Built in the 1950s, the Railway Quarters in Vile Parle East in Mumbai was home to employees of the Western Railway. Generations of children grew up there to become doctors, engineers, singers, farmers, executives and businessmen. One even ended up as a gangster – or so it was whispered
When employees retired, their flats were distributed to the next employee in line and a new family would start life in this community. Today, the four long buildings next to the railway tracks where I once lived are desolate. Soon, they will be demolished to make way for a new sixth railway line between Borivali and Mumbai Central.
It is strange to see the home where you spent the best years of your childhood suddenly being erased from existence. That strip of land will hold our memories eternally as the trains fly past on the new line. This is a brief account of the years I spent there with my railway family.
“Ravi. It’s seven. Time to return home,” yelled my mother from the first floor balcony of building number 75, trying to be heard over the din of a passing goods train. I am known as Ravi to my family and friends. I peered through the huge leaves of the badam tree and saw her leaning out of the balcony.
My mother was a petite woman who wore her hair in two plaits. In the fading light, I could clearly see the bright red bindi on her forehead as she scanned the length of the colony looking for me. I sat motionless on the branch. Ten-year-old boys were not allowed to clamber up trees.
After a few more yells, she vanished into the house. Not trusting her, I peeked at the huge clock on platform number two of the Vile Parle station and realised that she was indeed right. It was nearing seven in the evening. The rule was that I had to be back home by 7 pm no matter what. Any delay would invoke the wrath of my father, a strict disciplinarian.
My father worked in the Western Railway, as did other residents of the colony, which was called the Railway Quarters.
In between two buildings, number 75 and 76, was a garden as big as a volleyball field. The hedge around the garden housed an assortment of tiny wildlife and the flowers attracted all sorts of winged creatures. As children we could spend hours in the garden playing in the mud among the shrubs. The garden offered ample entertainment if we got bored of cricket or football or games such as marbles, gili danda or kabbadi.
Those were the days before Cartoon Network, 24-hour television channels, computer games or mobile phones. There was just one television in the entire colony and the owner allowed only us to watch the Sunday evening movie with his family. One of our favorite pastimes was to catch dragonflies, tie a small string on them for identification and then release them. The one whose dragonfly flew the furthest was the winner for the day.
I quickly stuffed the ripe fruit of the badam tree and the dragonfly I had caught into the pocket of my pants, slipped down the tree and rushed home. By the time I washed up and lit the lamp for prayers, I had completely forgotten about the dragonfly.
My father was a stickler for punctuality. At exactly 9 pm, the radio was switched on for the English news. It was not until after the 9 pm news and we were settling down for dinner that I remembered the poor dragonfly. I rushed to check on it but it was too late. It was a terrible tragedy since it meant I would have to catch another one early tomorrow if I had to take part in the race.
This one was a clear winner: it was the red dragonfly. I knew the red ones were stronger and faster than the green ones – and difficult to catch too. Only complete control over hand and eye movement could bring you the prized red dragonfly. With a heavy heart, I went back to dinner thinking of the hard evening that was to follow.
The railway colony
One would think that staying so close to the railway tracks would be torture. Far from it. We were oblivious to the sound of trains trundling past day and night. Everyone was accustomed to modulating their voices when a train passed by so that they could be heard above the din. However, the tracks next to our colony did have their share of tragedies. People would often get run over and killed. One of our neighbors even died by suicide on the tracks.
An unwritten rule was obeyed by all children: never venture onto the tracks, no matter what. During a game of cricket, if the ball went over the wall onto the tracks, we would clamber up and wait for a passer-by to throw it back into our compound. We had seen too many deaths to even think of running across the tracks. The garden was our little world.
Our cohort consisted of six people, all in the same class and school. There was Krishna, my best friend, who was also the daredevil of the lot. He could do anything and his many scars were a testimony to his adventurous nature. Rex, the naughty one, could think up ideas that did not involve studying. Rajan and Mani were quiet and went along with whatever the others did. Uday was a year younger than us and called “limbu timbu”, which meant he was the butt of all our jokes and also the errand boy.
