from behind the tree, and the Hare returned down the path grinning, his ginger hair slicked down and his rodentlike face alight with glee. His wasn’t the satisfaction of pulling the trigger; his was the pleasure of entrapment, the thrill of evasion. He had achieved both. Now for Hunter!
“Stay here,” they whispered to Hardy. Hardy, being a good sport, did so.
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Hunter had paused in the jungle below. There were no sounds from where he knew his quarry and partner were. Only a few peals of laughter, an occasional shout from his classmates as they horsed around in the valley, penetrated the jungle. Hunter knew nobody had gone down past him. The Hare had to come that way to get to home base. The Hare could always skirt all the way around the valley without mishap and get home safely, which would have constituted a modest win. But the Hare was not interested in safety. Hunter knew he loved danger, the thrill of being chased without getting caught and that he would deliberately seek out and engage Hunter. Moreover, to really win, the Hare had to lure Hunter into an ambush by Montagu. All Hunter’s jungle instincts told him to wait. He considered climbing a tree, but decided that it would be too noisy, and he would attract Montagu and get himself shot. So he waited in a thicket of karounda bushes. His patience was rewarded. Soon he heard a rustling in the jungle—just enough for it to be his partner Hardy. The rustling moved off to the right, out of sight. Follow? Or wait?
“Pfrrt!” Hunter heard it clearly. The Hare was looking for him. He hadn’t heard any “shots” and there were no other noises. Hunter’s ears were very keen. He could always hear Hardy even though Hardy was a reasonably silent mover. Hunter concluded that they must have got Hardy— the Hare was too good to let both Hardy and Hunter lose him. He must have lured Hardy into a trap and was now searching for Hunter—“The hunter hunted,” he thought with a wry smile. He decided to follow. Getting into the karounda thicket was not such a good idea after all because he had to rustle the bushes to get out, and the Hare heard him. The chase was on again. Both proceeded slightly toward home base for a few minutes—traversing the hillside, steadily descending. Soon the Hare abandoned all pretense at silence, which took Hunter by surprise until he realized that the Hare was racing to cross the stream several hundred feet ahead, at which point he would have no cover, and therefore needed to cross it before Hunter could get close enough to catch sight of him when he was exposed. Hunter gave chase. Both boys went crashing through the jungle without regard to silence. It was now a footrace. The Hare was fast, but Hunter was no slouch, either.
Hunter knew he had to sight the Hare as he leaped from rock to rock across the stream before he reached the cover of the jungle on the other side. He also knew that he himself would be exposed when he crossed the stream, which was where Montagu was probably waiting in ambush. Onward the two boys raced, unmindful of the bushes lashing against them as they ran along the narrow path. A few more seconds and the Hare would reach the stream. It was a toss-up whether or not the Hare would skip across before Hunter himself could get in the clear. The rustling ahead of him stopped. The Hare must be crossing the streambed. Hunter had to catch sight of him in the next five seconds. He raced on.
“Bang Hunter!” came Montagu’s triumphant voice from the tree just above his head. They hadn’t waited for him to get to the stream. The Hare had led him right past Montagu in the cover of the jungle. It was a clever ruse. The Hare had thought just one step ahead of him and had won again. That was the most dangerous part about the Hare—you didn’t think of him as being able to inflict harm on you directly, yet he was able to lead you so insidiously into a trap.
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The Hare materialized seconds later.
“Pfrrt! Pfrrt! Pfrrt!” he squealed in triumph, each pfrrt getting louder and higher and higher-pitched than the last. He had not begun to cross the stream at all; he had not even taken the chance of exposing himself—he had stopped short, still in jungle cover, confident that they would get their man, yet holding back the option to try another tactic should something go awry.
The grinning Montagu descended from the tree and thumped his partner heartily on the back. The sweating Hare tried to keep the smugness from his face, but Hunter could not help but sense that there was some subtle nuance to the Hare’s satisfaction; he was too innocent to brand it with the relish of a primitive animal lust, which in his inner gut Hunter felt it was. But this was his friend, and they were all thirteen years old—too innocent for sinister conjecture.
“Well done, lads,” Hunter conceded generously, already forgetting his disappointment at being outwitted by his best and oldest friend, John McInnis, the boy they all called Hare, with whom he had first come to St. Augustine’s four years ago.
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It was the Hare who had invented this variation of Bang Bang. They had often chosen random partners among the four of them when they first started playing the game, but they seemed to have reached a unanimous, wordless understanding that the teams they had just used worked best and provided the most excitement for all of them. Each one seemed to be a natural at the role he had just played.
The Hare had his father’s fair coloring and ginger hair, combined with his mother’s sharp features and slight build. His role was made just for him; he seemed to live it, to transform himself into an animal in flight, but with a special dimension of cunning, which, in addition to effecting his escape, would also result in disaster for his pursuer. Even his physical characteristics, his movements, his mannerisms, were that of a hare. Actually, his nickname had not derived from this game; rather, he seemed to have unconsciously invented this game to bring out those characteristics to their best advantage. Curiously, he seemed to revel in the sobriquet “Hare,” and, oddly enough, when people called him that, they did not think of a timid, frightened animal. The image that came to mind was of someone quick, sharp, bright, alert; and, rather than timid, someone even dangerous, because this hare’s hunters often became his victims.
Hunter could no more play the hare than the Hare could play the hunter. He was an animal of a different sort—a carnivore. Even at this early age he had the loping body of a large species of cat and moved like one. His exceptionally large eyes were set directed forward like that of a predator. The unexpected contrast of colors between his deep-blue eyes and his golden-brown complexion created an attention-getting effect. Still and poised in his carriage, well-muscled of limb even at this early age, Colin Hunter was trained to be a hunter by the best trainer of all, their class master, Father Patrick, and he took to the role like a natural. It was pure circumstance that his true name was Hunter, but that name could not have been more aptly bestowed. There was a dignity to his bearing that belied his position in life, and all his classmates had long forgotten his true station at their institution.
All the other boys were known by both their Christian and surnames and were addressed by either. But Hunter was always just “Hunter”—always, to everybody. Few outside his inner circle and some of his classmates even knew that his first name was Colin. Even fewer knew that he was a ward of the school and that his parents had abandoned him since they first enrolled him there four years ago. He did not go home for the holidays like the other boys, since he had no home to go to; he just stayed on at the school. This predicament would inevitably affect his character in both a good and a bad way, creating an imbalance that might not show up on the surface. His schoolmates, young and old, respected and even admired him in the way that all schoolboys respect and yearn to be the gifted athlete, never suspecting the dark background that lurked behind that admirable outer crust and the debilitating torments that raged within his soul. There was always a sense of aloneness, an aura of fatalism about him—that forces beyond his control shaped his life—and the sinister possibility that those lives that touched his could be caught in the crossfire.
What of Trevor Montagu, the Hare’s partner in the game of Bang Bang? He, too, seemed well suited to his role. His Norman heritage manifested itself in his fair, peaches-and-cream complexion, blond hair, and movie-star good looks. Born to privilege and position, rather than real wealth, his was the heritage of those who always had others to do the grunt work for them. It wasn’t that he consciously chose his role as the ambusher who waited in safety and then popped off his unwary opponents after his partner had taken all the risk to lure them into the trap. It was just that he wore the mantle so easily and naturally accepted—and was granted—an equal share in their team’s victory that one was tempted to concede that there might be some truth to the myth that luck was passed down through the genes. Like many of the British colonials in high government office, his father was a talented second son of the British gentry. Many of these second and third sons inherited very little of the family’s wealth because of the British practice of primogeniture, which channeled almost all the family’s inheritance to the eldest son. Instead, they were given the benefits of a first-class English public school education, an upbringing among the powerful and privileged ruling classes, and, most important, the family name. Then they were turned out into the world to make their fortune on their own. Many of them found their way, like Montagu’s father, into high office, power and position in the British possessions around the globe, and served with great distinction in the management of His Majesty’s empire. That Trevor Montagu attended St. Augustine’s instead of Eton, like his father before him, was credit to the changing attitude of his father after many years in the colonies had given him an appreciation, tolerance, and even a grudging respect for ways of life other than that of the English. Having sent his son to Eton for four years, the elder Montagu just felt that the stuffy, uppity atmosphere of Eton was not right for the boy if he was going to spend his life in the colonies, and he brought him to India instead. Trevor took to St. Augustine’s with the ease and grace with which he adapted to any setting. Despite these advantages, however, there was an aura, a demeanor about him, that warned others to stay well clear of him because he thought he was better than they.
Brian Hardy, Hunter’s friend, like Montagu, was new to St. Augustine’s. Good-natured, intelligent, and friendly, Hardy was proud and grateful to be associated with the popular Hunter. Hunter in turn enjoyed the happy, uncritical nature of Brian Hardy. Hardy had many advantages that Hunter would have liked to have for himself—a balanced family life, the love and joy that Hardy’s mother and many sisters had for him. Brian was the only son in a family with two girls, and they and their mother all doted on him. This, instead of turning him into a spoiled brat just brought out a naturally expressed affection of his own that he lavished unashamedly on them. The whole family talked a lot, and the one time that they had all visited St. Augustine’s during the Easter holidays, Hardy had shyly invited Hunter to join them at the dak bungalow, which his father had reserved from the Railways. The noise, fun, and happy laughter of those two days were the most memorable and enjoyable in Hunter’s young life. They all brought the laconic Hunter easily into their circle so that he was soon happily laughing, talking loudly, and interrupting the others as easily as the rest of them. The aftermath of that short holiday, however, was a depressing time for Hunter as he reflected on the difference between his own family circumstances and that of the Hardys. The Hardys, in the jargon of their community, were “thorough bloody Anglo-Indians.” Both mother and father were from Railway families, and Hardy’s father followed the family tradition of joining the Railway at eighteen as a fireman on the steam engines. They could trace their roots back to the first Europeans who came to India with the East India Company and the French colonialists almost two hundred years earlier. Like many Anglo-Indians, they were of mixed stock—English, French, Irish, and, because of the passage of time, a fair amount of Indian. He looked like his mother—Mediterranean-complexioned with curly, brown hair in profusion around his face. His ready smile was honest, straightforward, easygoing, with no complications, happy and content with his day-to-day existence. He made an ideal partner for Hunter. He was not as devious or cunning as the Hare, as patient and calculating as Montagu, or as stealthy and deadly as Hunter, but he held his own well, and many was the time that Hunter, counting on Hardy’s steadfastness and common sense, could spring a trap for the Hare.
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This, then, was the teenage foursome that frolicked down the hillside, just as the class master blew his whistle signaling the end of the game, while several of the survivors emerged from both sides of the valley to be counted.
Indian Railway Colonies
The railway colonies that dotted the map of India, strewn like diamonds along the long chains of railroad-tracked lines that crisscrossed the vast subcontinent, were the beehives of energy that fueled the vital enterprise of the Indian Railways. The British Empire was dependent on them, not only for the obvious transportation and communication services they provided but also because they were the hubs of their most valuable resource—the intensely loyal and dedicated Anglo-Indians who manned these outposts and gave reality to the dream of empire. The size and number of each of these outposts grew with the railways and the accumulation of decades of British Rule in India, till they infiltrated the very substance and culture of the land. The Anglo-Indians were entrenched. They were here to stay. They had become part of the land.
The British rewarded them for that loyalty by building communities for their employees with facilities and living conditions that were at least as good as those in the other communities in the cities that the railway served. Life in the railway colonies was good. These benefits were showered equally on all residents in the colony regardless of their ethnic background, and the colonies were well integrated with people of all faiths and ethnicities: local Indians of specific regions such as Gujeratis, Bengalis, Tamils, Punjabis, and so on, mixed with Parsees, Pathans, and Muslims, but most important for the British were the Anglo-Indians. The railway colonies were part of the vast bedrock of the Anglo-Indian community in India.
Into this setting came the nineteen-year-old Peter Hunter. With the sense of entitlement of a handsome, young Anglo-Indian, he hitched a ride on Frontier Mail by charming the engine driver, and endeared himself with the crew of firemen by shoveling coal into the firebox with the best of them. He planned on seeking his fortune in Bombay, having left the home of his father, an English soldier, and his Anglo-Indian mother, who, though sorry to see him go, hoped for better prospects for him in the big city than were available to him in the regimental city of Lahore in northwest India.
Having found out enough about the short life of his new hitchhiker to deduce that the young fellow had sallied forth on a wing and a prayer and not much else, Bill Norman, the driver of the train, casually asked him as they steamed toward the outskirts of the city of Bulsar, “What would you think of joining the Railway? We could always use a good fireman, and you have strong young shoulders. I could put in a word for you.”
“Why not?” answered Peter agreeably, “Is the pay good?”
