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Chor Da Puttar (Son of a Thief !!!)

By Vijay Kranti

NEW DELHI, India, 6 September 2013

It was quite a different world those days. Things would take their own time — just to help you keep pace with the slow-moving world around you. The metre-gauge Kangra Valley railway toy train that connects my grandfather’s last home town Pathankot in Punjab to Joginder Nagar in adjoining Himachal Pradesh, would lazily chug on behind a coal-fired railway engine. The train was a world far away from today’s fast-moving diesel engine mounted trains.

Looking back today, I can’t think of a better symbol of the life as it existed in the mid-sixties when I was a school boy, just out of middle school. This train was one of those last few things which were in perfect wavelength with a pathetically slow-moving India. Unlike the Jhelum Express which would take our family from Delhi to Pathankot during summer holidays in an overnight journey of about five hundred kms, this toy train would take eons to reach Joginder Nagar, which is just 164 km away from Pathankot.

Like today, most of the travellers to Kangra or Palampur, the two most popular hill station destinations along the way, would prefer the jam-packed, squeaky buses of the government transport companies over this train. But for me and my younger brothers, this train was our exclusive preference for more than one reason.

One obvious convenience was that this part of our journey would come as a bonus over the already free railway pass that we were entitled to as a railwayman’s family. Although our real destination used to be Pathankot, yet my father would always write “Joginder Nagar” as our final destination with a “journey break” at Pathankot in the travel-pass form. That gave us a choice to have an extra free joy ride to Joginder Nagar and back. But the real attraction of this part of our rail journey was the snail speed of this toy train and the stunning beautiful views of valleys, tunnels and, above all, the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains of the majestic Himalayas.

The real fun of the journey from Pathankot side would start only after crossing the plains around the Guler station. There were many points on the way where the single engine would fail to negotiate the steep ascent, and would stop in its tracks to build up enough steam to start again. For a crazy boy like me, this was the right opportunity to get off the train and hang around for some additional fun. A few others like me would spot a mountain stream down below at a distance and would rush with their water bottles for a fresh fill of the real but unbranded natural mineral water.

This exercise was, obviously, less for the love of water than for the fun and anxiety it would create for the onlookers. On one such occasion, when I miscalculated and was on the verge of being left behind by the moving train in the nowhere of a jungle, the angry guard demonstrated the real kind side of his heart by stopping the train for me.

This fun would take an altogether different dimension after Baijnath, a popular Hindu temple town that lies a few kilometres above Kangra. Here the train would shed more than half of its bogies and another engine would join at its tail end to push it from behind to negotiate some extraordinary steep humps that punctuated the route till Joginder Nagar. It was fascinating to hear the two engines fine tuning their pull-push game. After a sequence of whistles from both ends, the two engines would starts simultaneously to take the train across the most difficult ascent that lay between the Baijnath station and the Baijnath-Mandir station.

To our (misplaced?) joy the effort would fail on most occasions. Then the drivers would allow the train to roll back far behind the station platform so that the train could catch enough momentum to negotiate the ascent. I remember on one such occasion it was only on the fourth attempt that the train could make it.

I think it was all this fun which made me wait for our summer vacations more In one such return journeys from Joginder Nagar during the sixties, me and my younger brother decided to visit our relatives at Kangra. From their home, the view of snow-peaked Dhauladhar presented an extraordinarily beautifully tapestry touching the sky in front of our face. During the moonless night the twinkling lights at a spot in the middle of sky above the horizon looked like a dance performance of an army of glow worms.

Our hosts told us that it was Dharamshala town, and that the Dalai Lama and his “Laambay” lived at McLeod Ganj just above the town. It was many years later when I grew up into a journalist and started my lifelong interaction with the Tibetan people that I realised that every Tibetan was a “Lama” for the local Himachalites. In typical local Pahari dialect, Lama is pronounced as “Laamba”, for which the plural is “Laambay“.

Fifty years later now, I find that the schizophrenic growth of McLeod Ganj into a cemented jungle has outshined its poor elder cousin that is more popularly known as “Lower Dharamshala”.

On our return journey to Pathankot, we decided to take the evening train which would start from Kangra station at around 8pm and would drop us at our destination in the early morning. But the train arrived from Joginder Nagar only sometime around 10pm that evening. Thanks to the routine electric failures, or maybe routine load shedding, the only couple of electric bulbs on the open air platform in the middle of a pine jungle had gone off long before the train arrived. For the two little school boys from a metropolitan city, this dark environ in the middle of a hill jungle was quite scary.

