The summer heat beat down upon the train. We were traveling by the Grand Trunk Express. Day 2 of the journey. An afternoon in May. We were somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. Maybe in Maharashtra. I was seated by the open window. The breeze was hot. The rexine seat was hot. My dad sat on the other window seat. Dozing actually. Head propped up against the top of the window and bobbing up and down in tune with the rhythmic movement of the train. I reached out and shook him by his knee. He opened one eye. His eyebrow went up asking me the question that he did not mouth “What now?”. Well, I did have a question for him. “Why are we going so slow? Why can’t this train go faster?” Dad looked out. Saw his watch. Looked out again. Silence. I knew that I had to wait. I would get an answer. Eventually. When he was ready to give it. He looked at his watch again. Murmured something to himself. Closed his eyes and said “He is not slow. We are going at approximately 70 kmph now.”
There was that moment again. I watched open mouthed…while thinking “How does he know the speed?” Of course, as any 5 year for whom his dad was his hero (He played Cricket. Regular leather ball cricket. He hit sixes. He took wickets. He took awesome catches. Yes, hero he was), it never occurred to me that he might be fibbing about the speed. It took me another 7 years, and perhaps 3-4 more such travels, before I got to understand the science behind those seemingly magic numbers.
So, here is what was happening. It was all about counting the poles. No, not the polish poles. Count the good old telephone poles.
Put up right next to the railway tracks, connecting cities, making trunk calls possible. Yes, trunk calls. Remember them? If not watch “Chupke Chupke” here – skip to 20.49 to see what would happen when there was a trunk call.
But, we digress. Like links on the world wide web. So, lets get back to the poles. Telphone poles. Someone, I don’t know who, but sure would like to know who, used to number them. On these silver coloured poles would a patch of black paint. On it, would be painted in silver or white numbers like 511/1 or 841/9. The slash would be horizontal. The top number indicated the distance in kilometers from some city to the pole. The smaller number was an indicator of the pole number within the next kilometer. In different parts of the country, the Department of Telecom would have differing standards for the number of poles that would make a kilometer. Some had 15. Others 16.
So the trick, or the science was to look at the seconds needle on your wristwatch exactly as the train passed a pole with a fresh kilometer marked on it. And then you waited. Till you passed the pole, 10, 12 or 15 ones later, that marked the next kilometer. You counted the seconds in between the two events. You now had the time taken in seconds to traverse 1 km. You just had to divide 3600 (seconds in one hour…you knew that right?) by the number you had to get the speed in kilometers per hour or kmph.
Later, on my frequent trips between Delhi and Banglore in the mid 80’s, I used to do this to keep myself occupied. Or, at times, to impress the girls traveling in the same 2nd class cubicle. No. Not one of them was impressed. Ever. Not that I learnt. 🙂
Recently one my journey to Delhi and back, traveling in AC comfort, and with broad wide clean windows, I took the next step in impressing a 7 year old with this image as soon as he woke up on day 2 of our journey. I had made a deal with him the previous night that we both would stay awake and watch the journey unfold. His parents were suitably unimpressed with this deal. So, sleep he did. And me…well.. at 4.26 am, this is what I was doing 🙂
GPS showing speed of train
While he was suitably impressed, his dad, did not like this uncalled for intrusion into the father-son relationship, and promptly showed his son the application on his smart phone that could do the same thing. The next night, both of them stayed up late into the night watching stations as we flew past them…after all, we were in the Rajdhani.
Maybe by the time he grows up, google glasses like devices will be common enough, for him to coolly say to no one in particular (but the girl in the cubicle that is)…”You know, we are going at 180 kmph right now”, for him to be suitably rewarded with a smile. Then he can continue “I counted the poles, you know? Learnt it from this great guy who I traveled with when I was a 7 year old”
So, the next time you travel by Indian Railways…go slow.. and count the poles. Who knows…you may impress someone too? 😀
(Inspired to write this after viewing this… post … shared by my friend Chandana)