The first thing I ever fell in love with was the Flying Scotsman. It was green and black, full of exquisite lines and curves, intricate machine work, and made by someone who cared and loved. It went around a set of tracks hauling coaches that on the inside looked like a rich man’s house.
“This is the first time he’s setting up the whole thing, you know? 7 years ago he bought it, much before you were born. He didn’t know you’d turn out to be a boy, but I suspect he would have turned a girl into a lover of that.”
In my head, my mom’s voice is still startlingly clear after nearly a quarter of a century later.
In that tiny dark house, we sat for hours one Sunday morning and assembled the thing for the first time. I was 5, I think. There was a procession of idlis, vadais, Horlicks, Milk Bikis, and other food I cannot recall. The tracks held together by tiny metal clips, the station, with its tapered and raised platform, the waiting hall, beige plastic with a few window cutouts, and the long roof made of thick, yet flimsy film covered everything. I didn’t know where to put the tiny sitting bench. “Leave that out for now”, I remember him saying.
The power was connected and the control unit attached. Finally, carefully he placed the locomotive, neatly aligning the wheels to the track, clipped on the assortment of coaches, and gave everything a once over.
It was ready. He gave the guard’s whistle.
He handed me the control and said, “Take the speed to position 1”. I did. The wheels turn slowly, the connecting rods millimetering up and down. It was magic. Notch up the speed a bit more. Then another notch. Speed up a bit more. Then some more. So for the first and last time in history, the Flying Scotsman was circling its way to Madras from Bangalore. Two revolutions of the track and it was time to stop at Bangalore Cantt. Speed decreasing notch by notch. Inching its way to a perfect stop. 2 minutes and a glass of water later for the chief driver, it was off to Bangarpet and onwards.
“Don’t speed it up that much, slow down, slow down, you’ll derail it”, I hollered. But my brother wouldn’t listen. That day, on its way to Arsikere from Yelhanka, the Flying Scotsman derailed on its 18th turn and went skimming across the room, finally resting to a stop after encountering a pile of The Hindu. I stared, disbelievingly, for a full minute. The Scotsman is lying on its side, the front most wheel still turning. But wait, something was wrong. The middle set is stationary and there’s a connecting rod that has broken off the wheel. The scene looks devastating.
The handsome, proud, green machine looks sad.
6 hours later, I am still in tears. All our attempts at re-railing the Scotsman and making it run have been fruitless. Without the connecting rod, the wheels refuse to turn. The handsome, proud, green machine looks sad. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure out something and get it running in a few days”.
The days became weeks. The weeks became months. The delicate assembly required a special set of miniature tools which weren’t available in India. Every tool shop, every jeweler within Malleshwaram was hounded, but to no avail. “How about a replacement?”, I casually asked one day. “A new one would cost 30 pounds, son.” No disappointment like a middle class child discovering the concept of money and the unevenness of its distribution.
“Come on, let’s watch this together”, I said to him. And so for the next hour we watched as James May attempted to build the world’s longest toy railway and run the Flying Scotsman on the track. We paused on many occasions, exchanging glances, grimaces, laughs, disappointments about our own attempts over the years of resurrecting the Scotsman. We grew up together because of that train set. He as a father, me as a son. We recognized each other’s faults and strengths building that set. We learned science and philosophy building those tracks. We learnt love and failure during the revolutions the Scotsman did.
James May doesn’t get a fairy tale ending, but we decided to see if we can get one.
The Scotsman is dusted off after many months in storage and primed with grease and alcohol-polished wheels. After nearly 2 decades the miniature tool set has made an appearance. “Let me fix it”, he says. The hands aren’t quite what they used to be. They tremble, struggling to find the tiny, tiny groove on the screw that will hold the wheel and connecting rod together. There’s a deep frown after 5 minutes of fruitless trying. “Can I do it, please?”. “No.” I can’t bear to watch this fallibility, so I leave.
Half hour later, he calls me in triumphantly. The wheels have been connected and the last connecting rod tacked on in place. Like 25 years earlier, we sit down (him in less comfort now than before) and assemble everything together. Idlis, vadais, coffee (all grown up), crackers and cheese.
The Scotsman is railed, the power control is attached.
“You do it this time”, I say and whistle the guard’s whistle.
It moves. The speed is notched up. There is immense joy in two hearts at this sight. Half a revolution of the tracks later, it comes to a shuddering halt. The rods come splintering off the wheel. We look at each other in surprised disappointment. I want to cry. There are tears in his eyes.
When will my Flying Scotsman run again?
This post was first published here.