Friday, April 25, 2014

An Honest-to-goodness Tale from the Loco Shed. No kidding’!

Once again, thanks to a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I have chanced upon a children’s story I wrote in 1974 and abandoned to its fate. Pop Goes the Slop is already home to a distant cousin of the latest find.  So without further ado, here comes the story of Chintamani and his loco friends spruced up and updated for 2014.

Chintu comes up with a loco idea.

“Tweet you tomorrow,” whistled Speedy Sparky as he whizzed past the loco shed.

“Whoosh,” sighed Huff’n’Puff wistfully. “Just look at him go!”

“Awwww! Speedy’s just a big show-off, he is,” consoled Chintu promptly. He did not like to see his old friend sad and fretful.

“Spare us the rubbish, young Chints. Show-off? Hah! Speedily can easily touch 120 without huffin’ an’ puffin’. That’s at least ten times faster than your slowpoke shunt-artist friends.”

This cruel barb came from Danny Diesel who had just entered the loco shed for his last-minute check-up. Danny knew very well that this kind of talk hurt the old timers and their loyal friend Chintu. But he hardly ever let that stop him.

“Keep quiet, Danny” was Chintu’s angry retort.

Before he could continue, Cheerful Chuggy gave a warning toot.

“Cool it, Chintoo. Danny is – toot! – right,” he said a trifle mournfully. “It’s Danny and Speedy and – toot! – youngsters like them who do all the real – toot! – fast work in the shunting yard these days.”

Chintu wanted to point out that, all said and done, Danny guzzled diesel oil and Speedy thrived on electricity while his pals worked strictly on their own steam. But he knew it wouldn’t do any good to dispel the dark and gloomy mood Huffy was in right now.

“Times have sure changed, haven’t they?” sputtered Huffy despondently. “Why I still remember the days…”

“Can it, Gramps,” cut in Danny with a sneer. “Spare us another one of your – yawwwn! – rambling loco tales.”

Chintu sat quietly until Danny left the loco shed.

“Don’t mind him, Huffy,” he said once he was sure Danny was out of earshot. “He just likes to tease, you know.”

That didn’t lift Huffy’s dark mood. But Cheerful Chuggy was as usual true to his name.    

“Quit being so huffy, Huffy dear,” he appealed to his friend playfully. “Do tell young – toot! – Chintoo how you saved your – toot! – train when the rains had – toot! toot! – washed away the bridge near – toot! – Hoshiarpur, wasn’t it?”

Chuggy knew that would do the trick. It did. Like always.

An hour later, after listening to Huffy’s tale (he had heard it at least a dozen times before), Chintu left the loco shed in deep thought.

His mind was made up. He had to get Huffy and Chuggy out of the loco shed and the shunt yard pretty fast. The change would do them a world of good. Also, it would teach Speedy and Danny a long overdue lesson.

There was an even more pressing reason for haste.

Chintu’s dad was the superintendent of the shunt year where Huffy and Chuggy worked. He knew all that was going on in the yard and the loco shed. Lately, there had been a lot of loose talk about retiring the old timers to the junk heap. The sooner, the better was the verdict of the Speedy and Danny gang. All that was now needed, it seemed, was the arrival of the mini diesel-powered shunt locomotives (the requisition had already been issued for them, said his dad) along with the final clearance from the Indian Railways headquarters.

So, it was only a matter of time, maybe a few weeks and no more.

Chintu shook his head resolutely to chase away the wicked thought. He couldn’t bring himself to imagine the yard and the shed without Huffy and Chuggy. He must save them.

But how?


It sounded like a musical horn out of tune. Only one person besides Chuggy called him Chintoo instead of Chintu. And, before he could run out of harm’s way, the “musical horn” had firmly taken hold of his sleeve.

Pesky Meena, his next-door neighbor, was a very determined ten-year old who simply refused to be discouraged by Chintu’s most off-putting dodges.

Sometimes, with luck on his side, he could pretend not to notice her and duck out of her way just in time.

Certainly not today, though. 

”Chintoooo bhaiya,” Meena squealed as was her wont. “Guess where we are going?”

Chintu knew he wasn’t expected to answer. All she wanted was compliance. She had already started dragging him to wherever she had decided they were going.

Meena took Chintu’s silence for consent and skipped along the road merrily chattering nineteen to the dozen about the treasure house of delights she was taking him to. She didn’t say a word about where it was, though.

It took them a good part of a quarter hour to get there. It turned out to be the squat grey bungalow, just beyond the railway staff quarters. It was now housing the local Railway Museum.  