“It’s not the best,” admitted Bill ruefully, “but with travel allowance and the possibility of getting free accommodation, you could do a lot worse. What’s more,” Bill Norman added grandly, “Anglo-Indians run the bloody Railway, and if you work hard and show some gumption, you could rise to be an officer and live like a burrah sahib.”
“Really!” said Peter, his boyish face lighting up with naïve anticipation.
“It’s been done many times before,” affirmed Bill cheerfully. “As long as a man has some education. What about you? Have you finished school?”
“Yes, I did my Senior Cambridge exams a year and a half ago—got a Second Class.”
“You’ll go far,” predicted Bill Norman confidently. “Good-looking young fellow like you. Well spoken, and with good book learning. You could be an officer before you are thirty-five, marry a nice Railway girl, have a bunch of good-looking youngsters, live in a nice bungalow in the Officers’ Quarters; get your own personal saloon to go out on line—even take your family with you—and live the life of Riley.”
“Sounds too good to be true,” said Peter realistically, but smiling anyway, dreaming of the happy prospect.
“Maybe. But it could happen. Never know until you try. Look, we are approaching Bulsar, where I get off the train, and it gets taken over by my replacement. There on the right side of the train are the Railway Quarters, which are provided to us free of charge,” continued Bill Norman. “Those bungalows you see on the low hill past the maidan—we call that section White Gate because of the white fences and big white gates in front of each house—that’s where all the officers live. Look at those big compounds with the gardens in front and the large bungalows with verandas all around, with tall windows and French doors all across the front. Who do you think tends all those flowers and lawns in the gardens? Railway servants,” he continued, answering his own question. “Each of those bungalows has quarters quietly secluded in the rear of the compound for the servants of the officers. Most of them are provided for and paid by the Railway, though usually the officers will hire their own cook and methar, who work for a small salary, free food, and accommodation. The other servants, like the mali, the chauffeur—if they own a car—are Railway staff used as house servants. It’s a great life. Those lucky bounders live like princes. They are the district managers of the various disciplines in the Railway—civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering; signals; medical; comptroller; and traffic. They are the biggest shots in their entire district—this one extends from Bulsar to Baroda, over 300 miles—and they control the lives and fortunes of hundreds of employees and their families. They answer to the chief officers of their disciplines only in a strategic way; all the day-to-day operations are theirs to control. If you are smart and lucky, you could get there by the time you are forty.”
As the train continued its approach to Bulsar, Bill Norman continued to play tour guide. “The next group of smaller bungalows you see are the houses of the first-line officers—the assistant engineers or controllers of the various disciplines. Their houses are smaller, but more than comfortable, and they also have the privileges of free servants who live in servants’ quarters.
The next row of houses you see—the two-story buildings joined together, two by two—those are the quarters of the midlevel staff, like me: the drivers, shop foremen, traffic and permanent way inspectors, and all the midlevel operational staff that make the Railway run. The houses are not as grand, but they are much better than the housing other people have, who are not on the Railway. They also have servants’ quarters in the back, but we have to tend our own yards, though often we can hire servants who will work for us for little or nothing just to get free food and lodging in our servants’ quarters.”
“The third house there on the right is mine,” he said with a proud smile, accompanying the gesture with three short toots of the train whistle followed by one long one. Within seconds, two towheaded teenagers and his wife appeared on the upstairs veranda to wave happily to him.
“That’s my Bets and our two youngsters. My Patty is thirteen and is going to be quite a catch in another few years,” he said proudly. “Harold is fifteen and a good athlete.”
“Behind the houses, past the maidan, you can see a large white building with a red-tiled roof and columns in front. That’s the Railway Institute, where we have tennis courts, a cricket field, an indoor badminton court, which doubles as a dance floor, a stage for concerts or the band during Institute functions, and a billiards room. There is a small membership fee for joining, and it is really worth it because everybody congregates there regularly—the young people almost every day.”
“What about girls?” interjected Peter, “Do you have a lot of pretty girls?”
“There are a lot of pretty girls here in their late teens and early twenties. Some work in the Railway facilities like the stores, the school, the hospital and even the offices as secretaries and administrative staff. Some are just finishing or have just finished school and stay at home. A nice handsome fellow like you will have a great time. Some smart young thing will grab you in a heartbeat.”
Peter could not help but smile at the prospect.
Bill Norman continued, “We have one of the best Railway colonies here in Bulsar, and people come from miles around, even from other big colonies like those in Bombay and Surat, for some of our dances. You would love it here. There are many young people, and there are lots of things to do. We have a great cricket team, which won last year’s Railway championship. We have a wonderful black-sand beach, Teetal, three miles from here, and very often the Institute will hire some bullock carts and drivers to take us all for a day’s picnic at the beach. Those are always great fun, as the memsahibs go all out to prepare a big feast, and all the young people have a great time playing rounders, playing in the waves and the sand, and singing songs around the campfire as the sun sets.”
“To the right of the Institute is the Railway school, which teaches children up to the fifth standard. After that they have to go to boarding schools—though many people prefer to send their children before then. The last big building you see behind the maidan is the Railway hospital, which provides free medical care, even delivering babies and performing some minor operations. The last, smallest, building is the Railway stores, which provides many provisions, dry goods, and household items at a discount—once again, subsidized by the Railway—stay away from that place, or if you use it, make sure you pay cash. Too many people buy things on tick, then cannot pay it back and get themselves in trouble. This is a very tight-knit community; everybody knows everybody else’s business, and it is easy to lose your reputation. Sometimes even the officers get themselves in trouble by taking bribes and everybody loses respect for them. Thank God the Anglo-Indian officers take great pride in their honesty. I know many grand officers who get so offended when someone dares to offer them a bribe that they throw the offender out of their office and make sure that that person never does business with the Railway again. Regrettably, every now and then you will get a bad apple. Then everybody shuns them for disgracing the Anglo-Indian name, and they usually wind up moving away.”
“That, young fellow, is the Bulsar Railway colony,” Bill Norman finished grandly. “And we would love to have you join our community. We need nice young fellows like you.”
“That sounds like a place where I would like to live,” agreed Peter Hunter enviously. “But how do I get in?”
Bill Norman had taken a fancy to this young man, so he extended a generous offer. “If you like, you could get off here with me, instead of going on to Bombay, and I’m sure my Bets wouldn’t mind putting you up for the night. Then tomorrow morning I could take you over to the Shed and see if my friend Albert Pacheco, the foreman, will give you a job. What do you say?”
This was so unexpected that Peter did not know what to say. He was so overcome by the generous offer that all he could do was stammer his thanks, and before he knew it, he had accepted. So, the hand of fate landed Peter Hunter in Bulsar, instead of Bombay, as originally planned.
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True to his word, Bill Norman took Peter to the Shed the following morning and introduced him to Albert Pacheco. As predicted by Bill, Peter’s winning ways impressed Albert, who offered Peter a job of apprentice in the Shed.
“I cannot offer you any living quarters,” said Albert, “because you don’t qualify at this level. But I can introduce you to Mrs. D’Souza, who keeps boarders, and I’m sure she will take you in right away till you can pay her when you get your paycheck.”
Before he knew it, Peter Hunter had a job and a roof over his head, much earlier than he had expected. It was so easy; it felt as though it were foreordained.
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“How would like to join us for a game of cricket,” asked young Harold Norman of his guest. “Some of the blokes get together every evening on the maidan and play a pick-up game. Would you like to join us?”
Peter agreed, happy to have an opportunity to show off his athletic prowess. He had played many a match at his father’s regimental grounds in Lahore and was well known for his fielding and batting abilities. They dressed in their whites, and as soon as the buzz went off at the Shed, signaling the end of the workday, all the front doors of the Railway Quarters homes opened, and young folk of every age spilled out and headed for the Institute and the playfields around it.
Before long, there were pick-up games of seven-tiles going on with the smaller children, while some of the older ones preferred badminton in the Institute hall, tennis on the courts, or billiards in the side room. Peter joined the young fellows playing cricket on the maidan, some of whom were teenagers, while others were young men.
The other side batted first, and Peter was positioned in the field at long-on. The batsman struck a forceful drive to midwicket, which had all the makings of four runs before Peter gave chase. He cut it off just before it reached the boundary line, pivoted, and hurled a strong throw directly into the wicketkeeper’s gloves.
“Nice throw!” came an admiring acknowledgment from a nearby spectator, and Peter turned to look directly into the face of the girl he would marry—three years from then. They both smiled instantly—two good-looking young people acknowledging the immediate attraction that flashed between them. Peter nodded his head in acceptance of her compliment and was about to whirl back to the game at hand, when he noticed her scowling companion. He looked into the man’s face, and recognition set in …
“You’re … you’re …” he groped for the name. “Tommy,” he recalled. “From the engine.”
“Tommy Sequiera, yes,” acknowledged the irritated young man.
“Good to see you again. I have to go back to the game now, but I’ll see you later,” said Peter as he returned to his position at long-on.
“You know him?” the girl asked Tommy.
“Yes. He hitched a ride on our engine at Baroda, and the boss, Bill Norman, persuaded him to get off at Bulsar—said he would talk to your dad about giving him a job at the Shed.”
“And did he?” asked the girl.
“Don’t know,” said Tommy crossly, “This only happened yesterday evening when we came back from line.”
Thelma Pacheco, detecting Tommy’s irritation, dropped the topic. This was typical Tommy— unreasonably jealous of everyone who looked at her. Everybody knew that Tommy was sweet on her, but, although she did not discourage his attentions, she did not react to him with equal enthusiasm; there just was nobody else.
Courtship and Marriage
Thelma was eighteen years old, had just done her senior Cambridge exams at St. Anne’s convent in Bombay, and returned home for the Christmas holidays. Trim of figure; olive-complexioned and attractive; bubbling with the confidence of youth, she was an eligible prize for any of the young fellows who already had their careers well established and were looking to settle down. Peter Hunter, as a brand-new apprentice, was at a distinct disadvantage. But life was too short always to be serious, and Peter did have his fun-loving side. As it turned out, so did Thelma. Even though Tommy Sequiera was sweet on Thelma, it was not unusual for an eligible girl to have another fellow dangling on the side, and Peter had the good sense and poise to handle this second-fiddle role gracefully. He managed to have some fun, too, that December—his first in Bulsar—and played the carefree bachelor to the hilt. He was not that much more than a young boy right out of school himself, and there was many a family at whose table he was a welcome guest on a weekday evening. As a suitor he was not taken seriously because it would be a few years before he would be solidly on his own two feet. He made just enough money now to be a boarder at Mrs. D’Souza’s, where he shared a room with another young Railway man and was provided with his meals. Peter enjoyed the privilege of every Anglo-Indian—he was embraced into the community as one of them and accepted that welcome with ease and confidence. By the end of the Christmas season, which was almost one month long, he had met everyone in the Bulsar Railway community and all the smaller railway stations nearby as well. Bulsar, because of its size, had a well-earned reputation of being a wonderful place to have a good time. The Christmas dances were well patronized by Anglo-Indians from miles around. Cricket matches often followed the next day, or picnics at the river or the beaches of Teetal, as Bill Norman had promised. Peter loved all this community partying, as did all the other Railway people. Few of them had the vision to appreciate that this style of living had just a few more golden years before change would cause it all to evaporate, slowly at first and then with a rush over the following years.
___________ o ____________
The two years of Peter’s apprenticeship passed by happily in this fashion. He began to earn the respect of his colleagues and bosses by his steadiness and willing attitude. Thelma took a job in the Railway school as a kindergarten teacher and was also pleasantly occupied, waiting for an offer of marriage to start her real life. Tommy Sequiera continued to look after his mother, who lived with him, and had competed his apprenticeship and two years experience of being second fireman on the goods trains. He hadn’t popped the question to Thelma yet but was in a position to do so as soon as he got his next promotion. First fireman was generally considered to be an adequate grade level for a man to marry. Thelma, being unenthusiastic about the prospects with Tommy, was not immune to the attentions of young Peter Hunter. The gap between the callow youth of two years ago and the more mature Tommy Sequiera was rapidly closing. Peter was more funloving, more her type, rather than the serious Tommy, whose approach to life was more sober and responsible. Tommy continued to resent her tendency to consider herself free and not to tie herself to him. He wanted her to act as if she was his girl exclusively, but Thelma’s ideas were different. They weren’t engaged, she told him, so it was okay if she went to the pictures with Peter.
Tommy’s mother was another deterrent. Widowed at an early age, Tommy’s mother had brought him up by scrimping and saving every pice that she earned on her meager salary as a clerk in the Railway stores. She had sent Tommy to the local convent school by begging the nuns to keep him there as a day scholar until he matriculated. Tommy therefore had the dubious distinction of being the only male to ever matriculate from the convent school, a fact he was glad not to advertise.