Interestingly, the only consolation in this near total darkness was the melodious sound of a flute that someone was playing in the distance. It was first time in my life that I could feel the beauty and power of flute music. Many decades later now, I realize what a privilege it was to be a part of an exclusive audience of less than five people in a natural amphitheatre of infinite size.

Only God knows why a train which would normally run near empty on normal days, was packed to the brim that night. May be it was some religious festival somewhere in the neighbourhood. The worst compartment was the second class one for which we held our privileged free pass. Finally we had to be content with some space on the floor of a third-class compartment near the tail of the train. Our experienced mother had tugged in a single-bed sheet in our luggage, knowing well that it would be handy for two of us in a windy journey. We found the sheet quite useful both as a shield against the dust on the floor as well as a tool to mark our exclusive territory to sleep on in the crowded compartment.

As we sat on the floor, I found two skinny legs stemming out of two funny looking shoes. It was a shabbily dressed middle-aged Tibetan who was sitting on a seat with a 2- or 3-year-old baby in his lap. Like all other passengers in the overcrowded compartment, he sat squeezed between two passengers. The pair presented an interesting mix of similarities and contrast. The little boy was chubby and looked like a wax doll with his rounded cheeks and fair complexion. The man’s complexion was closer to that of a weather-beaten copper kettle and was full of deep wrinkles. But both had markedly glittering eyes which communicated comfort and ease.

We quickly exchanged smiles. I could feel that this exchange made the man feel more comfortable amidst a crowd of strangers. The little boy in his lap took no time in understanding this newly-found relationship. He quickly expressed it through a loud smile and tapping of my head with his stretched out hands. I responded with an equal warmth by tickling his chubby cheeks and holding his little hand.

The compartment was too stuffy to breathe comfortably. But as soon as the train started moving, the stuffy air quickly yielded to a fragrant cool breeze from the surrounding pine jungle. Soon the little boy decided to upgrade our relationship. His tiny hand was now trying to hold on to my hair. Just one smile from me and he was pulling himself out of his father’s lap. Soon the little bundle of joy was in my lap. We were now communicating in a language of smiles and laughter. A strange, exotic smell of oil and herbs emanated from his head. There have been numerous occasions in the past fifty years when the memory of this journey overwhelms my nostrils with this exotic fragrance.

A noisy commotion at the next halt shoved me out of my slumber. A new set of desperate passengers was here to find some space in the already jam packed compartment. Suddenly I discovered that two heavily-built men in their mid forties were shouting at the Tibetan. One of them holding a polished bamboo stick was demanding the passengers sitting on the bench to squeeze and make space for him. They were not in uniform but the typical police cane and his bullying voice indicated that they were policemen. His stick and eyes were focused on the Tibetan who looked more vulnerable and miserable than other passengers.

As the man tried to push his cane into the Tibetan’s chest, the fiery adolescent in me woke up with all the flame at its command. I shouted at the man and demanded him remove the stick from the Tibetan man. For a six-foot bully this was too much provocation from a little boy. In a fraction of a second the stick’s thick end was pressing against the middle of my forehead. Now I realized that I was facing two policemen who were travelling without their uniform.

Oye! phitit rah apni jagah te. Zyada leadry mat dikhana. Warna.a.a!!” (Hey, mind your own business. Don’t try to behave like a leader. Else…), he shouted at me in typical policeman’s tone.

I think I was still left with enough energy to shout back, “But what is his fault? Why should you single him out in the crowd?” I could see some nodding faces in the crowd who did not approve of the policemen’s conduct. The bully too did not miss this public reaction. He quickly changed his stance to prove that there was something really wrong with the Tibetan guy. He was now trying to show as if he was interrogating a criminal. “Pataa nayeen kitthon aa jaande ne ye saale Cheenee! Apheem vechde ne ye saale Cheenee. Oye nikal kitthe rakkhi hai apheem? Nikal, saala chor da puttar na hoave te.” (You don’t know where these Chinese come from? These Chinese are here to sell opium. Hey man! Take out your stuff and show me where are you keeping your opium stock? Take it out you son of a thief!!!”), he shouted in Punjabi.

