Sunday, December 21, 2014

Beyond the Engine Room

Review of ADVENTURES OF RAILWAYMEN: 1940 TO 2005 by H. U. Thibbotumunwe. Published in 2013.

Train journeys are never for the timid. They are also not for the sleepy-eyed. To the first-time traveller, they are meant to be relished frequently, even after the journey’s end. The reason for this is easy to miss, though. I admit I’ve gone on a train just once. I was in Grade IV at the time. Too young to remember. But the memory of that journey is still fresh in my mind, and I suspect it will continue to be fresh as the years go by.

This is a book about train journeys. It’s a book about different places visited and revisited. It’s not written by a traveller, though. It’s not meant to be.

H. U. Thibbotumunuwe is a railwayman right through. He has made journeys. Countless journeys. Seen the same place again and again. Relished them all. Learned much. And, in his second book, given much. Adventures of Railwaymen covers 65 years and most of it in an engaging style that at once enchants the reader. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

H. U. Thibbotumuwe is a book waiting to be written. To the railway community in this country, he is no stranger. And in his second book, he lays bare for us what it means to be in the railway trade. It is as physically demanding as it is mentally rewarding. Concentration is key, he tells us in the first few chapters. True. The slightest miscalculation, the smallest error, and everything will go haywire. Trains are serious business. They are not meant to be meddled with.

The book is filled with anecdotes from the start. Inevitably, this lends an experience felt and lived through to its pages. A book of this sort, I feel, needs personal experience, not bland reportage. Which is what Mr Thibbotumunuwe has given us. He gives us facts, granted, and stays true to them, but this does not hinder him from expressing his opinion from time to time. There are 21 chapters overall, and all of them are true to life. Some, like the chapter “Was it Accident or Suicide?”, are so fantastic, almost supernatural, that we have second doubts in believing them. Reading them again, however, I am convinced that only deep involvement with the railway line could have yielded such stories.

It is a narrative style he uses in every chapter. Admirably. There are passages in his “stories” (I cannot come up with a better word for them) which read as though out of a novel. In the chapter “My Most Unforgettable Roommate” towards the latter part of the book, he almost completely abandons reportage and narrates a witty story, one that feels and breathes like a farce, a good comedy. Humour, always a hard to get commodity in the engine room, is something Mr Thibbotumunuwe never lacks. Thankfully. I am not for blandly recounting facts and figures, however fantastical they may be. Respectful of the reader’s penchant for story-telling (we are a species that loves to tell stories after all), he takes up the mantle of a true narrator. This remains his greatest strength throughout the book.

Mind you, this doesn’t make Adventures of Railwaymen a sugar-coated puff piece. The author is true to life, rightly so, and thus even stoops to reveal several darker aspects to the railway trade. In his most “graphic” story, “Yangal Modera King of Killer Level Crossings”, he recounts to us an accident which costs nearly 50 lives. He keeps a fine balance between the physical damage and human loss in the tragedy, and I can only quote his own words to prove this:

This avoidable accident has caused damage to the locomotive, the permanent way and also loss of revenue to Government by way of curtailment of service during the period. The loss of the omnibus to its owner and the income from it. This above all the loss of 48 valuable innocent lives of passengers for no rhyme or reason and the life long suffering through injuries caused to a similar number. Their belongings either completely damaged or perished.

Mr Thibbotumunuwe is very honest here. He seems almost cold, aloof, in how he measures tragedy in this chapter and indeed every chapter with an accident in it. Years and decades of service would have made him a reason-driven railwayman, and he proves this in the first half of the book itself when, in the chapter “Level Crossing Victim’s Left Leg”, he makes the following observation about a distraught uncle of a legless train victim: “Uncle had a genuine grievance. The fault was in his presentation.” That’s all. Nothing else.

Even at a time of deep tragedy, the rational man in the author persists, and it is this which puts into the book a naked, reportage-like austerity. Were it not for those occasional lapses into emotion, into adjective and personal reflection, it would have acquired a prose style worthy of a Hemingway or Camus. But no, it shall never be. A book like this is not meant to be written by Camus. Tragedy is recounted, true, but never at the cost of throwing aside personal reflection. Even Camus knew this.

Towards the latter section of his book, however, the author breaks apart a little. He gives way to a more journalistic style. The words acquire haiku simplicity, to the point where they appear more as words from a newspaper, giving information but never breathing on their own. It is as though Mr Thibbotumunuwe has moved on, realised the inevitable vicissitudes of life, and reduced his later years to simple facts, free of frill. There is no obesity in his words, as there almost was in the first half of the book. It is still a personal tone alright, but one which is more sombre. In his last story, “Military Train Meets Barber”, he abandons the narrative style partially, and instead of ending with a bang, he ends with a whimper:

“Ok then cut my hair will you,” said the Major, removing his peak-cap and exhibiting his Yul Brynner head with no hair at all.

He ends with humour, but of a quiet sort. It is no coincidence that he mentions Yul Brynner here. He has begun his book like a Hitchcock thriller (“Mystery of the Railway Cash Bag 1942”) and ended it like a Western. One feels, rightly I suppose, that in the last few words of his book, Mr Thibbotumunuwe seems to imagine all railwaymen as lone heroes, held together by a common bond and, in the end, leaving what they worked at as a John Wayne or, yes, Yul Brynner would.

This isn’t H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s first book. By all accounts, it will not be his last. He has that irrepressible spirit which refuses to back down. It wants to go back in time, to reflect, and to engage. He is the oldest living railwayman in this country, a living museum waiting to be done justice to. I have met him only twice, and in both occasions he has moved me, not just with his spirit but his wit as well. That’s a rare combination.

There are passages in his story which come only from a man who has worked, sweated, and toiled. I’m sure a lesser man would have given up. He hasn’t. It is an enduring credit to his spirit, perhaps, that he hasn’t also given up his wit. He is, in the final analysis, a proud railwayman, and indeed a proud product of everything he has passed and come through, including his school (Ananda College).

Adventures of Railwaymen: 1940 to 2005 covers more than half a century. That’s no easy task. Mr Thibbotumunuwe has done it. And except for those occasional spelling and grammatical errors which point towards the publisher’s carelessness (they accumulate, I should regretfully say, as the book builds up to its end), I relished his stories from line to line, word to word. Sri Lanka’s railway service completes 150 years this month. What better tribute to it can be found than Mr Thibbotumunuwe’s book!

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 21 2014