After Tommy matriculated at sixteen, one year early, his mother had to beg the officers on the Railway to take him on in some capacity. Their hands were tied. Tommy was underage and small for his age at that, but she relentlessly continued her quest. Finally the traffic inspector found Tommy a position as a temporary clerk in his office, keeping track of the goods compartments that had to be dispatched to different junctions on the line. Once in, Tommy found himself an apprenticeship in the Shed at the age of eighteen, under Thelma’s father. Having struggled so much over the years to see her beloved son on his own two feet, Mrs. Sequiera was not too keen to lose him as soon as this was accomplished. Even though many people thought Tommy would be marrying above himself if he were fortunate enough to get Thelma, Mrs. Sequiera was not too sure that it would be a good thing for her. With this backdrop, it was inevitable that tension would develop in Tommy’s relationship with Thelma, while Peter’s chances kept improving with the passage of time.
The final stroke was executed when Tommy was promoted to first fireman. The promotion was accompanied by a transfer to Baroda and the provision of Railway quarters, to which he was now entitled. Mrs. Sequiera picked up, lock, stock, and barrel, chucked up her job in the Railway stores, hopped on a train with their few effects, and firmly ensconced herself in Tommy’s new quarters before anyone could say “Boo!” The time for making a decision had now arrived, and opportunity and circumstance had conspired against poor Tommy. There was no question in his mind that he wanted Thelma. Even though the relationship was not as strong as he hoped, a proposal of marriage might be just the right thing to stoke the fire, he thought, proud of the metaphor that he drew from his own profession. But how would he handle his mother? He couldn’t kick her out; she’d gone and given up her job and their small rental home and now had no place to go. Furthermore, she had no other means of support. He needed more time to sort all this out. When Tommy left for Baroda, the fire was all but out. Thelma seemed not to care. The more she made this clear, the harder Tommy tried. He’d make special arrangements to make more trips from Baroda to Bulsar just so that he could see her, even though there were other runs that would be much easier on him. But the embers were dead. He had gradually missed his opportunity over the last two years. There was no single event that killed it. It just died of living too long and uneventfully.
Peter filled the gap nicely. With all competition removed, the natural affinity that Peter and Thelma had for each other bloomed. It was like cutting the vines that were smothering a tree. Peter became a fixture at Thelma’s house and was willingly drawn into the family. The easy liking that they had for each other before blossomed into passion that both found hard to contain. This match seemed to be the right thing at the right time. Both of them were ripe for it. In time, Peter received his promotion to second fireman, which still didn’t entitle him to a Railway house, but a year later the couple, with the consent of Thelma’s parents, decided to marry anyway. The foreman’s quarters were large enough for Thelma and Peter to be provided a room in a wing, which afforded them some privacy. Peter was making overnight trips on line now, sleeping at the running rooms at various junctions before taking the return trip home the next day. It was at these running rooms that the first pebbles that were to start an avalanche would begin to roll.
The running rooms were the rest houses for the running staff of the Railway. They were simple affairs. Two rooms with two cots each where the tired men could sleep. Linen was provided. There was a single, small dining room where they could order food and pay for it with the TA (traveling allowance) allocated. Many of them brought their food with them in tiffin carriers and saved their TA for family use. The men were at a loose end when they were there. They were on call and could not venture far, so they passed the time by getting a bottle of the local grog and playing a card game called nap.
“The devil finds work for idle hands,” Peter Hunter’s mother was often fond of telling him, and he certainly found work for Mrs. Hunter’s son. Being invited to have a chota peg one evening by the other firemen was a new experience for Peter. He’d always been considered too young to be offered a drink before. At first, he held it well, enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, and was taught to play nap. Being good at cards, he easily caught on to the simple rules and strategies of the game. He even won two rupees eight annas. The evening was fun. No harm was done, and the time went by pleasantly. He proudly displayed his two-eight to Thelma on his arrival home and took her out to Nav-Yug’s for ice cream.
The torrid nights that these two young married people had spent enjoying each other’s bodies in the secluded wing of the foreman’s bungalow the last few months had borne fruit. Thelma was pregnant, so she had four shares of ice cream to Peter’s two. Every time the ice cream was brought to her in the little stainless steel bowl, she’d look at it sadly, thinking how small the scoops looked and how hungry she was. Peter was happy to indulge her. They were very much in love, and now that she was pregnant, there was no reason to abstain from making love or waiting for the right time of the month to do it. They could enjoy each other with abandon—and they did. This year of bliss was the high-water mark of their life together, and, if happiness is the only measure, they were as fortunate as any two people could possibly be.
Into this union of two happy young people, Colin Hunter was born.
The baby brought much joy to the extended household. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, the young couple’s living with the wife’s parents caused no friction at all. There were no conflicting motives among the sharing parties. No one had any desire or need to rule or influence the other. Everybody benefited from each other’s company, and Colin’s first year was one of great joy and harmony in the house.
The birth of their first child did not tame the carnal desires that the young Hunters had for each other, and their lusty liaisons continued unabated. The ayah took care of the baby’s 2:00 a.m. feed, and there were many hands to help willingly with the lively, healthy, beautiful child. Before Colin was a year old, his father received the threshold promotion to first fireman, his own Railway quarters, and the good news from his wife that she was pregnant again.
Coincidentally, Thelma’s father was transferred to Baroda, and they moved within a month.
The young Hunter family now moved out to make their lives on their own. They were suddenly shorn of all the servants that made life easy in Thelma’s parents’ home. Colin continued as a happy, healthy baby, but Thelma’s second pregnancy was not as easy as her first. Her morning sickness lasted much longer, and she had less rest than during her first pregnancy because now she had Colin to care for. Many of the luxuries that they had taken so much for granted at her parents’ home were not affordable to them now. The demands on Peter as a first fireman were greater. He began to have more overnight trips. He had begun to enjoy the intoxicating effect of the country grog with the boys at the running room, and now that he could not afford to, he began to lose at nap by pressing too hard. He could not afford to lose any more than his TA, and this hampered his style of play. He didn’t have an opportunity to recover from a losing streak once his TA was lost, so after his money was gone, he’d have another chota peg or two. More often than not, the joyous greetings he and Thelma had showered on each other a year ago were replaced by arrivals marred by his cross temper and guilt at having blown the money that they sorely needed at home. Thelma compensated for her hurt by showering more affection on Colin. She couldn’t go to work because she had to look after Colin, so she had more time on her hands to brood about her deteriorating situation.
The second baby came—a girl whom they named Theresa. Thelma’s mother came down for a month to help her daughter. She was worried about the unfamiliar tension between the previously happy pair. Her one-month visit was quickly over, and the young Hunters were once again on their own to cope with their situation. There was no quick return to their joyous unions in bed after this pregnancy. Thelma, faced with the burdensome task of caring for two infants, was in mortal fear of risking a third. Each additional tense situation added further strain to their already strained circumstances. Peter would now bring a bottle home, whereas before he only drank when out on line. Thelma would helplessly importune him to lay off the liquor, and even offer herself as an incentive for him to do so. He would take her, and then take his liquor too.
In desperation, Thelma got Peter to get her a Railway pass, packed her bags, gathered her two children, and sat in the Second Class compartment to return to her mother for a week. This stretched to two, then four, then six weeks, before Peter, finally coming to his senses, came to get her. She was appalled at the sight of him. By constitution a lean, healthy, muscular man, his three years as a fireman stoking coal and running the engines had made him harder yet. That’s the way she had left him six weeks ago. Now, his ink-blue eyes were bloodshot, with puffy bags beneath them, his cheeks swollen with booze, and the makings of a small potbelly bulging at his belt. Her heart cried out in anguish, for she still loved him passionately and had hoped that her absence would convince him of her resolution not to tolerate his drinking. Yet here he was, professing contrition, while all the evidence pointed to the contrary. What he didn’t tell her was that he was on suspension for one week for being too drunk to respond to the call-boy’s summons to duty.
Concluding that her absence had only made things worse, she spent one blissful, boozeless week with him in her mother’s house, in happy ignorance of the cloud that he was under, innocently thinking that he had taken a week’s leave to make up with her. During the day they frolicked with Colin on the beach, cuddled and rolled with little Theresa in the sand, waded in the water, and chased the crabs in the shallows, accompanied by merry peals of laughter. They picnicked under the shade of a majestic coconut tree and lay lovingly in each other’s arms with the children nestling snugly against them. At night they bounced joyfully on their bed in their old room—man and wife once again, making up for their abstinence with passionate, wild, savage enjoyment.
After a week of this heaven, they returned to Bulsar with the confidence of youth that all would be well once more. Their recent problems were an aberration, which they had put behind them, and they would never be separated again. The elasticity of youth is phenomenal. Within one week of clean living, all evidence of Peter’s dissipation had disappeared. Thelma looked at her man and fell in love again—with his strong athletic build; ink-blue eyes in a handsome, friendly face; a full head of tawny hair, matched by a fair English complexion that tanned beautifully in the sun. With love and the encouragement of his young wife, Peter’s resolve lasted several months. He had bought himself a mouth organ, and instead of joining the boys at drinks and cards, he’d play the mouth organ for them instead. His life at home with Thelma and the two children was simple, happy, and fulfilling. His bosses congratulated themselves that their disciplinary action had brought the young lad to his senses.
The demon drink, however, had more tenacious tentacles than they thought. One weak moment on an evening with a special friend whom he hadn’t seen for a long time, and Peter slipped again. He was too embarrassed to explain his weakness, so he had a few drinks. Soon he was back in full cry again. He would never drink when he was at home. But when he went out on line he would drink himself into a stupor. He spent all his TA money on booze. Soon he would even begin to sell the tiffin that Thelma had lovingly packed for him, for more booze. Within another year, with Colin four years old and Theresa almost three, he was firmly in the grip of drink again. He began to bring the drink home, where Thelma at least served as a moderating influence—but not much. Fortunately, he was not one of those boisterous drinkers who instigate fights when intoxicated. He’d just drink himself into a stupor and then feel ashamed when he sobered up, only to succumb to the vicious cycle again within a few hours.
Thelma was at her wit’s end. She had shared his life, shared his bed, and borne his children. The most intimate parts of their bodies had joined, which bound her to him forever. No matter what he did now, she would be with him, to rise and fall, and rise and fall, again and again. Through her vigilance, diligence, and undying love, he somehow struggled on. She kept him sober enough to go to work, though she had no control over how much he drank on line, and she feared that on a return trip home, he would fall off the engine to a horrible death on the tracks. It had been known to happen. The driver’s cab was narrow and the steel floorboards were slippery, especially during the monsoons. There were no doors to the sides, and even an accidental bump with a shovel from your mate when you were bending over could hurl you out in a jiffy. There were no safety measures at all, and the swaying motion of the train could lull a driver to sleep. A sharp curve could do the rest.
They struggled like this for two more years, and Peter was finally promoted to goods driver—two years later than normal. Colin had begun to go to the Railway school kindergarten class. Theresa would follow the next year, and then maybe Thelma could start work again in the Railway school. Things would be better then.
That’s when she found out she was pregnant again.
This development crushed all those plans in one fell swoop. In her desperation, she even thought of abortion. But her Catholic upbringing would not let her harbor that thought for long. Moreover, the ugly stories that she had heard about the whole procedure and its aftermath were more revolting than her current predicament. In silent desperation she plodded on. This event, more than anything else, crushed her spirit. She finally gave up hope and clung desperately to her children with fear for the future. No matter how difficult things were before, she had always had hope. First, that Peter would turn around; and when that finally proved to be futile, that she herself would pull them out of the morass. Now, even she had been neutralized. She was devastated.
In tears of desperation she finally confronted him: “Peter,” she sobbed helplessly, “what is becoming of us. Just look at us. Look at you—everybody used to admire your handsome young face and body. Now, you look like a paunchy, dissipated, middle-aged man—eyes bloodshot, cheeks sagging and bulging with booze, wondering desperately when you will get your next drink. And what about me? I see my old friends, some happily married, and others joyfully in love with nice boys, and I look at myself, and I just die with shame and embarrassment. I’m all skin and bone. I used to have the best boobs on the Railway. Now they’re reduced to dried-up cartilage.”
“You still have the best boobs on the Railway,” he slobbered drunkenly, grabbing at her while she impatiently slapped his hands away.
“You know I love you more than life itself, and I will never leave you,” she continued tearfully, “but look at what you are doing to us. You’re dragging us into the gutter. Every time I walk by people, I know that they pity me, and I cannot hold my head high; I feel so ashamed. I can bear anything, but what about the children? What’s to become of them? We cannot continue like this. I can’t even go to my parents’ house because of my father’s stroke and slow recovery. He may never be able to go back to work, and you know that the Railway provident fund is not enough to support them in retirement. Many retired Railway people live with their grown children. We could never handle that; we cannot even support ourselves, with your drinking.”
