Nostalgia, Indian Railways and Vintage Vizag

Expressing an immense love for the Indian Railways, Vizag and his school, The St. Aloysius, Noel Thomas takes the Yo! Vizag feature writer G V Ramesh on a nostalgic trip, describing the beauty and charm of Vizag from another era.

Proverbially speaking, it’s a meteoric rise for Noel Thomas to have ultimately retired as Divisional Mechanical Engineer, in the 90s, at Waltair – marking the end of his career that had started when he had set foot into the grand national carrier as an apprentice after finishing his high school way back in 1950s. That’s why it is no wonder that he has immense love for Indian Railways, a place where his father had earlier worked as well. But, Vizag the city too finds a place of pride, prominence and pre-eminence for this genial and kind-hearted pre-octogenarian Anglo-Indian.

It was his great grand-father, Joseph Thomas, who had migrated from Machilipatnam to Vizag during nineteenth century that started the clan of the Thomases in Vizag. Alosyius Thomas, father of Noel, who worked as a Railway Guard – one of the earliest to have worked in Railways in Vizag – put the latter in the hostel of St. Aloysius High School as his job entailed many transfers in the then fledgling Waltair Railway division. Thus began the romance between St. Aloysius High School and Noel. His eyes light up, voice sweetens and thoughts go nostalgic when he talks about it.

‘St. Aloysius High School was a mini-world and a home away from home at the same time’, he says. Literally it must be true for there were British officers’ children jostling with the kids of Anglo-Indians and native Indians in the expansive grounds of the school, being taught by eminent British, Telugu, Tamil and Urdu teachers. Vizag being the part of Madras Presidency then, the Tamil presence was very much existent in many educational institutions of Vizag. There was even a Swiss nun, Sister Felix, who took care of sick children in a dispensary sort of facility to complete the metaphor of a mini-world.

He goes equally nostalgic when talking about Vizag of vintage era. He talks of the East Point Rest house that had stables for keeping the mighty stallions, on which used to ride the chief of Vizag Railway Division – British, obviously, who was referred to as “Agent” then. He would ride to his office near the now-extinct old Railway Station, situated in One-town area. Equally edifying was the interesting titbit that Soldier-peta had many barracks that housed the British Army and Navy, especially during Second World War. It was a town of fishermen, petty vendors, medium merchants and of businesses connected to Port, especially Stevedoring – La Rave & Co and Ram Brahmam & Co were the earliest in the business – he recalls. A plain dosa in the morning at Asoka hotel, lunch in Naaz restaurant in the afternoon, sumptuous snacks at HMS Bakery and a stroll along the beach in the evening is what people of that era coveted the most, he says. Rightly so, one can agree that such a day is as idyllic and sublime as anyone can get in any part of the world.

He recalls another notable incident, which sent shivers down the spine for people of that era. Once a ship laden with dangerous ammunition caught fire midway in the Naval dockyard. People panicked, but the authorities had handled it so well that it was towed back safely deep into the Bay; many boats with water pumps were pressed into service to surround it from all directions continuously all the way. The boats sprayed water and doused the fires to prevent any untoward incident. It must have been a real rocking Deepavali in deep-waters!

Vizag, he says with pride, has been a town, which assimilated people of many communities and cultures with plenty of kindness, pep and élan. The kind of cosmopolitan culture that was prevalent, thanks to the great educational institutions, like St. Aloysius High School, CBM School, Mrs. AVN College, St. Joseph’s Convent, Fort Convent, Andhra University, etc., has made people too broad-minded to get entangled in disharmony of any kind due to the diversity that was the hallmark of Vizag’s social fabric. He says with pride that though there were many rich students, who could afford to travel in luxury cars and some super-rich, who were born with silver spoons and golden cutlery – the scions of Rajahs and Maharajahs of yore – were students and his batchmates in St. Aloysius, the school authorities ensured that none of those differences in social class came in between to sow seeds of resentment among the kids and all were treated equal be it in classes or in play grounds. He laments that such is not the case with kids of the current generation, and feels that it should be corrected at the earliest; lest it corrode the system beyond repair.

Vizag has been one city, which assimilated people of many communities and cultures with plenty of kindness, pep and élan.

The now extinct “Madras Mail” – an evening daily published from Madras (now Chennai), and Sports and Pastime – the predecessor of Sport-Star of “The Hindu” group were the two most widely read newspaper and sports-magazine during those days, says this veteran citizen. Though by profession he was an Engineer, his interests lay in arts and literature. And, it gloriously paved the way for a pretty fascinating vocation for him post his retirement from Railways. He is now the content consultant for the international Anglo Indian Magazine called “Anglos in the Wind”, which gathers articles from Anglo-Indians across the world and publishes for the wider public in general and Anglo Indian community in specific. It’s a matter of esteem that a short-story written by him – “The Letter”– was published in the anniversary issue of that magazine along with those written by Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond. The litterateur in him came into full fore in that story with rich employ of interesting idioms, a taut plotline involving the railway life of the young in a golden old era and a wonderful conclusion, which befittingly took the story to a crescendo. He also edited a very informative, thought-provoking and erudite volume titled “Footprints on the Track – Anglo Indian Railway Memories”.

Noel Thomas is a picture straight out of the classic age what with his sartorial sense and demeanour emanate spic and span in every aspect of life. He exudes a rare charm and a kind-heart with the verve and vigour of sportsmanship – he was a celebrated hockey and cricket player in the Railways. And, his accent, writings, talk and behaviour clearly belong to an age that put a premium on the aspects of meticulousness in both letter and spirit. An hour spent with him is sufficient to make one his fan and to covet becoming his friend for a lifetime. No wonder, I wish I become one. Amen!

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