The colony had four buildings each with 12 flats, which meant there were several children. Most of them had formed groups of the same age to play together.
Between the colony wall and the building was a tiny strip of land that led to the houses. I had had my eye on that strip of soil, about two feet wide, for long. Since the land was barren, I thought it would be a good idea to grow some plants there. Besides, I had seen one Mr Patel, who lived in the next building, grow flowers, fruits and even a few vegetables on the strip opposite his building.
Bapuji, as he was known, was an old man who had come from a village in Gujarat to work in the railways years ago. He still had a huge house and farm in Bardoli, near Navsari in Gujarat, but rarely went there.
My family did not believe in pocket-money, so buying plants was out of the question. The only option was to get some from around the colony. I went hunting and managed to cut a couple of hibiscus stalks from the next building before a security guard came chasing after me. I also found some almond plants growing next to a ditch and a custard apple tree.
I returned by evening, happy with my haul of plants. With a spade borrowed from Mr Patel, I began digging the ground, only for one Mrs Naidu, who lived on the ground floor, to come out and yell at me.
Her knowledge of Hindi was limited and her shouting contained a smattering of Telugu, which I could not understand. All I could gather was that she was vehemently opposed to what I was doing because she intended to grow a garden in the same place.
All these years, I thought, Mrs Naidu had not once looked at that spot and now she had suddenly developed a keen interest in plants. Not wanting to get into an argument I moved away a bit and carried on planting.
I returned home pleased at having planted so many plants in a day, and told my mother all about it. She was happy with my gardening but upset that I had not called her when Mrs Naidu was screaming. She went to the balcony and loudly announced, to no one in particular, that no one owned the land in front of the building and neither did anyone have the right to shout at her darling child.
I found it amusing considering that if Mrs Naidu had no right to the land it meant that we did not either. It was a case of pot calling the kettle black.
Over the next few days, I amassed a collection of plants. Every day, I would carry buckets of water down from home and water the plants hoping that they would start flowering beautifully.
Finally, a day came when the first hibiscus blossomed. It was a beautiful sight to behold: the blood-red flower in full bloom, and I must have spent at least half the day admiring it. Maybe it was good that I did, for that was the last hibiscus I was to see. Most women in the colony had a habit of plucking the buds in the evening itself. They placed these in a vessel of water and the flower that bloomed was then used for puja the next day.
I never understood how god would be pleased with an offering that had been stolen from a tree that these women did not even bother looking after. This mania of plucking the buds caught on, with each family trying to get to a plant before the other. Soon enough, I saw my mother wake up at five in the morning to plunder the buds.
Fed up, I vowed not to grow flowering plants again. In a moment of frustration, I contemplated cutting down all the flowering plants. Instead, I decided to focus on fruit trees. I managed to procure the sapling of drumstick, or moringa, and planted it opposite our house. It grew well until one evening when an exceptionally rough football match saw the main stem break. I sat on the steps of the building and sobbed inconsolably while the entire football team tried to figure out where I had been hurt.
Between sobs, I told the football team that it was the drumstick tree they had hurt, and got a whack on the head (a “tapli”, as we called it) as they returned to their game. Completely insensitive and rude, I thought.
The only person I could turn to was Bapuji, to whom I narrated my sorry story. He smiled and said, “If you break your leg what will the doctor do?” I thought and replied, “He will put a plaster on the break after joining the bones.” Bapuji said, “Then why are you crying? Do the same thing.”
I ran back home and returned to my garden, armed with some bandage, a thin stick for a splint and some cotton. After half-an-hour of work, I managed to tie the splint so the plant was upright, and prayed it would survive.
A couple of weeks later, new leaves appeared at the top of the plant. My first successful operation. The tree was to grow to a massive 40 feet and provide enough drum sticks for all the families around. It was also my first lesson that plants and trees should be treated like human beings. They were living organisms, just like we were.