“Sweetheart, I promise you that this time I will stop. I promise it on my son’s head, on my little daughter, that I will stop drinking. I’ve had my last drink—I promise,” and to prove it, he poured the rest of the contents of his bottle down the sink. “Give me another chance. You mean everything to me—you know that,” he said pitifully.
“Every time when things are really bad, you promise that you will not drink again, and for a few days or weeks, you don’t. Then you’re back at it again. Is it a sickness? Are you just too weak to abstain? Do even love us any more?” she cried in desperation. “It’s all hopeless.”
“It’s all hopeless,” she repeated, as Peter stood by, contrite and helpless.
She may have thought it was hopeless then, but it was only going to get worse.
One year after his promotion to goods driver, and two months after David was born, Peter failed to see a red signal in time and ran his train off the tracks. Fortunately, nobody was killed. Nobody was injured. The damage, considering it was a derailment, was relatively light. Nobody but the Railway authorities knew. Peter was under another suspension, pending an inquiry. Heading the Board of Inquiry would be the new AME (Assistant Mechanical Engineer), Ian McInnis. Thelma had never met him, because she had stayed away from all the Railway functions in Bulsar due to Peter’s drinking problem. Peter’s reputation as a drunkard had begun to spread, and she could not live with the pitying looks and cruel jabs of the other wives, which she sometimes overheard. So she and Peter kept pretty much to themselves. The McInnises, though, were an old Railway family. She remembered her father talking about them and what a nice young fellow Ian was, and how he was certain to go far. She washed and dressed her children in their best clothes, put on her best dress, and with one baby in her arms and two others clutching at her skirt, she marched up the road to the officers’ bungalows at six o’clock one evening to see Mr. and Mrs. McInnis.
He wasn’t home yet from work but was expected soon. Mrs. McInnis was a young woman of about Thelma’s own age with two children—a little boy of Colin’s age named John and a three–year-old girl named Mary. The children, after a little shyness, went off to play while Gillian McInnis invited Thelma to join her for tea on the veranda. The baby provided an initial icebreaker, and Gillian delighted in carrying and cuddling him while Thelma poured the tea. Mrs. McInnis insisted on being called Gillian, and Thelma was grateful to comply. Gillian knew why Thelma was there. A derailment was always a momentous event in the Railway community, and word traveled fast. She knew that Ian would be conducting the inquiry the next day and that Peter Hunter was in very serious trouble. Her sympathy went out to this woman, and she saw no reason to be evasive.
“I’m so sorry to hear about the trouble your husband is in, Thelma,” she said sincerely. “We should be grateful that nothing more serious happened and that nobody was hurt. I know you must have come here to appeal to Ian, and I think you will find him a very fair man.”
“What I need now, Mrs. McInnis … Gillian … is not a fair man,” Thelma said, choking back her sobs. “I need a kind man, a compassionate man.” With tears running down her cheeks and her chest heaving with sobs, she stumbled on. “I know everybody knows of Peter’s reputation for drinking, but he was not always this way. You’ve got to believe me.”
“I do believe you,” said Gillian, somewhat at a loss because of her visitor’s emotional state and afraid that it would upset the baby. Thank God the children were busy playing on the lawn, with John laughing, dodging, and weaving to escape the clutches of Thelma’s little boy. The girls were playing with Mary’s dolls.
“Meeting you and your children for the first time,” Gillian continued, “I have to believe that Peter must have been a fine young man at one time. As a matter of fact, I have heard so from many people who knew you both before this trouble started. Why, you two are like Ian and me, close to the same age, similar backgrounds. It’s a shame this has happened.”
The parallel that Gillian drew between the two of them was not lost on Thelma. She had thought of it herself, but instead of helping, as it was intended to, the remark only set her off to sobbing even more. The baby was asleep by now, so Gillian laid him down gently on the sofa and came over to put her arm around Thelma.
“I’m so afraid they’re going to fire him,” said Thelma, sobbing. She then blurted out the worst. “Then what will we do? We’ve nowhere to go; this is all we have.”
Gillian hugged her without responding. Ian himself had expressed the same concern when he told her about the event. There were two things that weighed heavily against Peter Hunter. One was his known propensity for alcohol, and second was his previous suspension for the same problem. Peter’s chances did not look good. What if it had been a mail train with passengers on it instead of a goods train? What if the signal had been for another purpose, like there was a trolley on that section of line? Somebody would have been killed. Derailments and boards of inquiry were very serious business, and unless there was a mechanical or other physical failure of the system, the penalty for the driver was to be fired or reverted to fireman—or, at best, suspension without loss of grade. Right now, even a suspension would be considered a blessing.
While Thelma was sobbing in Gillian’s arms, the white gate squealed, and Ian McInnis came walking up the path. Thelma hastily dried her eyes and Gillian introduced her to Ian, who received her in a friendly but noncommittal manner. He could guess why she was there, could understand why she would have been forced to do it, and knew that his Gillian would do the same for him. Yet at the same time he had to be careful not to compromise his position. Gillian, in her kindness, decided to be the advocate.
“Ian, you must know why Thelma’s here. She needs you to do something to help Peter. Ian, I would like you to help her if you can. There must be something you can do. They’re such nice people. Thelma’s such a lovely woman, and the kids are just like ours. They’d make such good friends. See how well they play together.”
Ian looked over to the lawn, where the boys were wrestling and laughing. He saw his son wriggle free from the Hunter boy’s grasp, jump to his feet, and call out, “Catch me again,” as he sped off into the bushes behind the house with young Hunter in pursuit.
“Just like a rabbit,” thought Ian fondly. “No, a little bit more wildness to that run.” So he considered again: “More like a hare.”
“Mrs. Hunter … Thelma,” he said, correcting himself quickly, “a derailment is a very serious incident. They don’t happen very often, thank God. But when they do, the potential for damage, injury, and loss of life is high. The Railway takes a very serious view of this because if we don’t, there’s always the prospect of us being held criminally accountable. Railway officials and employees could go to jail if found to be criminally negligent in their duties. And I don’t mean only the driver or other person who is directly involved in the incident. I mean also the officers and other staff, who could have averted it by exercising better judgment.”
All that sounded very official, and Thelma’s heart sank. This nice, friendly man was not going to be so friendly after all.
“But Ian,” countered Gillian gamely, “there was very little damage done. Nobody was killed. Nobody was injured. None of the goods were even damaged. The train just ran off the tracks. Nobody, except the Railway, even knows.”
“That’s true, and it’s a big point in Peter’s favor,” he said. Thelma brightened. “But I’m afraid, Thelma, that there are two strong counts against him—his previous suspension, and a reputation for being drunk on the job. The Board of Inquiry would be crucified if they let him off again with a slap on the wrist, and then he drove another train drunk, this time with more drastic results. Can you understand my position?” He looked helplessly at his wife.
“I never send my husband to work drunk,” said Thelma, sobbing in offended protest. “He never drinks when he’s at home. He only drinks when he’s on line, and even then he goes to sleep to sober up before the call-boy comes. He never goes to work drunk,” she said again stoutly, then put her head and arms on the rattan tea table and collapsed into sobs, humiliated at having to admit that her husband was a drunkard and having to defend him nevertheless. Gillian, sitting next to her, put her arm over Thelma’s heaving shoulders and hugged her in sympathy.
Ian sat uncomfortably, unaccustomed to being cast as the heavy—responsible for making a woman cry and nonplussed as to what he could do about it. This was his first Inquiry as AME (Assistant Mechanical Engineer), and his boss, the DME (District Mechanical Engineer) would be evaluating his performance. The DME was a Punjabi and, though he got along with all the Anglo-Indians, it was a well-known fact in the Indian officers’ ranks that the Anglo-Indians took care of their own. Ian would have to be extra careful to ensure that no favoritism was shown. If only there was some way to help this woman. She was certainly as attractive as all the gossip in the colony had indicated, and somehow her tragic circumstances gave her an air of nobility and strength instead of cowing her. He liked the way she stood up for her husband. Just like his Gillian, he thought fondly as he watched his wife trying to comfort the woman.
When Thelma rose to go, Gillian rose with her. So did Ian.
“Say something,” Gillian silently mouthed to her husband, ensuring that Thelma was not aware of the request. Ian walked around the table, placed his hands on Thelma’s shoulders, and looked into her pleading face sympathetically.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said lamely.
The women rounded up the children, Colin sensitively aware that his mother had been crying, John trying to squeeze in one last race up to the gate.
Being an officer was not as easy as he had thought, Ian pondered sadly. The human consequences of his official acts were hard to live with. That was interesting, that she said she never sent him to work drunk. There was a ring of confidence and truth to the way she had said it. He turned and called for the chaprasi. The man, uniformed in khaki, with a red turban, appeared and was sent on an errand. He reappeared a few minutes later with a bunch of papers in his hand and poured his master a cup of tea while Ian sat down and wrote something on each sheet. The chaprasi then hopped on his bicycle and went off through the side gate with the papers safely tucked into a folder.
Gillian was just returning after having had a long, quiet chat at the gate with Thelma. She stood behind Ian’s chair, put her arms around his neck, and kissed his ginger hair.
“Oh, Ian, please do something for them. I feel so sorry for her. I don’t know how I’d be able to stand it if you were like that.”
“She does have a lot of courage, to come out here unannounced like that. I feel sorry for her, too.”
“I’ll bet you feel more than just sorry for her. I saw you ogling her knockers. Don’t you wish I had a pair like that?” she said saucily.
“Yeah!” he said, comically, aping a boy in a candy shop, and then bawdily rubbed his face in her bosom.
_________ o __________
Thelma walked back with her children, resigned to the worst. She’s nice, she thought. But he’s not going to do anything. Tomorrow by this time we will know.
Peter was on the veranda when she arrived, staring emptily across the field ahead.
“Well, what did the high-and-mightys have to say?” he asked bitterly. He had been strongly opposed to her going to beg for him.
“She was very nice, but I don’t think he is going to do anything. He’s new in the job, and you know how the saying goes, ‘A new broom sweeps clean.’ He is going to be tough on you just to show the big shots that he can run a tight ship.”
Peter took her into his arms. “I’m sorry, Thelma. I’m no good for you. I’ve brought you nothing but misery. I don’t know what to do. They’ll never believe me tomorrow, but I was alert, looking for that light. It’s always green, but I was looking for it anyway. By the time I saw it and hit the brakes, I could not stop in time. It takes a long time to stop a goods train. They all think I was drunk. I know—maybe I deserve this for all the trouble I’ve given you. Maybe you should leave me and let me drink myself to an early grave.”
“That would kill me,” she said. “I’ll never leave you. No matter what happens,” she promised.
She did not know then what it would cost her to keep that promise.
_________ o __________
(Please scroll to the top of the page, 2nd column to continue)
The first 50 pages of Boarding School Boy
Board of Inquiry
The Board of Inquiry convened at 1:00 p.m. sharp. Five officers sat on the board, which was headed by Ian McInnis. The other four officers were Signals, Anil Shah; Civil, Danny Almeida; Medical, Phiroze Sethna; and Traffic, Paul Davis. There was no set process for conducting an inquiry, so Ian decided to make it as formal as possible. He was seated at the head of the rectangular table with his four fellow officers on either side. Peter Hunter was seated at the other end of the table with two vacant chairs on either side of him for potential witnesses or consultants as they were needed.
Ian began by formally reading a statement describing the incident and stating that they were there to determine the cause of the derailment. Ian was careful to avoid words like “charges” and “culpability,” etc., until it was proved that someone had done wrong. He first called on Peter to describe what happened.
“At 6:00 p.m. on May 25, I was driving a goods train from Bulsar to Bombay and had reached a section of track near Bhyandar where there was a bend in the track as we cut around a hill. I knew that signal #57 was about half a mile past the bend, so I looked out for it. After we rounded the bend, I kept looking for the signal but could not see the light. It had just got dark, but I could not see the light. I was not worried, because the light was always green for a goods train, but I kept looking anyway. Suddenly, when I was 300 yards away, the light just became visible, and, to my surprise, it was red. This had never happened before in my six years on this line at this signal. I immediately applied brakes as hard as I could without derailing the train, but it was impossible to stop. I went fifty yards past the signal before coming to a complete stop. The points had been set just past the signal so that the engine and two goods wagons were off the track. One-half mile farther down the line, men were working on the track, which is why the points were set. The engine and first two goods wagons had been diverted off the line but were still standing upright, and no other damage was done. I walked back to check the rest of the train and to speak to the guard. He had jumped down from his van and was walking toward me. We met at the signal and looked up at it. It was red. He asked me what happened, and I told him. We then walked up the track toward the work gang. They had seen what happened and were coming toward us on a trolley. We told them what happened and dispatched the trolley to inform Traffic and to get help. The rest you know.”
