Reminiscing a Northern railway journey | Daily News


Reminiscing a Northern railway journey

This article was inspired by the article on the Railway’s ‘Three Sisters’ published in the Daily News last week. It brought back some beautiful travel memories of railway journeys I made as a child more than 50 years ago, with my parents. Time changes everything. Colombo city of our childhood days was a very different city. There was not much traffic and getting about was easier. My grandparents were still living in Jaffna.

I remember my first visit by train in 1954 when I was just five years old. I understand now that this was the long 13-hour journey by night mail. I assume I didn’t enjoy this long trip in the dark, with nothing to see out of the windows. The views from the window are what captivate a child on any journey. However, I clearly remember the waiter who came from the train’s restaurant wagon. He was clad in white sarong and shirt. He served us sandwiches and tea. I don’t recall much of the other details except that my parents took me to a beautiful house which had a spacious garden. There were many visitors who came to meet us and I received some gifts.

I took my second journey by train in 1959 when I was 10 years old. I remember my father telling us about a new express train called the Yal Devi, which had been launched three years ago. The new train was said to offer a much quicker ride to Jaffna. I remember going to the Fort Station in the morning with my parents. My dad had the habit of buying the Daily News, which was his routine for almost six decades. In those days, there was no internet or mobile news alerts, and everyone in Colombo pretty much depended on the Daily News published by Lake House. The station platform was full with other families and excited children.

Within a few minutes, a beautiful train engine cruised into the station. It was the first time I saw such a sleek engine, in comparison to the steam-powered black locomotives that had dominated the Railway Department. After we had settled in, I heard the Station Master blow his whistle, delivering three sharp bursts. When I peeped out of the window, I could see the train guard waving a green flag. The train’s horn sounded twice, and she chugged out of the station. The Yal Devi Express was cruising to the land of the palmyrah trees. Within a few minutes, we realized the speed of this magnificent engine.

On this journey, Mother had brought many snacks including chocolates and biscuits. Father read the newspaper. I think the train stopped at Polgahawela Station, where some vendors got in. They had wicker baskets full of vadai and rolls. As the train got closer to Jaffna, the landscape changed to reveal an area dotted with clusters of palmyrah trees and green paddy fields. We reached Jaffna Station in the afternoon. We hired a Morris Minor car to my grandparent’s village. The Morris Minor was the trusted car in this province 50 years ago. When we reached home, it was fun to be bathed at the well. My mother was always cautious at the well for although it had a safe cement wall and apron, it was quite deep. I remember on another visit how a group of hired men cleaned the well. They used a flexible rope ladder and got down. Using ropes and buckets they drew out much of the water, and then scrubbed the interior wall. This is a common ritual done at least thrice a year.

Today there is much focus on the environment and sustainability. But as many people from our era know, the homes in the villages were truly built and operated on ‘green practices’ decades ago. Every house had a spacious garden full of trees, a bonus of village life I reckon.

An assortment of pets added to the natural aura of the house. I recall that Grandma had one cow and a few goats. There were some hens and ducks in the rear garden. At night, the hens would find shelter on one of the trees. In keeping with nature’s cycle, the roosters cawed and crowed every morning. I fed the pigeons with paddy.

The breakfast table had a different menu in comparison to Colombo. The string hoppers, thosai and milk hoppers were all made at home. There was a bakery located a few miles away. I do remember going there on a bicycle one morning with my uncle. These bakeries which used large firewood based ovens are no more. During my holidays, I managed to learn the art of riding a bicycle. I did have one of two falls but then gained my confidence and balance.

By 10.00 am I often went to the village market with my grandmother, who was quite competent in striking a bargain. She purchased fish and vegetables. She carried a wicker basket with her. It was nice to see how she cooked on the open stove, at times assisted by a young village woman, who was paid for her help.

My grandfather was quite knowledgeable on ayurveda medicine. He used to have a few large and small bottles full of herbal oils. There were two men who would come to pound and extract these healing oils. During our school holiday visits to Jaffna, we went to other places like Keeri Malai which has a legendary pond of holistic water.

Jaffna town still had accents of colonial charm infused with native architecture. The nights were cool in the village with breeze from the mango and khomba trees. We did encounter the odd snakes, frogs and intrusive bandicoots. These visitors to our garden were certainly not welcome. The large house was illuminated by petromax lamps. There was no electricity in the province. One of my uncles used to scare us with his ghost stories.

I recall the bullock carts and majestic bulls. Policemen in shorts used to cycle about in the town. Since these childhood days, much has changed. After my wedding, I took my husband to Jaffna. He too read the Daily News on the train. Thankfully, there was electricity and ice cream by then.

The old house had somehow lost her pristine charm. Only a few hens were in the garden. Both my parents had since reached their eternal rest. After a pause of many years, at the age of 70, I took a ride on the modern Yal Devi train. This journey was very smooth and most of the stations looked different. The Railway Department must be commended for improving its train services. As we journey in life, we can only retain these golden memories.

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