The programme of the trains

I AM AN INVETERATE COLLECTOR. During my childhood, I collected all kinds of things especially if they related to travel. For a long time, I hung on to my collection of used travel tickets: bus, air, rail, boat, tram, etc. I do not know what ever happened to my hoard of salt, pepper, and sugar sachets, and ‘sickness’ bags collected whilst on air flights. Likewise, my bags filled with London Transport bus maps have been long lost. I thought that I had mislaid my collection of exotic toothpaste tubes, but some of these, including those I bought in Albania in 1984, resurfaced recently. My extensive collection of printed airline timetables has disappeared, but not my library of railway timetables, most of which are safely locked into a storage unit. Let me tell you about some of them.

 

BLOG TIMETABLE toothpaste

Some exotic toothpaste found in Serbia in 1990

I was in my late teens when I began collecting railway timetables, both British and overseas. One of my earliest gems was a paperback containing the timetable of CFR, the state railway system of Romania. Many decades later, when I was practising dentistry, my boss, Andrew, had a dental surgery assistant from Romania. Knowing that I had visited many places in south-east Europe, Andrew said to me:

“Adam, you must surely know a bit of Romanian. Say something to Cristina.”

I replied:

“Well, actually the only words I know in Romanian are ‘mersul trenurilor’”

Cristina looked at me blankly for a minute or so, and then exclaimed:

“Aha, the programme of the trains.”

My first copy of “Mersul Trenurilor CFR” was given to me at the Romanian Tourist Office that used to be in Jermyn Street. A few years before I retired, I told a charming Romanian patient about my first two words in his language and how I had first encountered them. Some months later, he came to my surgery for some treatment and presented me with the latest edition of the timetable, which he had bought for me during a recent visit to his native land.

Another gem in my collection was a set of huge volumes containing the timetable of FS, Ferrovia Statale, the Italian railway network.  The hall porter at a hotel where the family regularly stayed in Bologna was the source of these outdated editions of the timetable. He also gave me a large volume containing the timetable of SNCF, French railways.

Soon, I had the idea of sending letters to foreign railway companies to request their timetables. I used to address the envelopes containing the letters with simple addresses like “Central Station, Moscow, USSR”. Moscow replied, sending me a hardback the size and thickness of the Holy Bible (both testaments). It contained the timetables for passenger trains in the USSR. The timetable of MAV, Hungarian state railways, was as large as that from the USSR. From the advertisements contained within it, I learned one of my first words of Hungarian: ‘fogkrem’, which means ‘toothpaste’.

Someone in Tunis sent me not only the slender timetable of Tunisian Railways, but also an extremely old book of regulations (in French) for the Phosphate Railway of Gafsa. Some kind soul in Teheran sent me a small glossy-paged paperback containing the timetable of the railways of Iran. This volume, sent to me long before the Shah was deposed, is prefaced by photographs of the Shah and some of his family. Other people sent me the large timetable of South African Railways and a smaller volume containing the timings of Turkish railways. I bought timetable for its neighbour Greece in Athens.

A letter sent to the “Central Station, Prague, Czechoslovakia” hit the jackpot. My correspondent there sent me any used timetables he could find – from East Germany, from Czechoslovakia, and several thick volumes from Poland. In return, I sent him used British stamps, which he collected. This went on for several months, and then ended abruptly. I hope that he had not got into trouble for communicating with someone in the West. The timetable for East Germany (DDR) had a page written in the Sorbian language for the benefit of those few travellers who were born into the Slavic Sorb race, which lived in the DDR. I was given “Red Vožnje”, useful in Yugoslavia, by the Yugoslav Tourist Office that used to be in London’s Regent Street.

In 1970, I joined the BSc class in the Physiology Department of University College London (UCL). It was then that I met and made friends with an Indian woman, who was later to become my wife. At the end of the second year, she went back to India to see her parents who were then living in Calcutta. Before she left, I asked her to do me a favour. Yes, you have guessed what I asked her: to get me a copy of the timetable for Indian railways. She said she would.