Peter had stopped speaking, so Ian stated, “If that is all, Mr. Hunter …” Peter nodded, “ … I’ll open the floor for clarification questions only and only on the statement that Mr. Hunter just made.”
“Mr. Hunter, you just stated that you were looking for the signal as soon as you rounded the bend but still did not see it until you were about 300 yards away. There was nothing to impede your line of sight, was there?” inquired Anil Shah of Signals.
“No,” said Peter.
“Yet you say the signal was lit,” said Anil.
“Have you recently passed an eyesight test?” Anil asked, looking toward the doctor.
“We conduct this as a routine every year and after every incident such as this,” said Dr. Phiroze Sethna, proffering Ian some papers. “We tested Mr. Hunter’s eyes again this morning; they’re perfect.”
Peter nodded proudly.
“Then I fail to understand how you could not see the signal if: one, you were looking out for it; two, it was functioning properly; and three, your eyesight is perfect. We just heard from the doctor that it is definitely not faulty eyesight. You yourself testified that the signal was lit. Therefore it must be the first option that is questionable—you were not really looking out for it until you were 300 yards away and applied the brakes. Too late to stop the train in time,” said Anil Shah sharply.
“Gentlemen, let’s keep the questions to points of clarification on the testimony presented at this stage of the inquiry,” interrupted Ian smoothly. “We will have an opportunity to draw our conclusions after we have heard all the facts. However, I do like your line of reasoning, Anil, and I am going to write it down on the board. It will serve as a good starting point for our later discussions.”
Anil Shah did not know whether he had been rebuked or flattered. But the battle lines had been drawn. It was easy to see where the trouble would come from.
Ian picked up a piece of chalk and wrote on the top left corner of the board:
1. Looking for signal?
2. Signals working properly?
3. Eyesight okay?
“Mr. Hunter,” Ian continued, “You said something about signal #57 always being green for goods trains. Can you clarify what you meant, please?”
“Well, you see, there is a high-speed section of track beyond the signal which they like the high-speed mail trains to use for passenger safety and to keep them on schedule. This section of track happens to run in the opposite direction, so when they want the northbound mail trains to use the fast track they turn the signal red and switch the points. After the mail train has passed on to the fast section, the points are switched back to their normal position and the signal turned back to green, as normal.”
“So, the mail trains always stop there, and the goods trains don’t,” said Ian, netting it out.
Interesting, the others thought, but so what?
“Ian,” said Phiroze Sethna, the doctor, ”I have some questions for Mr. Hunter that are of an information-gathering nature, about facts that have not come forth in his testimony so far. Would it be appropriate for us to pose them now or do you wish me to hold them for later?”
Oh God! thought Ian. Here it comes now—the drinking part. May as well get it out on the table.
Aloud, he said, “Let’s hear the question, Phiroze. We can decide whether we want Hunter to answer it now or later.”
Phiroze turned to Peter and, in his best, confidential, bedside manner said, “Mr. Hunter, forgive the personal nature of this question, but this is a very serious business, and we are a very small community. Everybody here knows something about each other’s personal lives. It is a question that must be asked for us to render a just decision in this matter. Were you under the influence of liquor when you were driving your train from Bulsar to Bombay on May 25?”
He looked around the Board for agreement. Everybody, including Ian, nodded his or her assent.
“No, sir, I was not,” replied Peter evenly. “We may as well get this all out in the open now. I know that I have a reputation for drinking regularly and to excess, but I have never driven a train while I was under the influence. Once I refused to answer a call because I was still under the influence. At that time, I could have gone to work and hoped for the best that no one would notice, or, if they did, they wouldn’t turn me in. But I didn’t go because I have respect for my responsibility to the public, and I paid the price. That is all a matter of record. When I am home now, I never drink because I love my wife and family,” he said with a choke in his voice. “When I am out on line, I don’t seem to be able to help myself, and I drink too much. But I always sleep it off for at least eight hours before I am on call again.”
“Is there anyone who can corroborate your claim, Mr. Hunter?” pursued Phiroze dubiously.
“My wife,” said Hunter.
“I’m afraid that is not permissible at this inquiry,” interposed Ian. “Anybody else?”
“You could ask Bill Norman. I was his fireman up to a year ago, and you can ask my own firemen.”
“I have already sent a telegram to Bill asking him to be here. He should be arriving by Frontier Mail shortly,” said Ian, to everybody’s surprise. “Your two firemen are waiting outside to be called in, as you know. Shall we call the firemen now, or do we have some more questions for Mr. Hunter?”
There were no more questions, so they called the firemen in. Both of them corroborated Hunter’s testimony, both about the drinking, as well as the events of May 25. Neither of them had been looking for the signal but both verified that Hunter was. By the time their testimony was over, Bill Norman had arrived.
“Mr. Norman,” said Ian, “you’ve heard of the derailment involving Mr. Hunter here. We have asked you in as a character witness, since Mr. Hunter’s drinking record is in question. Can you tell us what you know about that?”
“Well,” said Bill Norman affably, “we all have a spot to drink now and then. It seemed to affect him more when we were out on line, but he never arrived drunk on the job. He only drank when he was on line. He had stopped drinking at home for some time now as a promise to his wife. I wouldn’t drink at home, either, if I had a missus like that,” he added with a wink and a chuckle.
“Mr. Norman, for the record,” said Ian, “have you spoken to the Hunters or anyone else about your summons here to be a character witness?”
“No,” said Bill, “I just got this telegram from you saying to be here. When the AME calls, I go,” he said with a grin, passing the telegram to Phiroze, who read it and passed it around. It read,
“Bill Norman: Need you at Inquiry Board in Bulsar tomorrow May 28. McInnis.”
“Thank you, Bill, but before you go,” said Ian, “I have one more question for you. You’ve been driving the mail trains for the last year between Bombay and Baroda through Bulsar. Before that you drove the goods trains. Hunter here says that the goods trains usually have a green light at signal 57, and the northbound mail trains always have to stop at that signal on a red light. First, please verify that this is correct, and second, if you stop at that signal on a red light, where exactly do you stop?”
Ian’s board members were beginning to get a little tired of him constantly carping on the red and green lights at signal 57 and how they worked. Anil Shah particularly was genuinely irritated by it because Ian seemed to be deliberately trying to introduce something complex into the process so that he could get his fellow Anglo-Indian off, but he had been cleverly squelched once, so he held his peace.
Bill responded, “Firstly, yes. Peter is correct about the green light for goods and red for mail trains. Where do I stop? I stop at the signal.”
Ian persisted, “Do you stop exactly at the signal? Fifty feet behind it? Hundred feet behind or what?”
“I stop exactly at the signal. All the mail drivers stop as close to the signal as they can get. I stop with my cowcatcher right on the line and my cab slightly behind so that I can see the signal when it goes green.”
“How high is the signal compared to your line of sight?”
“About five feet above the engine.”
“When you stop there, how long do you have to stand before the light goes green,” persisted Ian pedantically.
This was too much for Anil.
“Really Ian,” he protested. “What is the point of all these needless details? Hunter passed the signal when it was red. How does it matter where everybody else stops and how long they wait there?”
“It was a matter of my personal curiosity, Anil, but I apologize for wasting all of your time on it. I will take it up with Mr. Norman after the meeting,” conceded Ian.
Anil felt vindicated. Then Bill Norman said, “Anywhere from five to ten minutes.”
Everybody was surprised by Bill’s breach of etiquette, but that was Bill Norman. Everybody had heard his response.
Ian ignored the response and asked a question of Peter Hunter instead.
“Mr. Hunter, you said in your testimony that you were looking for the signal well beyond the bend in the line, expecting to see a green light when, suddenly, as you were 300 yards away, you ‘just saw the red light appear.’ What did you mean? Were you looking right at it and did it just become visible?”
“Yes. It was as though the light was not bright enough to be seen beyond 300 yards.”
Anil shook his head in disagreement but held his peace. Ian looked satisfied; the others looked puzzled. They spent the next hour going over the operation of the signals and their timing—all testimony that Ian dragged out from Anil Shah, thoroughly exasperating that individual by insisting on waiting for Anil to get his staff to look up specifications and engineering drawings. He was especially interested in the intensity of the light bulbs and whether they retained their brightness over time. Anil produced specifications that showed that the lights were visible from five miles, even after they had been installed for three years, but the Railway regularly relamped all signals every September after the monsoons. Ian was finally satisfied. It was now 5:00 p.m., and he adjourned the inquiry, to be continued the following morning at seven. Anil Shah was really annoyed; he wanted to fire the driver and get it over with. It was a simple case of negligence, if not drunkenness. But there was nothing he could do. They would have to settle it tomorrow.
Ian returned to his office, dispatched a lengthy telegram, and returned home. His wife was waiting anxiously. “It’s not over yet,” he told her. “We’re reconvening tomorrow.” She had to get every detail from Ian.
“Well, one thing’s certain in my mind,” Ian said after giving her all the details. “He was not drunk when he was driving that train.”
“Thank God!” said Gillian, hugging him hard. “I’m so happy for Thelma.”
“He’s not out of the woods yet. He still crossed a red light and a banner flag, and there’s no explanation yet for him not seeing the signal. That’s still a very serious offense.”
“But at least he won’t get fired,” said Gillian hopefully.
“No,” agreed Ian. “I think I can save him from that. But you never know. Anil, for some reason, is thirsting for blood. Maybe it’s that he feels everyone is always trying to blame the signals when they make a mistake, but it almost seems like it is something personal.”
At nine that evening Ian’s chaprasi delivered a telegram to him as they were tucking the children into bed. He went out for an hour and a half, and on his return gave his wife a playful whack on the rump for falling off to sleep on him. It didn’t work.
___________ o ___________
The Board of Inquiry convened again the following morning. Anil Shah sat stiffly in his seat. There was a mysterious-looking box set up on a side table, and there were two Railway men present who had not been there the day before. Ian called the meeting to order and quickly recapitulated the evidence that had been collected the day before. He then turned to Anil’s three logical options, captured on the blackboard, and suggested that they approach their conclusion using them as a guideline.
“Let’s take the third option first, since it’s the most straightforward,” he said. “We have incontrovertible evidence from Dr. Sethna that Mr. Hunter’s eyes are perfect, and there seems to be a 100 percent consensus amongst us all that this is so. Is that not correct?”
Everybody, including Peter Hunter, nodded in agreement.
“Let’s examine the next two options, then. The first is: Was the driver looking for the signals when he rounded the bend? We had some discussion and testimony yesterday that perhaps Mr. Hunter did not properly perform his duty due to being intoxicated. We had several witnesses attest to the fact that this could not have been so because of their firsthand observation on the scene, as well as Mr. Hunter’s personal work ethic with regard to alcohol when he was on duty. Mr. Hunter, on behalf of the Board I would like to make an apology for jumping to conclusions based on rumor instead of properly assessing the facts.” He bowed slightly to Peter, who acknowledged the apology with a nod of his head.
“This does not mean, however, that Mr. Hunter did not fail to see the signal due to inattention, even though his firemen attest that he was at his post at the time. So we cannot put a 100 percent check mark against that first option yet.”
“Let’s look at the second option. Were the signals functioning properly? We spent a great deal of time yesterday examining the signal question, and I believe we established that the signals were operating properly, came on at the right time, and were of the proper design and intensity for a person with normal vision to see them from up to five miles away—and Mr. Hunter has perfect vision.”
Peter’s heart sank when he heard Ian say this. They were going to get him on negligence. The end result would be the same; it was his fault, only the penalty might not be so severe.
“Mr. Shah and I discussed this conundrum last night and decided to try an experiment. We each sent a representative from our respective departments—the two gentlemen standing in the room back there—by trolley, after dark, to measure the visibility of the signal light. As they rounded the bend slowly, each noted the point at which he could see the signal light, which happened to be green, as it always is unless a mail train is approaching. They both saw the light as soon as they rounded the bend more than half a mile away.”
Peter’s heart sank.
Ian continued. “They then advised the signal man to switch it to red, backed up their trolley, and came around the bend again to once again mark the spot where they could see the red light. Neither of them could see the red light at first, and then it ‘suddenly just began to be visible’ very faintly as they came within 300 yards of the signal—the same point at which Mr. Hunter first saw the light. As Mr. Hunter observed yesterday, it takes a longer time to stop a goods train with over one hundred wagonloads of material than a mail train with twenty coaches loaded with passengers. Which is why the mail drivers did not have any trouble stopping at that red light in time. But no goods train traveling at forty miles an hour, which is the speed they are expected to maintain, could stop in that distance. We have polled the goods drivers, and the stopping distance they estimated is over 600 yards for a complete stop. Mr. Hunter did it in just over 300. He is to be congratulated. Another fifty to one hundred yards and the train would have definitely plowed through the flimsy stop barrier and jackknifed over the khud. No matter who was driving that train that night, they would have passed the red light.” He paused. There was dead silence in the room. “But what of all the tests and specifications of the signals light bulbs that can be seen for five miles, you may ask?”
