Memories of a Northern railway journey | Sunday Observer

Memories of a Northern railway journey

In two days from today Sri Lankans will be recalling memories of Black July which falls on July 23, a dark chapter in our nation’s history. It was a shameful and cruel episode that tarnished the conscience of this resplendent island. Whilst families would mourn the death of loved ones, alongside the calculated discrimination and injustice of that era, as resilient Sri Lankans we must move forward to sustain peace, for all citizens. One of the symbols associated with the violence unleashed in 1983 is the Yal Devi train, which today has thankfully become a cultural icon that connects all Sri Lankans to the Northern Province. Since the reopening of the northern railway line, I have made several journeys to the North on media assignments as an adult. In this brief narrative I attempt to capture those nostalgic moments of my first ride to Jaffna as a child, to the young readers of this ‘YouTube generation’.

The mention of the visit to Jaffna was received with immense joy, by myself and other family members, many of whom are domiciled overseas today. My grandfather had booked the tickets on the night mail train- not the Yal Devi express. He had wanted us to have the longer journey, which was totally awesome. If I may deviate for the benefit of our young readers the railway line to Jaffna was first completed in 1902, the year the Jaffna Station was also built. The first train reached here in 1905. Subsequently the CGR launched the Express Train named Yal Devi on April 23, 1956 which reduced the travel time to the relief of weary passengers.

The evening of that particular Friday remains etched in my mind. We boarded two Morris Minor taxis to the Colombo Fort Station. The Fort Station has always been a crowded venue, as it is today. I recollect grandfather showing the booking clerk his railway warrant (courtesy of the Police Department) and our regular tickets. The fat clerk duly stamped the railway warrant and we walked to the platform. There were other families, with kids likes us all earnestly awaiting the long ride into the mysterious night. The station had yellow bulbs then, no LED lights. The odour of diesel permeated from the tracks. One of the unique things I remember were the black wooden goods wagons being attached to the night mail train. There was no courier service then, the railway transported everything including cows and ponies in the goods wagon! The black Hunslet engine had done its shunting and coupling of compartments, and slowly moved away making room for the majestic M-4 locomotive engine painted in blue and silver. The Chief Station Master clad in full white had a few words with the engine driver. Shortly we climbed into the compartment. The berths had rudimentary beds and a ceiling fan that rotated with much noise! After a loud burst of its horn the night mail train set off. Within half an hour, being curious kids we exited our cabins to the regular compartments accompanied by father.

Most of these seats were occupied. I noticed a Tamil gentleman clad in white sarong and shirt, who grinned at us revealing a set of teeth stained by chewing betel. His large stomach moved to the rhythm of the train. Back to the cabin it was time to eat. I must confess I don’t remember the stations we passed, but grandfather did read out a few name boards. By now many passengers had fallen asleep when there was a shrill scream, which pierced the night. Father peeped out of the cabin, and found it was that fat soul clad in white. Another passenger had kept a flask of tea on the rack above and the lid had become undone bestowing that sleeping soul with hot milk tea on his head, which would justify the screaming!

As the train ploughed into the Northern Province, it was a beautiful sight. Sunrise was the picture perfect moment, as the radiant beams of light touch the tips of the palmyrah trees. I was putting my head out the window, much to mothers dislike. The vast areas of fertile land were like a wonderland to any child. Another cool visual were the large bullock carts- drawn by two bulls. Bicycles moved around the main towns we passed. Shortly the train stopped at Jaffna, and our host was ready to greet us at the station. We reached the village by taxi, and curious neighbours were at the gate to see the ‘Colombo people’. The hospitality and spicy food was amazing. I had my first glass of Nelli crush, the beverage of the North from the Rosarian Monastery, a drink which captivates me todate. During our stay we visited many interesting sights. I remember in some towns the bakeries were run by Sinhalese families. Muslim families were engaged in business. Burghers lived in the railway quarters and worked at the Police stations. We indulged in spicy seafood. Decades later I was privileged to write on some of these historic Tamil cultural monuments. Having encountered a large toad near a well is another funny memory. Friendships fostered on that first visit are vibrant today. Two of those family friends are Victor and Vincent (brothers) who still visit us in Colombo. No kid would want to leave this beautiful historical land. The return journey to Colombo was on the Yal Devi express. As I reminisce on this first long train journey there is a deeper reflection. The beauty of our unity as a Sri Lankan people is our cultural diversity. Forgiveness and reconciliation is the responsibility of every citizen. Even as every train compartment is linked to each other, we must remain united and journey forward to enjoy true prosperity.

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