To everyone’s surprise, the meek-looking Tibetan spoke back in a loud voice in his broken Hindi, “Baaboo, humko Cheenee mutt bolna. Hum Cheenee nahin hai. Hum Tibbati hai. Cheenee mutt bolna humko” (Sir, don’t call me a Chinese. I am not a Chinese. I am a Tibetan. Don’t you dare call me a Chinese.) I was surprised by the anger in his eyes. The guy was more hurt by being taken for a Chinese than for being branded as an opium smuggler or abused as the “son of a thief”. While others could read the sense of insult and desperation on the poor Tibetan’s face, I was amazed by the sense of his national pride as a Tibetan.

The policeman seemed in no mood to give in. “Shut up, Chor Da Puttar!” (Shut up you son of a thief), thundered the man. He snatched the little cloth packet which the Tibetan was holding close to his chest. It was a typical Tibetan pocket bag with Tibetan motifs which was bulging with some round stuff. The policeman pulled the strings and dipped his fingers in to the bag with a beaming smile.

Everyone was holding breath anticipating that the smart policeman was going to take out a lump of opium from the bag. As he moved out his fingers, dipped in some white powder, he smelled it with a confused look. But before he could ask about the stuff, the Tibetan spoke in a very soft voice, pointing his finger to the baby in my lap, “Baaboo, ye to Tsampa hai. Sattoo hai iss bacche ka khaana hai.” (Sir, its Tsampa — flour of roasted barley. Its food for my baby.)

Both the policeman gave an embarrassed sheepish smile. Someone on the adjoining bench pulled them out of further embarrassment by offering them some sitting space. Soon peace returned to the compartment, as always happens in an Indian railway train. I and my brother stretched out on our bed sheet. The little baby was comfortably sleeping on my chest.

Next morning a sudden noise in the compartment woke me up. The train had just stopped at a station. Perhaps it was Guler from where some daily commuters were boarding for Pathankot, where they worked in offices and shops. In sharp contrast to last night’s crowd, the compartment looked almost deserted. Later I was told that most of the passengers had got down at Jwalamukhi, a popular Hindu pilgrim centre, during the night.

I suddenly realized that despite the chilly air in the compartment I was feeling warm. I discovered that this warmth was due to the blanket that covered me and my brother. The blanket smelled very different from our home blankets. “Whose blanket is this,” was the first question that hit me.

In a confused state of mind, I looked around to find out who had put the blanket on us during night? The only two faces I could recognize were the two policemen. One of them was looking out of the window with his chin resting on the same police stick that had affectionately greeted me last night.

In a hesitating voice I asked the other guy, “Do you know who put this blanket on us? We had only our bed sheet with us. Does it belong to you?”

Before this guy could respond, the man with the stick jumped into our discussion with a broad smile. “Yes. Last night we found you both shivering in the cold. So we decided to cover you up with our blanket. I hope you enjoyed it”, he said and extended his hand for the blanket. By this time my brother too had woken up. We quickly took off the blanket and handed it over to the one holding his stick with a big smile and a loud “thank you”. As this guy started folding the blanket he shouted at his colleague, “Oye apna teshion aa gaya hai. Utarna naheen hai kya? Oye chal jaldi kar. Gaddi chal payegi.” (Hey, our station has arrived. Don’t you want to get down? Be quick before the train starts moving.) And they jumped out of the seats in a flash, one holding the stick and the other one holding the blanket.

After the train had crossed another station, the little baby suddenly dawned on my mindscape. I could feel the warmth of the little baby sleeping on my chest; his round cheeks; his smiling eyes. The Tibetan’s determined face, wrinkled with the anger against being branded as a “Cheenee” brought a smile on my face. And then the exotic fragrance of the little baby’s head overwhelmed my nostrils I suddenly realized that this smell was same as one coming from the blanket…….. And I was wondering, who was this “Chor Da Puttar”?

During past fifty years this “Chor Da Puttar” visits my mindscape quite frequently with all the joys, warmth and anxieties of that musical, cold, eventful night……..

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One Response in the Chor Da Puttar (Son of a Thief !!!)

  1. 1.
    jeeth, from Bangalore, India, says on 2 May 2014 at 9:38 am

    thank you for sharing your memories of growing up.

    i laughed about the train getting up the tracks. i applauded when you stood up for the underdog. i sympathized with and shivered along with all of you when you described the policemen and their behaviour. i reminded myself that i have to be both wary and brave when going through life’s journey.
    funny, educative, touching, inspiring, a most heartwarming story.

    thank you very much.

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