They all nodded.
“Well, Mr. Shah and I puzzled over it, too, last night, and we came to the conclusion that something must have been dulling the light of the red signal. So we asked our men, while they were at signal 57, to carefully remove the lenses from the green and red lights and bring them here without tampering with them, handling them as little as possible.”
He opened a carton on the table and took out two big lenses. They were each as large as a dinner plate and almost completely covered with soot. With one finger in a wet rag he drew a clean line across the face of the green lens to reveal the clear glass beneath—then the red.
“Remember the mail trains that stop exactly at the signal and then stay there for five to ten minutes every time, puffing smoke up their chimneys and almost directly onto the signal lights, which are approximately five feet above the engines. That’s what they do to the lenses. Why, you may ask, does the green lens, which is just as dirty, show up from half a mile, whereas red only shows up from 300 yards? Mr. Shah had a very quick and scientific explanation for that. He says that green light has a higher frequency in the spectrum than does red, which has the lowest color frequency visible to the naked eye, and because of that, green penetrates the soot on the lens better than red.”
He let this sink in for a little while and watched Anil settle back with satisfaction that his analysis had been the determining factor in resolving the riddle.
“Gentlemen, I submit to you that this accident was caused by a condition that no one could possibly have anticipated. It is nobody’s fault, and perhaps we have all learned something from this exercise. I move that this Board of Inquiry find Mr. Hunter blameless in this incident, that all reference to this be expunged from his record, and that he be reinstated in his duties immediately. I also move that any mileage pay that Mr. Hunter would have normally accrued, had he not been under suspension for the last week, be included in his next month’s paycheck. I would like to poll the Board at this time and ask for agreement on this motion.”
One by one they all voted with Ian. Even Anil Shah, who was grateful for the way in which Ian had handled the signals issue, especially for consulting with him the previous night at 9:00 p.m. and conducting the trolley/signals tests in concert with his department. It was all an exercise in good detective and staff work. Ian had good reason to feel proud of himself and with the thoroughness and fairness of the decision by the Board of Inquiry. He shuddered to think, however, how close they had all come to not even considering other causes for the accident. They were all so sure that it was Peter’s fault for being drunk on the job. But for the courage and gumption of one attractive woman whose personal appeal had made such an impression on his tenderhearted wife, Ian might never have made the special effort that it took to unearth the true cause of the incident. Those two women, Gillian and Thelma, had just rendered a major service to the Railway, but nobody except he would ever know of it.
Anil Shah managed to get a personal boost to his career by publishing a technical report on signal maintenance directly as a result of this hearing. He backed it up with live field data gathered at every signal in his district. It was a very scholarly and thorough job, which was not surprising, given his excellent schooling at one of the best engineering colleges in the country. Because of Anil’s report, an edict was issued by no less an authority than the Minister of Transportation that all Indian railways would include in their signal maintenance a procedure whereby, when regular monthly tests were conducted on each signal, a man would climb to the top of each signal and wipe the lenses clean. The fact that this phenomenon was not discovered previously was simple to explain: nobody had had any need to climb to the top of the signal except to change lamps. This relamping was done once a year in September after the monsoon, when the driving rain for the previous three months had washed the lenses clean, so nobody ever knew of the soot that gathered on the signal lenses due to the stopped engines. Anil Shah received an Engineering Merit award for Rs. 1,000 and along with it the intangible, but perhaps even more valuable, respect of his colleagues, subordinates, and superiors.
Ian McInnis earned the triumphant hugs and smiles from his wife all that evening, a rollicking romp in bed that night, and the undying gratitude and admiration of Thelma Hunter.
It was not unusual for Thelma and Gillian to become good friends after that; there would be many an evening when Ian, on his return from work, would find Thelma visiting his wife. Thelma always moved to return home with her children upon Ian’s arrival, but Gillian often prevailed upon her to stay longer, sometimes for dinner, sometimes for the evening—a decision popular with the children as well. Peter was usually out on line during these social engagements. He was not deliberately or consciously cut out from the relationship; it just seemed that he did not fit in quite as smoothly and would have been uncomfortable, being as different from Ian as chalk from cheese. He knew of these visits, of course, and if he disapproved, he didn’t say so.
The friendship changed Thelma’s outlook on life in Bulsar. For the first time in a few years she was really happy again. She didn’t realize how much she had missed the easy companionship of life in a Railway colony. Being at the McInnises’s was like being in her father’s house again. She and Peter had not made much of an attempt to socialize in Bulsar, first because money was so tight and later because Peter’s reputation for drink had become a source of embarrassment. Now, with her new friend, and friends for her children as well, her spirits had begun to lift. With that happiness, she began to bloom again—not the bloom of the untouched flower, but rather that of ripened fruit. She was an attractive woman in her prime, so it was inevitable that men with the juices of life coursing through their veins would inevitably be drawn to her. Ian was not immune to this. Her claim on him, and his on her, were sanctioned by his deliverance of her husband and her gratitude for it.
That Gillian was so completely oblivious to this unspoken, undemonstrated attraction accelerating like a comet hurtling toward earth was a credit to her loyalty and trustfulness. Her husband and new friend honored that loyalty by steadfastly holding back from any overt expression of their desire for each other. What they would not deny themselves was each other’s company. Thelma, no matter how she tried, could not turn down an invitation to visit the McInnises. Once she was there, Ian was loath to see her leave. Thus these two imposed their own suffering on themselves and sought solace in the thought that their self-denial was worthy and noble. Gillian, through it all, remained blissfully ignorant of the drama that surrounded her. She continued wonderfully in love with her husband. He returned the love genuinely but was confused by the dichotomy of his emotions. If only he could have reverted to primitive times and had them both.
_________ o _________
The months passed. The bonds of friendship grew tighter between both adults as well as the children. The excluded one was Peter. After a spell of self-imposed sobriety following his exoneration by the Board of Inquiry, he was a minor celebrity among his colleagues along the line. It nourished his ego, and for a few months it was enough of a tonic to stiffen his resolve to beat the demon drink. The novelty wore off, though, with his Railway running mates, and within a few months the incident receded into history. The boredom of the job, driving the goods trains back and forth, the lack of incident, the limited human contact eventually took its toll. The new interests that Thelma had developed at the McInnises’s also detracted somewhat from her otherwise exclusive interest in him and his children. A little drink now and then would not hurt, he thought. Now that he had stopped, he had proved to himself that he could control it if he chose. What was wrong with a few pegs when he was on line? Thus the drinking started again, in its own insidious way, a little at a time—always when he was out on line. He hadn’t told Thelma when he’d stopped drinking on line, and, oddly, she was unaware that he had. Her new friendship with the McInnises had lowered her sensitivity to the changes in him; otherwise she might have noticed. Now that he had started drinking again, he saw no need to tell her that, either. Their lives entered a new phase, where they lived their daily routine as a family, silently counting on one another and taking each other for granted while their interests really lay elsewhere—Thelma’s with her friend Gillian and her illicit desire for Gillian’s husband, and Peter’s with his uncontrollable urge for the dull senselessness brought on by a few chota pegs.
A year after the Board of Inquiry, Peter was dangerously down the path of drink again. He had even begun to drink occasionally at home. Whereas before he would just drink himself senseless, his tolerance for the stuff had now increased, and he would pass through a boisterous and then a maudlin phase before eventually succumbing to oblivion. On line, this would drastically reduce the respect his colleagues had for him, and at home it did the same.
Colin was past seven years old, able to reason, with antennae very sensitive to the mood swings of his parents. The fighting had begun to start between Peter and Thelma, with Colin a silent and terrified witness to it. It was only under the influence of drink that Peter could give vent to his frustrated rage at seeing his lovely wife drifting further from him. With the intuition of every man blessed with a beautiful wife, his conviction grew that it was another man, his savior, who was responsible for this defection. Arguments with this theme were often staged in the full hearing of the horrified, ashamed, confused little boy. He could hear his father accuse his mother of things he could not understand. He could hear her tearful denial. Somehow he understood from the heated cruel words that whatever it was between his mother and Mr. McInnis, it was bad. This was extremely confusing to the little boy because he knew that when he was at the McInnises’s, everybody seemed to be happy, and nothing was wrong. Many times these arguments would end with his father getting maudlin while his mother in reconciliation would stay with him and patch things up. At other times Peter would get in a boisterous bad mood, then feel excessively sorry for himself, and the situation would teeter on the brink of violence. In these instances Thelma fled with her children to the McInnises’s. Out of a mixture of loyalty and shame, she never spoke to the McInnises about the deteriorating situation at home, but they suspected. The rumors about Peter had begun to stir up regularly now, and Ian lived in constant worry that sometime soon Peter’s shenanigans would cause him a major conflict of interest, because of his official capacity and their well-known friendship with Thelma.
When things are going badly, events occur that just seem to make them go worse. Thelma’s father, who had miraculously struggled back from his stroke months before, had a relapse. She received a telegram, when Peter had just left on line, summoning her to Bombay to be at her father’s side. He was not expected to live. Desperate, she rushed off to Ian’s office to get a Railway pass issued. As the AME, and Peter’s boss, it was Ian’s prerogative to issue passes. Normally, it was the employee who was required to apply for the pass, which ordinarily required several days’ notice. But this was an emergency, and Peter wasn’t home. When she arrived at Ian’s office at 3:00 p.m., Thelma was told that he had just left for home to prepare to go on a trip himself. Anxious to catch him before he left, she set out immediately with her three children for the officers’ quarters. Thelma had visited Gillian many times before at that time of day, so Gillian was not surprised to see her. As Thelma was explaining the urgency of her visit on the veranda, Ian, his heart leaping at the sound of Thelma’s voice, came out to greet her.
“Oh, Ian,” said Gillian, always the soft-hearted one. “Poor Thelma has had such tragic news. Her father is gravely ill. Peter’s not home, and she must have a Railway pass to go immediately to be with him. Can you help?”
“Of course,” said Ian. “I’ll send Anand to the office to get a form and sign it at once.”
“I brought one with me from the office,” said Thelma, removing the paper from her bag. “I stopped there first, thinking you would be there, but they told me you had just come home to go out on line yourself.”
Ian took the form and asked her where she wanted to go. When she replied, “Bombay,” he paused, then filled in the form and handed it to her. Glancing at it, she saw that Ian had made it out for First Class by mistake. Peter’s grade level qualified them for Second Class travel. She pointed this out to him, and his casual response was, “I know, but under the circumstances—and on compassionate grounds—an upgrade is warranted.”
“Thank you, Ian,” she said with a grateful smile, knowing that Second Class, reserved seats for the same day of travel would have been impossible to obtain; she would have had to fight with all the other unreserved passengers for seats for herself and her three children. It was truly wonderful to be able to dispense favors with a quick scratch of one’s pen. She wished ruefully that her Peter had the ambition to reach for that power, but at least she had Ian.
“Well,” said Gillian, returning from giving the children some lemonade, “what are the arrangements?”
“Ian just gave me a first-class pass,” said Thelma happily. “It’ll be nice to travel First again. I’m going to have to leave right now if I’m not to miss Flying Ranee to Bombay.”
“Bombay!” exclaimed Gillian. “I thought your father had been transferred to Baroda.”
“He was, but they had to rush him to Bombay because of the complications. He’s at the JJ hospital.”
“Ian,” said Gillian, delighted at the happy coincidence, “you’re going to Bombay on Flying Ranee. You could take Thelma and the kids with you in your saloon!”
Ian’s face was a classic picture of confused emotions. The thought had occurred to him when he was filling out the pass. The prospect of being with Thelma in a private Railway carriage for three hours excited him. It also frightened him. He knew he couldn’t trust himself. His wife in her innocence, confidence, and generosity didn’t know what she was doing. Putting two people like them together for an extended period in the privacy of a Railway saloon, when those two people had for the last year been secretly longing for one another, would be striking a match in a room full of gunpowder. The biggest loser in this venture could be Gillian herself, yet here she was delighted to be suggesting it.
Thelma stood uncomfortably by while Gillian gushed on. “Thelma, where are you staying in Bombay?”
On being told it was at the Second Class waiting room at Bombay Central Station, she wouldn’t hear of it. “Why Ian, your saloon will be on a siding, right at Bombay Central. Thelma, you’ll never be able to sleep with the kids in the Waiting Room. The place will be a zoo. Ian, she can stay in your saloon.”
