Train Travel to Jaffna in the mid-1950s



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by A C B Pethiyagoda


"Jaffna, here I come" proclaims President Mahinda Rajapaksa with arms lifted high as the Yal Devi Express comes into the Jaffna Railway Station after a lapse of 24 years. This was the caption of the front page picture in The Island newspaper on Tuesday 14 with all other newspapers and TV news channels highlighting this glad news. My first thought on seeing these pictures was that I had approached the rail station and alighted from the Jaffna train very many times long ago, with of course no fanfare. All of us Lankans are glad this link with the northern peninsula has been restored and grateful to the Indian subsidiary IRCON International which restored the line in three stages: Omanthai to Kilinochchi; Kilinochchi to Pallai and then to Jaffna.


The Jaffna Night Mail


My mind went back to my first train trip to Jaffna about sixty years ago as a teenager when I studied for the Higher School Certificate Examination (HSC) in agriculture at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, after successfully passing the Senior School Certificate Exam from Trinity College Kandy. After that initial journey, within a span of two years, I was a fairly frequent traveler in the Night Mail to Jaffna, (no Devi or Royalty then!). It was heavily patronized by Jaffna men working in Colombo and elsewhere in the South with their families left behind in their places of birth in the Peninsula.


I would entrain from the Fort Railway Station around 6.00 o’clock in the evening. Needless to say I traveled third class with uncushioned wooden seats relatively uncrowded unless it was a weekend with a public holiday attached at either end. There was the first class carriage with its immaculately upholstered seats and berths covered in white; the second class compartments with comfortable sleeperettes and a fine restaurant car catering to these two classes with good China and silver plated cutlery. I cannot recall the exact price of the ticket, but I am certain it was less than fifty rupees – third class. The journey took approximately twelve hours.


Tact, patience and camaraderie were evident in the third class, with mostly single men traveling. Soon conversations ensued and one had a neighbour going into all details of one’s life and family – "How much does your father earn? So your brother is a DRO? He is spending for you? Do you like Jaffna? So much hotter than Kandy, no?" There were public servants (whose free second class travel warrants had already been used) and mercantile sector employees of mid and lower level. Long before Polgahawela, the men would change into verties and banians. Then would emerge dinner packets of thosai and curry, vadai, and rice and curry. For a short while the compartment became a strong smelling restaurant – meals on wheels. The trousers which were discarded were folded carefully to substitute for pillows since sleeping time was now the order of the night. If there was space, people stretched out, if not it was nodding off seated or curled up on half a seat. Whatever the position, sleep was deep! Particular care was taken of wallets and tickets. I never however, in all the train trips gone on, witnessed or heard of a robbery and was never subjected to any kind of foul play or harm.


The train stopped at several stations en route but the sleepers slept on undisturbed. As dawn was breaking, they would awake with no dependence on alarm clocks. Ablutions were performed in the tiny toilets with rusty water emerging from old pipes and taps. Breakfast was vadai usually, sold on the platforms. Seasoned travelers would know which station-stop afforded them enough time to get down, stretch their legs and drink a cup of tea from vendors carrying large aluminium canisters. They also were privy to the best food bargains they could get. The Jaffna man was always careful with his money!


There were plenty of buses drawn up near the Jaffna railway station. The train proceeded to Kankasanturai – KKS. The train travelers dispersed to their town or village homes, many distant from the main city. The buses were not of the Nelson plan type; rather did they have four or five long parallel seats running the breadth of the bus, facing the windscreen. At the rear end were two rows of seats against the sides and one at the back of the bus with room for luggage and a spare tyre. Unlike the train, the buses could get crowded so one would find oneself perched on the tyre or one’s bag in this middle area. Once, (I still feel embarrassed recollecting my insensitivity), I found myself seated on my bag cheek by jowl with a bare bodied man who was sweating profusely – I mean he seemed to be pouring with sweat and drenching the side and sleeve of my shirt. I asked an acquaintance seated in the last of the front seats, in English, whether he could make room for me as my neighbour was drenching me. He invited me over but before I moved, I had my neighbour remarking scathingly in perfectly pronounced English: "So you don’t sweat ah?"


Could we hope for a return of better times of mutual respect and understanding?


We had great respect and even affection for the Jaffna man and admired him for his integrity and hard work. We three principal races lived in amity in all parts of the island respecting each others’ positive characteristics and cultural norms. Politicians put paid to this easy living together soon thereafter.


I quote from an article I had published in this paper late November 2008 about the people of Jaffna and the comfortable relations maintained as witnessed by me in my two years at Vaddukoddai: "There was hardly any talk of politics but my recollection was that Alfred Duraiappah, a prominent member of the SLFP, was the Mayor of Jaffna. Perhaps all the bakers, many carpenters and motor mechanics were Sinhalese, managing lucrative businesses all over the peninsula, in addition to a fair number of resident public servants. Those were the times we hope will soon be with us again. Living in amity and cooperation is of mutual benefit to the Sinhalese and Tamils; where the former will learn the rewards of hard work, dignity of labour, the value of simple living and positive thinking; and the latter will respect and trust the Sinhalese once again."


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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