No matter what country it is, regardless of faith or faction, age or education, politics or persuasion, you’ll always find people waving at trains. Passenger trains especially, but goods trains also have drivers to return the gesture, and even if his existence is masked behind reflector-glass windows, the waver knows that he is a presence, guiding his irresistible charge towards it’s destination.
How many of you have never waved at a train ? Be honest now. The response of silence is quite deafening, like the roar the beast makes as it clatters through a cutting, as it rattles over a bridge. As a kid, I was blessed with the good fortune to live near a railway line in a small Tasmanian country town. That boon all the greater for the location of our house being just half a kilometre from the rail-bridge across the river, where the trains rattled over.
From the glass-fronted living-room, I could watch the great metal serpent speeding on it’s way to destinations further afield which at first I could only imagine as an exotic ‘somewhere else’!
Later, older and wiser with the passing of time, I understood that the train terminated just twenty miles further on in a town with no extraordinary qualities.
By then though, the shedding of mystique had been replaced by the unconditional affection of a boy for a train. After school we would play in the bush that verged the river bank, imagining ourselves sometimes as heroic bushrangers – Australia’s dubious equivalents of Robin Hood – and at other times the heroic upholders of law and order who would hunt them down.
The trees and tangled undergrowth offered perfect camouflage for goodies and baddies alike, and we could spend hours and hours, day after day, week in and week out, immersed in our fantasy games.
At the distant sound of a train horn though, the war would be instantly suspended, an unspoken truce declared, and our whole rowdy gang would advance at a run like screaming banshees to cluster at the railway crossing. There we would wait in excited anticipation for it’s appearance, since that horn blast announced the train’s departure from the local station. It would have barely raised a full head of steam by the time it trundled into view our the cutting at the far end of the bridge.
Belching smoke and raising an infernal racket of metal and fire, the train descended on our motley crew, past the shady rowing club, clattering onto the bridge. The driver was well aware of our ecstatic assemblage, and he greeted us with the dignity of a monarch.
We cheered and hooted, and frantically waved, leaping about in frenzied exuberance; the driver leaned on the side of his cab, head cocked to one side, a slightly crooked smile on his face, and nonchalantly raised one hand in understated salute of our adulation. With one short blast of his horn, he was gone, leaving us to watch his cavalcade of bogies rattling by, mesmerized by the rhythmic clicketty-clack on the crossing and the flash of light from the sun’s rays dazzling momentarily between each carriage.
During holiday time we could catch the morning passenger service, and our enthusiasm would be magnified, encouraged by the return waves of those aboard. That ritual was short-lived though, for the service was abandoned within a couple of years of my arrival, scrapped due to some regime of economic rationalisation. The pleasures of a raggedy bunch of kids could hardly be considered in such mighty affairs of state.
Only as misty memories too, can I recall those magnificent fire-breathing steam trains, for they were pensioned off too, early in my train-worshipping days. The diesel replacements didn’t have the same romantic allure, but the driver with the lop-sided smile gave the same laconic salute and brief horn-blast as he sped past.
I’ve spent almost half my adult life in India. The notion of India without trains is like Australia without kangaroos, Nepal without the Himalayas. So, of course, India is a land of train-wavers.
Years ago, my girlfriend and I were striding along beside a railway line, both buried in bleak moods after realizing we’d mislaid baggage items at our overnight halt of the previous night. We were therefore marching back to the bus-stop to retrace our steps in the vain hope that the items might be where we had left them. It eventuated that they were not, but we had to check in order to know. A steam-train was chugging towards us, belching the particularly foul fumes produced by India’s brown coal.
We were in the impoverished and teaming northern state of Bihar, and typically the train was packed to the limit, and way beyond. Passengers were hanging in great clusters from the doorways, and roofs were simply another layer of massed humanity, clinging precariously up there. As the train approached, our presence excited plenty of interest, of wavers, and hecklers and many more too awed by our spectacle to respond in voice or gesture. The carriages passed endlessly, and we both determinedly ignored all attempts to distract us.
Ahead of us, towards the end of the great snail train, we recognized trouble looming in one particularly animated cluster of footboard passengers. A gaggle of male youth waving and cheering at us, each vying to be more obnoxious than his mates. One threw something as they drew closer, and we both cringed and stiffened as the missile flew towards us. On some days, India can be the pits. An exquisite red rose fell at our feet.
The carriage had already passed by the time we recognized the gift. My girlfriend picked it up and we waved enthusiastically, gratefully, at the rose-throwers, their faces beaming, grinning with delight at their perfect ruse.
Some years later, I was traveling home from Pondicherry on the evening train. The sun was fast dipping towards the horizon, inflamed particularly by the dusty atmosphere of wood, fumes and the diesel smoke of badly maintained engines.
The houses and streets adjoining the railway line were alive with the activities of day’s end. Women and girls were carrying water in brass or gawdy plastic pots, gracefully balanced on head or hip. Farmers urged their bullocks back from the fields, and young shepherds herded their sheep and goats home for the night. Fathers just returned from work, played with babes and youngsters.
Everyone stopped to watch the passing train. They probably repeated the same ritual daily. On this day one balding foreigner standing in the open doorway halfway along the length of the train caught extra attention, and they waved more energetically to catch his attention. I waved back at them. Not the casual wave of a regular train-waver, but a hearty hand-flapping of one too long away from the tracks.
Recently, I was teaching a workshop on the Mediterranean island of Sardenia. The site just happened to be situated right next to a high railway bridge. A distant horn blast announced the departure of the passenger train from the nearby station. I could not resist.
There was sufficient time to suspend the workshop for a moment to enable us all to line up by the time the train roared into view at the end of the bridge. We all waved frantically, and some passengers waved back. The driver too, leaning with his arm on the window sill, waved a regal salute and gave us a short blast of his horn.
For the three days of the workshop, several times a day we paused for a moment when the train warned of its approach, and we dutifully, delightedly, lined up for its passing. Who can resist waving at the train?