The tree, however, was not without its share of enemies. Most drumstick trees attract a lot of winged insects, and usually around the monsoon, they end up covered with tiny furry caterpillars, which are known to cause itching. It was not long before our ground floor neighbor Mrs Naidu began complaining. She demanded that the tree be chopped down. The woman was looking for every opportunity to nip my gardening efforts in the bud.
After a few heated arguments, it was finally decided that she had a point and we had to do something about the caterpillars if the tree was to survive. Every evening, I went about searching the tree for caterpillars, knocking them down with a long stick and then crushing them underfoot. It caused me a lot of anguish as these were caterpillars that one day would have grown into lovely butterflies.
Acrobatics and fruit raids
Summer holidays in the colony were hectic. Besides cricket, football, volleyball, gilli danda and marbles, we always took on something new to learn. One year it was cycling. All of us would walk for 15 minutes to a local cycle shop where Chaliya uncle would rent out cycles by the hour. We would walk back to the colony and then help each other learn to ride. It was great fun and most of us kept falling off and getting hurt. In a couple of days, we learnt to cycle without an adult running behind us.
Merely riding the cycle was not enough. We had to master the art of getting on it without help, getting off it, and other unnecessary acrobatics that Krishna thought of.
One day, we were quietly practicing keeping our balance on the cycle when Krishna, who had just returned from a circus nearby, suggested that we ride the cycle backwards. At first we laughed at him till he claimed that he had seen some children do it in the circus. If they could do it, why not us. It seemed like a reasonable argument.
A few tries later we saw that Krishna had mastered the art and was off on his cycle with a triumphant shout. A minute later, there was a thud followed by much bawling. He had ridden straight into a lamp post and was lying on the ground, nose bleeding, beside a heap of metal that closely resembled a cycle. It turned out that his nose was broken, and it ended up permanently crooked. There were no more acrobatics after that and our circus careers ended prematurely.
When we were not up to these antics, there were always other exciting things to do during the holidays. Trees, including mango, jamun, the Indian almond, custard apple and guava, dotted the colony. Most would be bearing fruit around the time of our holidays. When we were not playing, the entire day would be spent plotting how to steal these fruits.
The trees were along the edge of the track, next to the wall and it was usually the ground floor residents who claimed ownership. Each member of the household would zealously guard the tree and its fruits from the other children of the colony.
Our task was to beat these guards. We would meet in small groups behind the building and strategise. Most attacks would be organised in the mid-afternoon, during siesta time. All communication during the raid had to be in sign language since even the slightest noise could give us away.
One of us would be the look-out, usually Limbu-Timbu. There was the lead climber, mostly Krishna, who would slip up the tree and throw down the fruit. A catcher stood at the foot of the tree and caught the falling fruit. This honour fell to Rex, the wicket-keeper of our cricket team. Finally, there was the spotter – yours truly. My strength lay in spotting the fruit among the leaves and guiding the lead climber. It also was easy to make a getaway in this position in case someone caught us in the act.
An hour of activity would result in a good haul of mangoes or guavas. We would retreat to the top of the building to consume our spoils. One of us would sneak home and get some salt, chili powder and a knife. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the delicious pursuit of eating the plunder.
In the evening, there would be a postmortem of the raid: what went wrong if it did, and how we could have improved the collection. It was no less than a war, with the generals all fighting for the credit or pinning failure on one team member.
At the end of the summer, came the much-awaited monsoon. The entire garden would be full of insects, earthworms, toads and frogs. Every afternoon after school, all the children would rush to the garden and dig around in the mud. Who cared about soiled clothes or dirty water? The aim was to catch the most exotic species and then display them.
In the evenings, we examined our catch. We were caring children and would try and feed all the specimens with what we thought was great food, such as chocolates or biscuits, only to find that these were rejected. Our analysis was that the insects were not hungry. After playing with the specimen, we let it off safely in the bushes, close to where it had been captured.
