Kalka is a somnolent foothill town where holidayers to Shimla spend their nights before boarding the slow train. Although the place is in Haryana’s Panchkula district and a gateway to Himachal Pradesh, the knowledge of Punjabi best helps break the ice with the man on the street.
It is at the Kalka-Shimla Railway terminus that the Howrah Mail connects with the toy-train and the VIPs from the Shatabdi can be seen throwing their weight around. The clout that a CBI officer enjoys has helped him get his toehold and holdall into the executive class lounge. The rest of us are left jostling with the feisty station master and corrupt clerk for some place for the kids to spend the night. Dormitories, retiring room, benches, anything will do. “Between us,” the station master tells me, “It’s better to spend the night in the stationary passenger train that will leave at four in the morning. Why spend 20 times more in the Deluxe train. That is what regular passengers do,” he tells us.
After managing to put mother, wife and kids into a retiring room paying thrice the amount, I battle my insomnia on a hard, wooden bench. The breeze from Shimla brings with it memories of my late father, the Midnight Child in the family. My grandma boarded the train from Pakistan carrying him. Born in 1947, he succumbed to an aggressive cancer on January 26 last year.
I am taking the kids back to my roots, to the times when their grandpa got a barfi for reciting the Gita before school and the timing of the next meal depended on when the two brothers and three sisters managed to pick up the firewood.
Aboard the Shivalik Express, the children yell every time we pass a tunnel (there are 103 of them). A co-passenger proudly tells us he caught a glimpse of Amitabh Bachchan during the shooting of Bhootnath and that the 103rd tunnel, we just passed, is haunted.
We are headed towards Tooti Kandi (loosely translated, where the descent breaks your back), papa’s place of birth. “It is mentioned in Krishna Sobti’s Ae Ladki,” I show off my knowledge of Hindi literature. The remark is lost on the kids and my wife.
After looking for a couple of hours for anybody who knew my grandfather’s family, we locate one in Tooti Kandi, whose patriarch, Mr Singh, has gone out for an evening walk. We wait patiently for Mr Singh to return from his walk. He, the halwai tells us, has been staying here for over 70 years.
“Oh the postman! Panditji was a hardworking man. He never failed to deliver a letter even in knee-deep snow. I am glad you came here beta,” he tells me with a warm hug. As I cry in his arms, I am searching for the strength of my father’s shoulder, on which I slept as a kid and heard stories. My visit to Shimla is fruitful.