Ian, desperate to backpedal out of this catastrophic suggestion, said as gracefully as he could, “Gillian, what a wonderful idea. It all happened so fast I didn’t think of it. Thelma, you could sleep in my saloon tonight with the children. Anand will be there in the servants’ cabin. You’ll be perfectly safe. I’m sure I could get the officers’ rest room at Bombay Central for tonight. I’ll tell Anand to send a telegram now.”
“Oh, Ian! You silly ninny! I don’t want you to do that,” said Gillian with a surge of affection, as she threw herself in her husband’s arms. “I don’t want you to do that. You could sleep right there in the saloon. You’ll be getting into Bombay late at night—too late to be scurrying around to the officers’ rest room. There’s plenty of room in the saloon. I’ll keep little David here with me. He’ll be too much of a burden to Thelma in Bombay. Then the two of you and the two older children will each have a bunk to sleep in.”
Ian looked uncomfortable. With all his heart he wanted it. Thelma looked uncertain. The prospect thrilled her. But what did Ian think? What if he thought it was an imposition, she thought, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to read his mind while Gillian happily babbled on.
“Ian,” said Gillian, finally thinking she had understood his reluctance, “nobody will ever know except us. The children will be there. You don’t have to worry about me. I love and trust you both so much!”
As his loving wife embraced him, Ian and Thelma’s eyes met over the top of her fragrant hair. In that look was the helpless knowledge of the certainty of their impending betrayal, but neither of them had the will to prevent it.
Incident in the Saloon
The saloons that the Railway provided their officers, even the first line ones like Ian, were another example of the “burrah sahib” extravagance of British India. These private Railway carriages were assigned to an officer for his personal use at all times. It was his home on wheels. When not in use, it was parked in a siding near his home, awaiting his call. An attendant was always assigned to that carriage, and that attendant was the personal servant of the officer. These coaches were an enviable luxury. A Railway officer, just by flashing his stainless steel badge, had government sanction to hitch his saloon on to any train going anywhere on the vast railway network on the subcontinent, any time, on any section of track. It was a powerful privilege, and the ability to wield that privilege was heady stuff. It was a treat for Thelma and the children to be traveling for the first time in an officer’s saloon. Despite spending her entire life on the Railway, Thelma had never before been on one, though she saw them often and many of her friends went on them all the time. Her father, as the Shed foreman, was just one step below officer’s rank, which would have entitled him to one.
Gillian had not come to the station to see them off. Ian’s trips were too frequent for this to be a novelty. Thelma, Colin, and Theresa boarded alone, ably assisted by Ian’s ever-present chaprasi, Anand. Ian had sent Anand with another trolley man to carry Thelma’s luggage and to escort them to the saloon. Ian himself had not yet arrived when they boarded, but Anand directed them to the siding and settled them in, then discreetly left for the attendant’s cabin in the back of the coach. The children inspected the saloon happily, selecting their bunks and designating the sleeping arrangements for everybody. They each wanted a top bunk and tested them out, while Thelma, with distracted excitement, waited impatiently for Ian’s arrival. He came in time for Flying Ranee’s scheduled arrival, but Flying Ranee was late. It was delayed even more as they shunted and then coupled Ian’s saloon to the passenger train. Five minutes before departure, a contractor arrived to see Ian about some Railway business. Following in his wake was an attendant with a gift basket of fruit and other delicacies—nuts, Indian sweets, snacks, savories, and the like. The man set it down on the small table in the saloon while his master conversed with Ian. Thelma’s children, unaccustomed to being thus treated, displayed an excited interest in the basket. How Thelma would have loved to have her children partake of this feast. The men’s business was quickly conducted as the train whistle blew for departure and the contractor took his leave. It was then that Ian noticed the basket.
“RamLall,” he said firmly, “you know I don’t accept gifts from contractors. I understand you do it out of goodwill, and I accept your goodwill. But please take the basket back to your family.”
Thelma was aghast. The children were crestfallen; everybody could see that.
The contractor pressed his case.
“McInnis sahib, we all know that, but I thought your memsahib here and the children might enjoy some refreshments for the journey.”
Ian and Thelma were momentarily surprised by the man’s natural presumption that she was Ian’s wife, and Thelma took pleasure in his erroneous assumption. Ian didn’t bother to correct the man. He could see the disappointment on Thelma’s and the children’s faces, so he broke his own rule. “This time, RamLall, I will accept it for the children. But I am serious. Please don’t even bring it around next time.”
The train began to move, and the basket, to the children’s delight, remained on the table. The train gathered speed as it pulled away from the station, and the children jumped on one bottom bunk, then the other, on the opposite side, happily pointing out landmarks to Ian and Thelma. They saw their own house pass by, then the officers’ quarters behind the white gate on the hill. Then they passed the river where they had previously been swimming and wading, and the old fort on the hill where they had once been on a picnic—all of which they merrily described to Ian. He was happy to be able to provide them with such simple pleasures and was an excellent host, hoisting them to the top bunks so they could try them out and showing off all the special gadgets and little conveniences that were built into the saloon. Thelma enjoyed it all, too. They both used the children to smooth over the first awkward moments of being together without any other adults. Ian even let the children sample a little cluster of grapes—not much, he said, because Anand had brought a tiffin carrier filled with dinner for them. They watched the rapidly disappearing sunset, crowding on to the one bunk on the western side of the saloon. Ian and Thelma’s bodies touching one another as the children also squeezed against them, reluctant to move, enjoying the physical contact. The color lasted for many minutes after the sun went down, and they all watched in awed silence. Their eyes met and held comfortably. With a gentle touch, Ian reached out and ran his hand slowly along her arm to her shoulder. She reached across her bosom and placed her hand softly on his as it rested on her shoulder. They smiled with the unhurried assurance that tonight would be theirs.
Darkness descended suddenly, and Anand entered to set the table. Magically, the table leaves opened out, a stainless steel pedestal was snapped into its slot on the floor, and a full dining room table spread itself between the two bottom bunks. Anand presided. He spread the tablecloth, quickly set the plates, and before you knew it they were all tucking into delicious biriani, a side dish of roghan ghosh, and the ever-present dhal. They all ate with enjoyment, saving a little room for the delicacies in the basket. There was Bombay halva and burfi, all fresh and from the most expensive shops. The juicy dates were de-seeded, with full cashew nuts inserted in them. There were dried apricots and almonds, and to the children’s delight, fresh, juicy jelabies. It was a wonderful repast, and Ian was glad he had relaxed his rules, just to have seen the pleasure on all their faces. He thought that this was a fitting prelude to the feast that would be served to him tonight. Even the steady clackety clack of the train and its rhythmic motion added a special sensuous ambience to the promise of the night.
“Don’t eat too much,” Thelma fondly warned Colin and Theresa, “or you’ll be sick and won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
“Oh, I love to sleep on trains, Mummy,” said Colin with anticipation. “I love the way it moves and the sound of the rails. I even like it when it rains. When I get in the top bunk, I’ll sleep like a log,” he predicted proudly.
“Me, too,” said Theresa. “I’m feeling sleepy already.”
Anand cleared the table, refolded it to reasonable proportions, and left to share the remainder of the food with the saloon attendant in their cabin. Ian had also given them a generous portion of the contractor’s delicacies to share, and he put the rest of the basket away for the children for the following day.
“I have an hour’s worth of paperwork to do in preparation for tomorrow morning’s meeting,” said Ian to Thelma. “We have some magazines here if you’d like to read them.”
“Okay,” said Thelma. “But first I’ll make up the children’s bunks.” Anand had already shown her where all the bedding was, and she proceeded to spread it out for them. The children were eager to help and climbed on top, trying to spread the bedding under them, making more of a mess of it. Thelma indulged them. It was so rare for them to have fun like this. She kissed them both warmly and whispered to them to say good night to Mr. McInnis and to thank him for the dinner and the sweets. They happily complied. Then she switched off the overhead lights in the main cabin and put on the reading lights on the two bottom bunks. Ian, at his small desk, was absorbed in his work for the next day. Thelma spread out Ian’s and her bedding on the two bottom bunks and settled down to read a recent issue of Woman and Home. The children were still conversing in excited whispers across the two upper bunks, but soon the rhythmic movement of the train and their full stomachs took their toll, and they fell fast asleep. Thelma stood up a couple of times to check on them, and from past experience concluded with certainty that they would be dead to the world till sunup the next day.
She couldn’t concentrate on her magazine and covertly watched Ian instead. In another two hours they would be in Bombay Central. Would he stay with her tonight or go to the officers’ rest room to keep up appearances? If so, they had only two more hours. How much longer was he going to work? They rolled into a station, and the noise and lights from the nighttime activity on the platform flooded into the saloon. It did not have any effect at all on the children; they were both fast asleep. Ian put all his papers away in their folders, rose from his seat, proceeded to close all the shutters on the windows and turn off his table lamp, just as the train started to leave the station. Thelma had put away her magazine and was silently helping Ian with the buttoning-up operations. There was no need for conversation between them. Ian locked the door to the attendant’s compartment, completely shutting them out from the outside world. Wordlessly, they turned toward each other. Ian placed his hands lightly on Thelma’s shoulders, and they smiled in anticipation, their hearts pounding with confidence of the other’s desire.
“You undress in the bathroom,” he said softly. “I’ll undress here.”
She picked up her nightdress, which she had left folded on her bunk, and entered the bathroom. When she emerged, Ian was already clad only in his pajama bottoms. The lights were out. The only dim light that lit the saloon was that over the bathroom door, but it was enough to see by. Ian rose and they lurched toward each other as the train clattered through the coastal plains of Western India.
They stood silently for a long moment just looking at each other, he in his tailor-made pajamas and she—her voluptuous womanhood softly pressing against the cotton material—in her simple, homemade nightdress. They moved closer together and reached for each other’s hands. Ian gently kissed both her hands as their eyes locked. He reached over to her neck and began to undo the hooks that fastened the front of her smock, all the way down to her waist. Unhurriedly, he parted the garment, revealing her body in the pale, amber light. She looked into his face as he opened her bodice, proud to offer him so delightful a prize. The fullness of her womanhood had its predictable effect in arousing him, and she delighted in that. Gazing hungrily into each other’s faces in the pale light, they continued to arouse each other’s desire. He opened a few more hooks on her nightdress, exposing her thighs down to her knees, so that their bodies made contact—skin to skin. Her head was lifted, her lips were parted, and eyes, now closed, enjoying the sensations of touch, reveling in the thrill of her own young body’s response to the primal mating call.
As he lowered his lips to meet hers, the saloon was rent with the sharp cry of a little girl, followed by some thrashing in the upper bunk and nightmarish, unintelligible mumblings. Startled in their desire, they both half turned in their nakedness and looked directly into the wide-open eyes of her eight-year-old son, the pale light from the bathroom door giving his ink-blue eyes an eerie, luminescent glow. He saw them and was agape at what his eyes beheld. For a long moment he stared transfixed. Was this what his father had meant by something bad between his mother and Mr. McInnis? His sister’s nightmare cries continued, and his mother turned to soothe her, doing up her hooks as she did so. His sister woke up sleepily and clung to her mother’s neck, crying softly, “Mummy, Mummy, don’t leave me.”
“I’m not leaving you, darling,” Thelma comforted her. “I’m right here. You were just having a bad dream.”
Theresa clung tighter. “I dreamt you were leaving me, Mummy. I was frightened.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Thelma repeated. “You were having a nightmare. I’ll get you some water to drink; then you can go back to sleep.”
“I can’t go back to sleep up here, Mummy. I’m frightened. I have to sleep with you.”
“You can’t sleep with me, darling. There’s no room on the bunk. One of us will fall off.”
“I can’t sleep alone, Mummy.” She started crying some more, clinging harder to her mother.
Neither Thelma nor Ian had the courage to turn around to face Colin. What could they say to him? How long had he been awake? Had he been an observer of their entire tryst or had he just woken up with Theresa’s cry? What had he seen, and how much did he understand? His eyes had been wide open, and Thelma feared they were not the eyes of someone suddenly startled in their sleep. She was sure that he had seen everything. Ian and she had been so wrapped up in each other that they had not noticed him. When she had checked a few minutes earlier, before going to the bathroom, he had been asleep and was facing the other way. Oh God! What was she going to do? She finally got up enough courage to look around. Colin was still facing her way, his eyes wide open.
“Are you okay, Colin?” Thelma asked, still holding Theresa, who now crawled out of the bunk and into her mother’s arms.
Colin merely nodded.
“Did Theresa wake you up?”
Colin shook his head in the negative.
“Were you awake before?” she persisted.
Dear God, she thought, the child saw it all.
