Monday, February 15, 2016

H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s ‘Adventures in Steam’

Review of H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s ‘Adventures in Steam: British Era’, published in 2012

When H. U. Thibbotumunuwe writes about train journeys, he writes well. He’d do better to paint, one feels, not because his prose is uneven and disjointed but because he extracts from memory so precisely that he injects an almost painterly nostalgia in page after page. He wrote two books on his adventures, one in 2012 and another two years later. He wrote from the heart, he wrote from memory, and he won an audience. For those who love train rides and train history, and for those who love revisiting the past, these two books are (without a doubt) essential reading.

“Adventures in Steam: British Era” is the first of the two. It recounts almost everything he underwent as driver and inspector in the Ceylon Government Railway, from the day he joined in 1942 the day he retired many, many decades later. He clearly isn’t content in just recounting (notwithstanding the fact that he calls his book a “narration”), but for a book of this sort to be replete with history-anecdote and reportage, he must narrate. Not editorialise.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t offer comment. But where he does (and towards the end of the book he moves frequently into commentary), it helps us consider him not just as another history-transcriber but a transcriber who has lived through what he has written. As such he doesn’t remain fixated on either nostalgia or bitterness, though he’s had his lion’s share of both. There are chapters here which dwell on a harsh reality, exposing the exploitative nature of the colonialist-managed Railway days (right from the first chapter), and there are chapters which personify a happiness and sense of camaraderie that existed despite that harsh reality (he evokes this best, I feel, when he describes a get-together in Chapter 19).

Sometimes (and this is Thibbotumunuwe at his best) he mingles reality and bitterness, offering irony for the reader. So it is with Chapter 20 (“T. C de Silva Who Was Not a Garrat), where he narrates the account of a driver who refuses a double turn and justifies that refusal by saying that he isn’t a garret and that “even Garrats have to be refuelled for a return journey.” “Although Silva’s stand is a glaring fact, one must have the guts to act in that manner,” Thibbotumunuwe writes, and we agree. The author evokes humour here when he reports what de Silva offered as justification, humour of the bitter, acerbic sort.

I don’t know what it would’ve been like to work in the Railway then and I don’t know what it’s like now. It’s to Thibbotumunuwe’s credit that he takes time to explain and clarify, so much so that we know what he’s telling us. We aren’t confused, his prose elaborates, and it remains lean and austere (for the most). He is the best person who can achieve this, and the only person, given that he might well be the oldest living railway pensioner in the country. And so we read his take on the aforementioned “Garrat” trains, which spans no less than three chapters. There are technicalities here, and he throws the jargon of his trade to the reader. But this jargon isn’t flowery. It’s digestible. The author gets his reader to read on.

Towards the end however, he gets more sober and reflective. In “Death on the Pilgrim Special” he spares frill and reports the death of a colleague, which (one can argue) deprives it of any sense of horror and compassion. But that’s what Thibbotumunuwe indulges in and privileges: he doesn’t let emotion colour his narrative. Death was a cruel inevitability along the railway line, he seems to be telling us.

What we glean from these chapters is probably the most honest account of the railway which existed back then: gruelling, death-defying, and sometimes life-denying. But we never question the author’s judgment, for his judgment remains analytical and content despite whatever bias or prejudice we may be having. As with all innovations that history brought up, the railway in its infancy was both morbid and invigorating. Thibbotumunuwe doesn’t admit this straight away (he does so a little in his second book), but what he provides us is enough for us to make our own conclusions.

I enjoy train-rides and I enjoy reading about train-rides. There’s so much in our railway’s history that both the historian and storyteller can indulge in. Being well acquainted with his trade, Thibbotumunuwe no doubt has provided all that he can, penning it down for our generation to go through and reflect on. I don’t know what other readers will feel after reading it, but I’m sure that almost all of them would feel humbled by those death-defying days, when train-rides weren’t just a luxury but a luxury that drove on blood and sweat (almost literally).

In short, “Adventures in Steam: British Era” is something the common reader can flip through easily. It was prescribed and recommended as a school library book, wise considering how much in terms of history it contributes. I loved going through it, I’m sure others will too, and I’m sure they’ll all wish the author long life and wish that he will follow this (and the book that followed) with other accounts of the Railway Service, which subsisted once upon a harsher time.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 14 2016