“You know, Chintoooo bhaiya, they have on a special show of old railroad pictures. Old locos and trains and stuff. Maybe we will get to see Huffy and Chuggy’s grandpas,” Meena said sneaking a sly glance at Chintu’s face. She knew how fond Chintoo was of the old timers.

They spent the next hour wandering around the main hall and the back rooms. Any other day, Chintu would have devoted many more merry hours in this treasure trove studying every detail of each locomotive and passenger coaches and freight cars in the photographs. Today, preoccupied as he was with the fate of his loco friends, his attention was at best perfunctory. Every glance at the old locomotives in the pictures was a reminder that he may lose Huffy and Chuggy’s company soon.

What made it even worse was that neither Huffy nor Chuggy had a clue about what was in store for them. If only he could think of a way out in time…

It happened when he was least expecting it. Just when they were about to step out of the Museum, a handwritten notice taped to the door caught his eye. 



“Eureka!” exclaimed Chintu who had just read the story of Archimedes. The “loco” idea that had just popped in his head might be just the thing to save his loco pals.

In the twinkling of an eye, he was on his way. Even Meena’s high-pitched “Chintoooo!” did not make him break his stride.

He did not even pause to pet Moti who wagged his tail furiously, jumped and raised a cacophony of woofs and yelps at his master’s stormy arrival. He just couldn’t wait to put down his loco idea on paper and into the suggestion box.

An hour later, a thoroughly confused and utterly dumbfounded Moti once again watched his usually well-mannered master dash away on an errand with nary a civil pat.

The next week passed uneventfully and without a single word from Meena who seemed to have finally taken his unmannerly behaviour at the Museum gate to heart and gave him a wide berth. Even Moti was subdued. And so were Huffy and Chuggy.

It was only on Friday afternoon, after school, that Chintu ran smack into the whirlpool of excitement that had gripped the loco shed and the shunt yard.

As he entered the shed, Danny who had been talking to Speedy excitedly called out to him.

“So, young Chints, at last they’ve had some sense knocked into their fat heads,” he cried venomously. “They’ll soon be banishing your dear old loco buddies to the junk heap where they belong. The crummy bunch of losers that they are! My cousins, real fast mini diesel dudes both, will be taking over the shunting chores. You’ll soon witness some fast and furious action around this place, boy!”

His sneer was as palpable as a razor-sharp exclamation mark. It hurt.

Chintu couldn’t believe his ears. So, finally, it had come to this, eh? All his careful planning and desperate hoping had come to naught. Poor dear Huffy and Chuggy! What was going to become of them? 

Without uttering a word, he turned on his heels and ran as fast as he could out of the shed.

Much, much later, a little after the sun had gone home after a hard day’s work of lighting up the world, Chintu found himself walking home with a heavy heart and a step to match.

“Where have you been all afternoon, Chintu beta?”

Those were his dad’s first words that greeted him as he entered the sitting room in a daze.

His mom who was talking to a stranger sitting across her and sipping a cup of coffee turned to him and said: “Look who’s waiting for you since five o’clock.”

The tall, somewhat lanky stranger got up from his chair and came forward to shake Chintu’s hand. Nobody had ever done that to him so far: treated him as a grown-up, that is to say. He felt a bit awkward, not knowing how to react.

“Well, well, well. So this is Chintamani, the bright ideas guy,” beamed the stranger, his kindly eyes peering at Chintu over the top of a pair of half moon glasses perched precariously on the bridge of his nose.

Chintu was at a loss for words. What bright idea? Which guy? Chintu’s bewilderment must have shown on his face because his father who was watching him intently said by way of explanation: “Didn’t you give a suggestion at the Museum the other day about how to put to better use the old denizens of our loco shed?” 

At long last, a light bulb lit up in Chintu’s dazed minds.

“You mean they liked my idea of a Museum Train going round the country, lugged by Huffs and Chuggs? You mean they won’t be sent to the junk yard?”

“Yes to both your questions,” said the stranger who now had his arm draped over Chintu’s shoulder. “Let me introduce myself, Chintamani. I am the Chief Curator of the Indian Railways Museum here on a very pleasant and personal mission. I had to meet the guy who thought of sending the Railway Museum to the travellers in the remotest part of our country of vast distances rather than waiting for them to visit New Delhi or Mysore or what have you to learn about its century and a half long history. I was especially taken up by your brainwave of hauling Indian Railways’ history around India by a couple of old timers in the loco shed.”

“He means Huffy and Chuggy, beta,” added Chintu’s mom prompted perhaps by his as yet bewildered expression.