Sometimes, for identification, we would tag the specimen and hope to find it again, next year or later so we could track its progress. Funnily enough, that never happened. Maybe they all fled after the harassment.
Cats and rafts
At the end of the colony was a bal mandir, or welfare centre, with a huge ground in front of it. This was the focus of all intellectual activity for the colony. Every Sunday, the library would open with a wide range of books and magazines on display. The centre also had a typing class, music classes and Bal Vihar classes run by the Chinmaya mission, a religious and spiritual organisation.
Meetings of the housing society and elections were conducted here. During the wedding season, the society rented out the hall to fund its activities. Years later, the society also started a day-care centre for the children of working couples.
The ground in front of the centre would often fill up with water after heavy rains. That was the best time for us, and it tested our ingenuity in making all kinds of boats, ships, submarines and what not to sail on this huge expanse of water.
During one exceptionally heavy monsoon, we even made a raft. A few banana trees had collapsed and that provided us with the raw materials. We tied the banana stalks together and padded the gaps with leaves. With great hope, we pushed the raft onto the water and jumped with joy when it did not sink.
The next obvious thing was for one of us to step on to the raft. No one wanted to volunteer. We drew lots and the onus fell on my close friend, Rex. Much to our dismay, the raft sank like a stone along with Rex the moment he stepped on it. There were a few anxious moments as we waited for Rex to surface.
It was clear the raft was not meant for such heavyweights. We were still keen on seeing the raft float with something live on it. Finally, we managed to catch a cat lurking around and put it on the raft. The frightened cat had no idea that it had just become the first living creature to sail on a raft in the colony.
With the cat neatly stationed at the centre of the raft, we watched our creation slowly sail away. We hugged each other and complimented ourselves. So engrossed were we in our celebrations that we did not notice that the raft had sailed to the centre of the pond and there was no way of steering it back to shore. We were too short to wade through the water and none of us knew how to swim. The terrified cat was meowing its head off.
Many attempts were made to retrieve the raft, such as throwing stones to create waves hoping the raft would return to shore, but all in vain. Finally, we had to ask a grown up to wade through the water and get the raft and its feline sailor back to shore. A long evening followed with all the adults lecturing us about animal rights and how we ourselves could have drowned. We were quite glad to crawl into our beds and vowed never to build rafts again.
Families and festivals
The railway colony had people from a variety of Indian communities and we celebrated festivals with great gusto. The Patels from Gujarat, with a large family of six children, celebrated Navaratri and showed us all how to do the ras garba, a traditional folk dance. The D’Souzas, the first to move into the colony, and the Nelson and Coutinho families celebrated Christmas with a crib and all. Us children were part of the crib-making activity and would put in heroic efforts to make each one with Jesus, a barn, sheep and angels.
We were all invited to share the delicacies of each festival and those sweet moments were something that we would all relish for years to come. There were the Singhs from Punjab and the Das family from Uttar Pradesh. There were many families from Kerala and Tamil Nadu so Onam and Vishu were celebrated too.
The Salunkhes, the Veerkars, the Sinaris and the Dandes included us in their Gudi Padva or Maharashtrian New Year and Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. There was one Muslim family, the Khans, for a short while and they were also a part of the family, exchanging sweets for Eid.
We were from Kerala, but that did not stop us from enthusiastically celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi. My mother had an artistic streak and made Ganesh idols at home using clay that we collected from the banks of a creek near Naigaon, a suburb close to Mumbai.
It started small, with her making an idol that we prayed to for two days, and then immersed into the nearby well. Soon, news of her creation spread and others began visiting our house during Ganesh Chaturthi to catch a glimpse of her work of art. Some felt that two days was too less and we had to keep the idol for eight days. What began as a small family festival soon gained the proportions of a public event.