Some months later, a small parcel arrived at my home. The paper in which it was wrapped was falling to pieces, only being held to the package by the string tied around it. The parcel contained a thick paperback, the timetable of Indian Railways. It was only many years later that my wife revealed to me how much trouble I had caused her father. Always ready to take up a challenge and determined not to disappoint his daughter’s new friend, he had sent someone from his office, a ‘peon’ (a lowly clerk),  to Calcutta’s Howrah Station to obtain a timetable, but he came back empty-handed because the station had run-out of the current edition. Undeterred and unwilling to admit failure, my future father-in-law sent the peon back to the station at regular intervals until finally he obtained one to send me. Years later, when Lopa and I decided to marry, we telephoned her parents from my home (in Kent) so that I could ask their consent to our marriage. After Lopa had spoken to them, she told me what her father had said. He had asked her hesitatingly:

“Is that the boy … for whom … I had to search for a railway timetable?”

Even now, if I see a railway timetable during my travels (sadly rather limited during the Covid pandemic), I add it to my collection. However, with the desire to ‘save the planet’, printed timetables are gradually being replaced by paperless online versions.

Buttered buns in Bombay

LOOKING A BIT LIKE A GRUBBY SWISS chalet, Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery is in a busy lane within a stone’s throw of Bombay’s elegantly designed Horniman Circle. Named after the Persian city of Yazd, where one of the nine Athash Behrams (the highest grade of Zoroastrian fire temples) still stands, this establishment was founded by a Parsi family in the very early 1950s. It has been suggested that the premises occupied by Yazdani were previously occupied by a Japanese bank.

Yazdani, which looks as if it has not been redecorated for many decades is one of Bombay’s many ‘Irani cafés’, which were founded by Iranian zoroastrian refugees, who had fled to India (in the early 20th century) from other parts of Asia to escape religious persecution. Irani cafés, like Yazdani, retain a nostalgic charm, providing an atmosphere that transports the customer’s imagination back to a gentler and simpler past. Sadly, the number of Irani cafés in Bombay is diminishing.

It was at Yazdani, when I first visited it a year ago, that I bit into my first bun maska. It was love at first bite. What is it, you may well ask, that gave me so much pleasure? It is simply a round bread bun, often very soft, filled with a generous, if not excessive, amount of butter. Some of the buns available at Yazdani contain bits of raisin and others, the brun maska, have crisp crusty coverings (similar to ‘crusty rolls’ available in England).

Bun maska has become popular outside Bombay.For example, I have discovered good ones in Ahmedabad (at Lucky’s and also at the New Irani Restaurant).

In addition to bun maska and brun maska, Yazdani sells bread, apple pie, and a variety of delicious biscuits. Everything is baked on the premises at Yazdani, which calls itself “La Boulangerie”. Tea is served at simple tables within sight of the aging glass fronted cabinets that are constantly being restocked with freshly baked products. It is common for customers to dip bits of bun maska into the tea.

On one wall, there is a large poster in German advertising Bauernbrot. Apparently, Yazdani is popular with German visitors to Bombay. Portraits of various Parsi personalities also hang on the walls.

Unless you are gluten intolerant or trying to lose weight, a visit to Yazdani is a real treat, and not a costly one.

A few footsteps away from Yazdani, stands another treat. This is the Peoples Book House. It is a small extremely well stocked bookshop which supplies mainly, but not exclusively, left wing books. Whatever your political leaning, you are likely to find fascinating books here (in English, Hindi, and Marathi, mainly). In its window, you can spot, for example, “Das Kapital” and books about Karl Marx translated into Marathi. I bought what promises to be an interesting book about the naval mutiny in Bombay that occurred just after the end of WW2 (early 1946), an event that hastened the British decision to quit India for good.

So, visit Yazdani to fill your stomach and Peoples Book House to feed your brain.

A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.