Ian emerged from the bathroom with a glass of water for Theresa. We must have been insane, he thought, to think that we could make love with the children in the room and get away with it. But they were fast asleep, and we hadn’t made a sound. Maybe it was our shadows from the bathroom light moving across Colin’s eyes that woke him up. God! What a cock-up, he thought grimly.
Theresa drank the water sitting in her mother’s arms on the lower bunk. She clung to her mother.
“Mummy, I want to sleep with you. I’m frightened. Don’t make me sleep up there,” she pleaded.
Thelma looked helplessly at Ian. He nodded. The spell had been broken. They’d been crazy to think they could get away with it in this small compartment before. They’d be even crazier now to try to consummate their passion tonight. In resignation, they both lay down on their respective bunks, lying on their sides, facing the inside of the compartment and each other. Theresa lay in an embrace in Thelma’s arms. Thelma and Ian lay awake, looking hopelessly at each other in the dim light across four feet of space that may as well have been a continent.
Thelma’s father took a turn for the worse the next day. Ian, knowing Thelma could use his saloon, left it on the siding for her with the attendant in charge. After his meetings and inspections were over that day, he and Anand took Flying Ranee back home in the other direction. He had come back to the saloon hoping to see Thelma again before he left, but she had not returned, and he had to be satisfied with leaving her a note. It had been a long day at the hospital for Thelma and her children, and she, too, was disappointed to find that Ian had gone. She had hoped that somehow he would find some work that would keep him over an extra night.
Her father died early the next morning, so Thelma sent the saloon back with the attendant. They made impromptu arrangements to transport her father’s body home to Baroda for burial, and Thelma and her children returned with her mother and brother on the same train. The Railway took care of its own people under circumstances like this, and a special First Class carriage was attached to the train to accommodate the family.
By the time Thelma returned to Bulsar, she hadn’t seen Ian for two weeks. Colin had been exceptionally subdued during that whole period. The whole family attributed that to his first experience with death, but Thelma knew better. She knew that what troubled the boy was his accidental witnessing of her and Ian’s activity that night in the saloon. The child had to be confused by the conflicting emotions at war in his uninformed and inexperienced mind. His love for his mother and sense of loyalty clashing with his shock at the animalistic intimacy of human flesh about to engage in its most powerful and primal urge, and his sense of betrayal that an outsider would so intrude on the family circle. Colin, at his age, could not possibly have sorted out or articulated all those conflicting emotions that drove him into a fetal curl of silence and withdrawal. Thelma herself was too ashamed to talk to him about it. She could only hope that with love and time his memory of the incident would wane.
__________ o ___________
Mrs. Pacheco had to move out of their Railway quarters within a month. She received her husband’s provident fund and went to live with her son and his wife. Making home with Thelma would have been putting too much strain on an already precarious marriage. Thelma returned to Bulsar with her children to a situation that was deteriorating even more than when she left. Peter’s drinking had become unbridled now. The New Year came and went. The McInnises prepared to send young John to St. Augustine’s, Ian’s old boarding school. Everybody was worried about Colin, especially Gillian. It was she who prevailed upon Ian to use his influence to get Colin admission into St. Augustine’s and, more important, a full grant from the Railways to pay for his attendance there. Ian was only too glad to be able to do something for the boy, in expiation for his part in bringing this emotional trauma on him. Colin had begun to shy away from almost all contact with adults, his only escape to reality being his increasing attachment to young John McInnis, with whom he played with an almost desperate intensity. It was Gillian’s concern about the breaking up of this friendship that gave her the idea for Colin to accompany John to St. Augustine’s. Thelma was eternally grateful; Peter, too drunk most of the time to care. On the dark side, for Ian and Thelma it meant the removal of the only witness, and therefore possibility of discovery, of their carnal lust for one another. This lust, once expressed, even though the first attempt at its consummation was aborted, was hard to deny. They both knew it was only a matter of time before they would create another opportunity to conclude what they had begun. They both felt undeniably guilty about it and both were concerned about the irrevocable consequences if they were found out, but neither was capable of resisting the powerful urge to bring their liaison to fruition. With Peter descending deeper and deeper into the pit of drunkenness, St. Augustine’s represented a haven for Colin, where at least Thelma knew he would be safe, free from the scourge of a drunken father and all the hardship that drunkenness could bring down on them.
Thus it was that Colin Hunter was dispatched to St. Augustine’s, where he would spend the next eight years of his young life, almost uninterrupted, in that priceless setting in the Aravalli Range of Rajasthan. With him, inextricably entangling the roots of their fateful connection, as they would grow up together, went John McInnis, who would later earn the sobriquet “The Hare.”
The months following the boys’ departure to boarding school brought increasing tension in the Hunter household. Peter, certain that he was being cuckolded by his superior officer, and frustrated at his inability to do anything about it, drank himself more regularly into oblivion. His arguments with and accusations against his wife on the matter, during his rare moments of sobriety, were met with less credible protestations of innocence. Though technically the act of adultery had not been committed, it was only a fortuitous event that had prevented it from occurring.
Peter’s reputation at work was rapidly eroding once again. The downward slide into drunkenness was almost unstoppable now. No longer would his colleagues be able to attest truthfully that he did not arrive drunk at work. It was almost regularly the case now. His absenteeism had begun to increase, and his ability to disguise his drunkenness deteriorated. He was drinking in front of Thelma now, claiming that it was her infidelity that was driving him to it. Thelma was at her wit’s end; she wasn’t innocent, yet she had not even had the pleasure of committing the sin she was accused of. She and Ian, for whatever reason—lack of opportunity or perhaps the eventual return of commonsense—had not yet taken each other. Peter’s accusations did arouse Thelma’s Catholic guilt, and she blamed herself for the terrible state into which her husband had fallen. Incredibly, she loved him still, and in strange contradiction to her carnal longings for Ian, knew that she could never leave Peter.
Peter got into trouble again. It wasn’t a catastrophic event like a derailment this time. This was more a steady accretion of minor violations, which pointed to lack of performance and responsibility. The man was just not doing his job. The District Mechanical Engineer, Ian’s boss, was involved this time. In his experience and wisdom he saw that Ian’s efforts to help the family were fruitless. Ian was too close to them to manage the problem objectively. Peter was going to be reverted to a Shunting Driver, moving the carriages and goods wagons around a marshaling yard where he would not have the responsibility of a train on a public line. Ian had wanted to keep him under his jurisdiction, arguing that it was his problem, and he did not want to shovel it off to somebody else. The district manager, loath to let his promising young AME fail, overrode Ian’s objections and transferred the Hunters to Sabarmati. There were tearful good-byes between Gillian and Thelma, and promises to keep in touch. When Ian embraced Thelma and kissed her gently on the lips in front of his wife, they both knew that what they had wanted so desperately was not to be.
The Hunters went to humbler lodgings at Sabarmati, a lower monthly salary, and no travel allowances, since Peter’s job in the marshaling yard meant that he didn’t go out on line any more. There was no English Railway school for the children there, so it was fortunate that Colin was at St. Augustine’s. Theresa and David would have to be taught at home as they grew up. Sabarmati represented failure to Peter Hunter, and he responded to this new trial by drinking more. Poor Thelma—it was a miracle that with all this trouble she didn’t succumb to drink herself. Inside her there was a toughness of purpose, a tenacious loyalty, perhaps even a perverse tendency to accept martyrdom and, oddly enough, take pleasure in paying the price for her sins.
There was never any money in the house, and the children, though not starved, often went hungry. They hadn’t made any clothes for months, but Peter never wanted for his drinks. Thelma began to sell off their few belongings. First, her and Peter’s bed, which her father had made for them in the Railway workshops, then the dressing table and cupboard that her mother had given her when her father died. They put the mattresses on the floor to sleep at night. During the day she rolled the bedding up and stacked it neatly in the corner of the bedroom. Their clothes she kept in two steel trunks that looked like they had been handed down for generations. She kept the house spotlessly clean and somehow placed some food on the table for the children. She herself seemed to need very little food to survive, and Peter seemed to live only on drink. All extraneous costs were cut out. She had long since got rid of all her household help, did her own cooking and sweeping of the house, and got rid of the dhobi costs by washing and ironing their own clothes. One thing she, or any other Anglo-Indian could never do was get rid of the methar, who came every day to carry their toilet pots of human waste to the public cesspool a few hundred yards away, scrub the pots, and bring them back. There was no other means of disposal of their sewage, and the methar’s wage was only Rs 5.00 per month. It was unthinkable for Thelma to take on this task; her disgrace and humiliation would have been complete if she had. Even though Anglo-Indians did not acknowledge the Indian caste system, they were an indigenous part of a land that had lived by rigid social codes for centuries and so were sensitive to it.
The Hunters’ daily fare was reduced to the cheapest wholesome food she could possibly buy— bhajra grains, which she made into simple chapattis on the only sigri they had left, the coal fortunately supplied by the Railway; dhal lentils, the Anglo-Indian staple; some onions and garlic chopped and simmered to give the dhal a delicious taste; and a few simple vegetables (mustard greens, cauliflower, and peas) and beans, which Thelma flavored cleverly to make wholesome healthy meals for her family. The children had milk rarely and mutton or beef almost never, though Thelma did manage to get a fowl every once in a while and make a delicious curry out of it. Peter would sober up for rare stretches of a few days—long enough to be contrite and remorseful for what he had dragged his family down to. Thelma would be supportive and encouraging at those times and, with the temptation of Ian McInnis removed, they would even manage to squeeze a few days of happiness together. Peter would be at it again, though, within a few days, drinking away the money the family sorely needed for their sustenance.
Thelma soon had to sell the simple sofa and chairs in their sitting room, and it wasn’t long before the dining table and chairs followed. All the sales of their furniture, because of their desperate straits and the limited funds available to those who bought them, were atrociously below their original cost, and certainly well below their replacement cost as well. Soon the Hunters were sleeping and sitting on the floor like the most impecunious villagers. Their isolation from the Anglo-Indian community at Sabarmati was complete.
Thelma finally had to do the unthinkable: she discharged the methar. So, late at night, when she was certain that she would not encounter anybody, she would make the two trips to empty their four pots at the cesspool. The Railway quarters of the lesser employees, into which category Peter now fell, were modest modular homes of inexpensive construction in a long, double row, back-to-back with one another. Down the middle of the back of the homes ran a narrow dirt alley that was used for access to the cesspool. Many residents would use the alley itself as a cesspool, dispensing with the niceties of having toilet facilities in their homes. Thelma would sneak down this back alley, fearful of being observed, carrying two stinking pots of excreta and urine, with the flies buzzing all around them. She’d dump their contents in the cesspool, scarcely able to keep from gagging with the fetid smells that rose to greet her as their night soil mixed with that of the other residents of their small community. She’d scrub the pots scrupulously with a stiff stick broom and rinse them thoroughly under the tap. The entire procedure left her terrified that she would be splashed with some of the stuff and that the horrible smells would cling to her clothing, her skin, her hair and that she would stink like a bungee. But this daily chore saved them Rs. 5.00 per month, so she did it.
Peter sunk deeper into despondency with the outward evidence of his failure, while Thelma clung to a desperate hope that they had hit bottom and things could only improve from here.
She was wrong.
Peter’s colleagues, tired of covering up for him for the daily errors he made shunting the carriages and goods wagons in the marshaling yard, and fearing for their own culpability if the cover-ups were discovered, finally reported him when six goods compartments full of mangoes were sent back to Bulsar, the mango-growing district, instead of to Delhi for consumption. By the time the error was discovered and the mangoes traced to a siding in Bulsar, the entire consignment had become overripe and had to be discarded. Peter was finally fired after an investigation. The Hunters had to vacate their simple house in Sabarmati, and the saga of their homelessness began.
Glossary of Terms
Indian/Anglo-Indian words Definition
anna unit of currency = eight pice
areh vah slang expression for “Very Good”
baba little master
banyan tree tree with multiple descending trunks
bhajra untreated grain with husks
boojia sautéed and diced vegetables
bungee lower-class servant who cleans latrines
burrah sahib big boss
chaprasi office attendant
chota peg small serving of alcohol = one oz.
crip slang for cripple
Dettol brand of medical antiseptic
Gurkha Nepalese man—often a soldier
katora small metal dish
khud precipitous drop, precipice
kora kapra inexpensive cloth
korma spicy dish of cubed meat
kukhri large, angular bladed knife
machan hunting platform
memsahib mistress of the house
methar servant who cleans toilets
namaste Indian greeting
pice smallest unit of old Indian currency
pukka ripe, mature, genuine, etc.
puri fried flat bread
ras malai Indian sweet made from cheese
rupee unit of Indian currency = sixteen annas
sadhu Hindu holy man
sari woman’s wraparound garb
sigri small coal stove
sitar Indian stringed musical instrument
tabla Indian drum played with palm of hand
tamasha noisy celebration
thali metal plate/tray combo