The food during festive days was divine. The succulent modaks made from rice flour, stuffed with coconut and jaggery, and the ladoos were never enough. It was also believed that the great elephant god had to be fed twice a day with fresh food, and that meant eight days of different sweet dishes. Everyone in the colony would offer to cook and it was a delicious range of food that we ate all those days.
At the end of one sumptuous week of worship, we would place the idol on a hand cart and the entire colony would accompany it to the beach for the immersion. A small band usually came along playing loud music, popular at that time. We danced in front of the cart all the way to the beach. After immersing the idol in the sea, there would be a round of bhel puri and then we would all return home. The trip would usually tire us out so much that we rarely managed to get up for school the next day.
Besides Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali – the festival of lights – was another major celebration. For three days in a row, we would get up early and go downstairs to burst crackers. My mother would prepare a sumptuous breakfast and there would be a mandatory exchange of sweets between neighbours and other families.
Most of the time, by evening, I would suffer from a stomach ache after overeating sweets. In the evening, all the families would assemble on the terrace for the grand finale. We lit rockets and anars and would watch the fireworks explode in the sky in a riot of colours.
Living in a huge colony had its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage was that there were no secrets here. The evenings would usually see groups of women, vegetables in their laps, sitting on the steps leading to the building.
As they chopped vegetables, they exchanged gossip and information. However, on the brighter side, being part of a large family meant there was always help at hand and one never felt alone. If someone fell ill, others would rally around the afflicted person and look after their children.
I remember when my parents left me alone at home as they had to go to Chennai after my grandfather died. I could not go with them as my exams were round the corner. I spent the entire ten days at Mr Patel’s house. Maybe that is where I got a taste of real Gujarati food, which I still love. This was also the time I learnt to be independent. I did not know how to tie my shoelaces as my mother did that for me each morning. Mr Patel was clear when he said, “You learn to tie your own laces or you can go to school without shoes.”
The other memory I have is of how those who worked in the Railways were referred to by what they did. There was Motorman Iyer, Motorman Macwan, Accounts Kutty and Carshed Naidu. Be it a promotion or a milestone at work, the colony would celebrate with sweets distributed all round.
In 1972, the first Rajdhani Express to New Delhi was flagged off from Mumbai Central. It was a matter of immense pride for the colony as Mr Patel was selected to be in charge of the air-conditioning on the train.
Everyone stood in their balconies waiting for the Rajdhani Express to pass by. As the spanking new train decked with flowers thundered by, everyone waved and cheered. In the generator coach at the end, we saw Mr Patel standing at the door beaming and waving to all of us.
A sad but significant event was in the late 1980s when the steam engine was decommissioned by the railways. On that day, we stood waiting for the huge black monster to make its last journey. We heard the hissing and trundling noise from afar as the goods train approached the colony.
The soot-covered driver, with a red polka dot bandana on his head, stood at the door, one hand pulling at the “S bend” – a rod in the old trains pulled for the whistle – and the other waving to all of us.
We watched in awe and silence as the steam engine chugged past us with its classic sound, leaving a plume of black smoke in its wake. The long train with seventy goods wagons trundled past and at the end was the guard cabin.
In his pristine white uniform, the guard stood smiling and waving his green flag for the last time. This also signaled the end of a dream for many who thought that becoming a steam engine driver was the best job one could have.
School, French cricket and a death
I went to St Xavier’s School, a ten-minute walk from the colony. Most of the boys went there too. Every morning at 7 am sharp, Krishna and Rex would call out to me and we would walk together to school. A strict priest was the principal. There were good teachers and a lot of physical activity. During the lunch break, our mothers would come to school with lunch, which we ate sitting on the steps of the church.
School ended at 1.30 pm and we walked back together. My mother did not allow me to go out to play till 5pm and I was expected to rest during the afternoon. Since resting was far from my mind, I had to find ways to entertain myself.