“It was evident to me,” continued the Curator, “that only a true loco buddy could have dreamed up this loco scheme. I had to come to shake his hand.”

“And you know the best part, Chintu?” asked his dad in a tone of suppressed excitement.

“No, please,” interrupted the Curator hastily. “Let me have the pleasure of telling him. By the way, did you know that Chintamani means a magical precious stone that can fulfill wishes?”

“It’s also one of Lord Ganesha’s many names,” contributed Chintu’s mom.

“Quite so,” agreed the Curator. “Coming back to the good news, the Indian Railways Museum has decided to roll out at the earliest opportunity the Museum-on-Rails right away. Coming to even better news, everyone linked to the decision-making process has unanimously decided to reward the author of the scheme in a way that will recognize his love for all things connected with the railways, locos not excluded. So as soon as the summer holidays start – in fact, on the evening of the last day of school − the Museum-on-Rails will chug out of the shunting yard on its way to its first stop. And, guess who will be the passengers in the specially attached coach?”

Chintu scratched his head and then shook it.

“Give up already? Never mind. I’ll tell you.”

“As you know, Chintamani, your dad is the superintendent of the shunting yard and, of course, the loco shed. He is one of the best in the business. What he doesn’t know about keeping the hard-working locos – including and especially the old timers − in shape is not worth knowing. He has to cope with unreliable supplies of spares and make do with recycled stuff. We think we cannot find a better guarantor of the rail-worthiness of the Museum-on-Rail than him. So, he will be in charge of the show. Your mom and you will keep him company. But, hey! I have earmarked the two of you for special duties throughout the journey. The two of you will be the official chroniclers for Museum-on-Rails. You will write a blog every day, go on Twitter to mark every notable event, post to Facebook and Pinterest, report to me every day on email. By the way, this is not an honorary assignment. That is what I was telling your mom when you came in.”

Chintu was busy preparing for his annual examination while Huffy and Chuggy were being overhauled and groomed for the real long haul to come – in a securely cordoned-off corner of the loco shed. The driver’s cabins got new upholstery. Their bodies were buffed to a sparkle. Every afternoon, Chintu and his mom visited them when nobody was around, made notes about the progress and took pictures to post on the blog, Facebook and Pinterest. Work also went on apace inside the coaches to arrange the pictorial depiction of historical landmarks – the exhibits, in other words.

Come D (for departure) Day, the Museum-on-Rails was flagged off by the Curator with Huffy proudly puffing away in the lead and Chuggy happily bringing up the rear with an occasional Toot! Or, maybe two, at times. Chintu rode with his mom and dad and Moti in the last bogie, the one to which Chuggy was hitched.

And when he saw Danny and Speedy enviously watching the Museum-on-Rail chugging out of the shunt yard, he had to make a special effort to stop himself from sticking out his tongue.

That, boys and girls, was quite an effort.

His consolation was Moti woofing away to glory at the envious pair. For once, his usually well-behaved master didn’t tell Moti to mind his manners.

And that, boys and girls, did not take much of an effort.

© Deepak Mankar 1974, 2014.


The story you just read is obviously not for The Cloud and the Kite readers’ age group but for the pre- and early-teen crowd.

The latter half of The Cloud and the Kite is based loosely somewhat along the lines of the simple-minded logic of the following nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(The earlier part works on the equally simple-minded logic of “if not this then that”.)

The story of Chintu comes up with a loco idea has a logic all its own. When I wrote it, I eschewed what I think of as the classic Reader’s Digest approach to writing: pre-digested and condensed, no “big” words (“plain, common, short words” of “Anglo-Saxon origin” with greater emotional punch), minimum use of adjectives and adverbs, short sentences, enhanced readability, treatment of a subject in outline (no details please, we’re pressed for time, remember?). I’m referring to Reader’s Digest of the DeWitt and Lila Wallace (1889 - 1981) vintage, of course, when every article reportedly got 20 to 30 hours of editorial attention. The present-day incarnation of Reader’s Digest is a very pale shadow of its erstwhile self.

I have a running debate with Ujwal about emulating the writing style of Reader’s Digest of the DeWitt Wallace era when I am writing fiction. My understanding is the Reader’s Digest style is okay for Reader’s Digest. They want to make reading effortless and painless. It is also okay for writing print ads and direct mail. But, mind you, it is one-way writing: Reader’s Digest −→ reader. The onus of reaching the reader is always on Reader’s Digest. There is nothing left for the reader to do.

