[On August 11, Vikas Babu C, a track maintainer with the Palghat Division of Southern Railways, put up a post on social media about the life of a Railway Night Patrolman during the floods. He just wanted to highlight the lonely & dangerous work done by his brothers. We are reproducing the post as we felt all our readers should know about people who ensure our safe rail travel, facing all kinds of natural adversities.]
“Most people do not even know that we exist. We mostly make it to the news only through obituary columns. Night after wet night, a few solitary men have been patrolling the lonely rail tracks & the windswept bridges, the dark platforms & the wet, crumbling bluffs to ensure that you travel safely.
No! This note was not born out of jealousy for the praise that the police, the Army & the Electricity Department has been receiving for their relief work during the floods. Because most people do not even know that we exist. We mostly make it to the news only through obituary columns.
We are the men from the Engineering Wing of the Indian Railways. By night & by day, we guard the steel rails, the straight lines that have criss-crossed your lives so many times.We are there as the vigilant night patrolman, as the watchful gateman, as the rugged gang-man, as the alert key-man…. We guard your journey from end to end, just that we have different names, faces & roles.
Of all these avatars, I am writing today about the Lone Ranger of the tracks—the Night Patrolman. On monsoon nights, when the train thundered through the downpour & you sat looking outside, have you ever heard a fluting whistle rising from the inky darkness? Know this, for it is me—the Night Patrolman—calling out: ‘It is safe. It is safe. Pass without fear.’
We often trek 20km through the span of a single night, inspecting the raging waters under bridges, peering up at crumbling embankments & wondering if any of those towering trees groaning in the wind will crash across the tracks. My brothers often walk stretches through elephant & tiger country. Surprised? Don’t be! All in a day’s work!
Our feet get a break only once every five kilometres. Our shoulders, too, grow weary from the straps of the heavy rucksack cutting into them. Detonators, tricolour torch, gang board… the bag is so heavy that rookies shrink at the thought of adding a water bottle. But, over time, the burden, water bottle & all become habit.
Halfway into the shift, an unwelcome friend tries to get close—sleep! Still, we shoo that friend away & stay awake by the steel highway to ensure that you reach your destination rested & safe. The monsoon downpour quite often forces itself through the umbrella & the raincoat & then we dream of home, a warm bed & blanket. If the line above is electrified, quite often a buzz climbs down through the ribs of the umbrella & touches the skin on the neck, leaving a stinging sensation quite like that of a tree-ant bite.
Late into the shift, the torch grows fitful & sleepy. And, that is when other dangers reveal themselves. I used to be petrified by the sight of pythons crawling out for a midnight meal. Now, I just give them a wide berth & walk on. Habit, like I said. But, one cannot ignore the python’s venomous brethren so casually. The golden-scaled guy I saw the other night was as long as I am tall.
But, I cannot even dive deeper into my thoughts, can I? Because, if I do, I will not realise that the low moon on the horizon is the night mail rumbling closer every second. Like Rudra’s third eye, a beam of light boring through the darkness. Quite often, when the train’s whistle is blown away by the wind, that light is my friend. In the last fortnight, I lost two friends who were on key-man duty.
Not so long ago, I remember a friend trying to press himself into a wall as a train whistled past. Still, something hooked on to his clothes & jerked him away from the wall. He survived with injuries. The rule book says that I must stay clear of the tracks while signalling; standing on the other adjacent track is also forbidden. What if a second train comes that way & I do not hear it amidst the roar of the first?
Now, the floods are upon us. The waters keep rising under every bridge. In the darkness we walk across every bridge to ensure that the flood is well clear of the danger mark. And, we walk the length of every tunnel to ensure that there are no cave-ins.
No one knows that we exist, & hence, no one writes about us. Still, no complaints. There is much more to add to my story, but it is time I left to walk the rails. There are trains waiting for me, you see!
Travel safe, for we are here & listen.”
– Vikas Babu C