I found an interesting world of entertainment under the various pots of plants in the balcony. There were colonies of ants and I would spend endless hours watching them scurry around. Sometimes, I caught cockroaches and put them in the path of the ants and watched them carry the insect back to their nest.
I discovered that if the insect in question was half dead, the ensuing battle was more exciting to watch. Every afternoon was meal time for these ants as I caught some unsuspecting insect and put it in their path.
Across my balcony on the second floor lived Mani. He too faced the same problem of passing time in the afternoon. We could not speak to each other as the sound could wake up our mothers. We found a way out by making a small phone using ice-cream cups. But it never really worked. The conversation was limited to “hello”, “can you hear me” and ‘please hold the cup to your ear not your mouth when I am speaking.”
At 5 pm, we would gulp down a cup of milk and rush out to play till 7 pm. Besides pottering around in the garden, we played cricket and football. This was usually cut short after the ground floor residents complained that the noise disturbed them. We broke quite a few glass panes while playing cricket. To overcome such hurdles, we would conjure up new variations that were less noisy or destructive.
One popular game was French cricket. A circle was drawn and the batter stood in the centre. All other players stood around the batter and the target was to hit his legs below the knee with the ball. If the batter moved his feet, he was declared out. In case the batter managed to hit the ball away from his feet, he could take runs. Runs were counted based on the number of revolutions of the bat around one’s body. All this had to be done without moving your feet.
It was a fascinating game till one day while swinging the bat around I hit Uday on the head. He was taken to the nearest hospital and needed stitches. That was the end of French cricket.
It was not long before Krishna came up with another fascinating game. He made a bow and arrow using the rods of an old umbrella. Soon, all of us were sporting these home-made bows and arrows, and walking around behaving like the direct descendants of medieval hunters. Any moving object or being, such as a garden lizard or a crow, was a target. This, too, did not last long as one of the arrows nearly blinded one of us and all the bows and arrows were confiscated.
When I think back now, there was so much fun and innovation in entertaining ourselves and we never ran out of ideas to play. There were no computers or television. It was only our imagination and ingenuity that kept us busy.
Whenever I got bored of these games, I would go over to Mr Patel and help him with his garden. Every evening, after returning from work and having a hot cup of tea, Mr Patel would devote some time to the garden. I had many enlightening moments with him and constantly asked him questions. What is this plant? Will it grow if I cut a stalk and put it into the soil? Are all insects harmful to plants?”
A patient man, Mr Patel answered all my questions in detail. Sometimes, as a bonus, he would give me a custard apple. It was always a treat to eat the fruit he gave me. Somehow, they always seemed to taste better than the ones my mother bought from the market.
When I was 14, Vilas Veerkar, or Veerkar uncle as we called him, from the next building planted a small neem tree near the garden hedge. He called me and said, “Ravi, this tree is one of the best in nature. Look after it and you will always be happy.” I did so and a few years later it grew into a magnificent tree, towering over the rest of the garden.
I still remember the night when one of the children, Milind, woke us up banging on the door to announce that Veerkar uncle had passed away. I could not believe my ears considering that I had met him just the day earlier and we had chatted for a while.
Milind pulled me aside and said that Veerkar uncle had died in an accident and was lying on the platform. We clambered up the compound wall to see a stretcher covered with a white cloth lying on platform number one. It was a great shock to all of us and for days on end, no one would talk of anything else.
A few weeks later, the entire neem tree turned orange and its leaves began falling. Could it be that the tree knew that its benefactor had passed away? Why would a flourishing tree suddenly decide to die?
I tried all I could think of to save the tree. I dug holes all around the tree and filled them with all the medicines and pills I could find at home. My mother was not pleased since I had exhausted her stock of remedies for fever, cold and cough. Nothing seemed to work and within a few weeks I saw the tree turn into a shrivelled, naked piece of wood. Somehow, I felt that I had failed Veerkar uncle.
Venkat Iyer is the author of Moong over Microchips: Adventures of a Techie-Turned-Farmer.