I want my reader to be someone who will make an effort to read what I write. He must enjoy reading and want to graduate to even better class of books. Every time he reaches for what I have written (other than advertising, of course), there must be a tacit understanding between us that the onus is shared between me and him. If he doesn’t know a word or two that happens to be in the text, I want him to look it up. In short, what I am looking for is an alert, interactive reader who reads on his own steam rather than likes to be spoon-fed Reader’s Digest style. Readers from the pre- and early-teen crowd are probably the ideal target for what I have in mind, I guess.

And, much as I admire Groucho Marx, I cannot emulate his example in this particular case, shrug my shoulders and walk away after declaiming:

“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them

... well, I have others.”

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Might as well enjoy India’s very last general elections.

The writing is already on the wall. The portents are there for those who want to see them. It is a wonder how our crack political analysts continue to ignore their message, why they refuse to take the final leap of imagination. (That’s not strictly accurate: on Saturday, 29 March 2014, Kanti Bajpai in his Times of India article on Page 16, “Journey Towards Soft Fascism” did hint at the shape of things to come. There may be more such comments I have not read.)

NaMo, pronounced the proper way (“Na” as in “Narendra”, “Mo” as in “Modi”) is a command in Sanskrit to bow down, to worship. Make no mistake. You are being told in no uncertain terms to change your behaviour, to perform an act of supplication. Ignore the message at your own peril, boys and girls.

Modi brooks no opposition to his relentless march to 7 Racecourse Road in Lutyens’ Delhi. He has already put all his potential rivals in BJP (Big Guns one and all, mind you) in their place – in the shade – out of reckoning – so demoralized that it will take them quite a while to recover, let alone even think of retaliating. In this respect, he reminds me of Indira Gandhi versus The Syndicate, c. 1969, a modern reenactment of the legendary David versus Goliath encounter. And, all this notwithstanding all his talk about being a strict follower of party discipline and so forth.

In a smart move to lend legitimacy and glamour to NaMo, they have even commissioned his “authorized” political biography launched close to the date of the general elections. The 310-page tome is written by a little-known British (our former masters, remember? Clever, clever!) author and filmmaker, Andy Marino. Marino’s provenance seems at best somewhat sketchy (PhD in Eng. Lit.). (Are there such creatures in the world as literary mercenaries?) His “literary” output consists of obscure non-fiction (A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry and Hershel: The Boy Who Started World War Two). If one were to take him at his word, though, he has had “a long relationship with India” and has been “interested in its politics and history as far back as I can recall.”

Be that as it may, in his Hindustan Times interview Marino certified Modi’s straightforwardness adding that he was “complex” and “a better administrator or anybody so completely possessed with enthusiasm for what he does. His brain runs non-stop thinking about ways to improve everything, and there’s an incredible energy.”  As far as Modi’s honesty is concerned, Marino says that he checked and cross-checked his answers and found them above reproach. (For the convenience of the dyslexic as well as book-hating readers, Rannade Prakashan and Blue Snail Animation have published a 45-page NaMo comic book, Bal Narendra, apparently in the Bal Hanuman vein. So, no efforts have been spared in nurturing the NaMo mythology.)

The BJP campaign slogan is “Agli baar Modi Sarkar” (Coming next: Modi Government). This has the same shade of the recent abject capitulation by Penguin and Aleph about Wendy Doniger’s books on Hinduism. Of course, the reason for not promising a BJP Sarkar may be twofold: (1) The earlier BJP rule was not entirely free from taints of corruption and scams. (2) If Modi comes to power, it will be most likely as the leader of a coalition. Like Manmohan Singh, he too will have to face the vagaries of running a coalition government. Eventually, given his popular support and, more important, his forceful and aggressive personality, he may be able to drive a tougher bargain with his partners. As time passes, NaMo will begin to better appreciate the systemic impediments in his path. Once again his inherent nature will not allow him to accept defeat meekly. His only option then will be to take matters in his own two capable hands.

As liberal conventional wisdom would have it, NaMo’s final ascension to absolute no-holds power, if it ever comes to pass, may seem a disaster. The other way to see it is as a happening belonging to the class of what Robert and Elizabeth Bjork of UCLA Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab have called “desirable difficulties”. It will allow the decisive Shri NaMo to dismantle the wasteful democratic superstructure of elections at both central and state levels thereby saving the country enormous amounts of resources and removing in a single stroke one of the biggest causes of corruption. Decision making and implementation can be speeded up. Work ethics and discipline will improve by leaps and bounds as in the days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Business and “development” will get the priority that Middle India is hankering after. India will be able to compete with China on a level playing field. All this would not happen overnight but during the course of the next five years.      

Remember, though, that all medicines would be placebos except for the patient’s belief in their healing power.