Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 24, April 1-15, 2018

When a station was a treat

Anna Varki


Egmore Railway station, now all of 110 years old, brings back fond memories of life in Chennai in the 1930s and ’40s, particularly of its refreshment room, where we would go after shopping at the city’s only mall, Moore Market, and have a treat.

This South Indian Railway refreshment room used to be a favourite haunt of my father and his journalist buddies in the days when journalists sent news to their papers by phone and telegrams. A bottle of beer cost 8 annas (16 annas made a rupee) One rupee was a very precious amount, especially for journalists who were so poorly paid.

A rupee was all my mother spent for the day’s marketing which included meat, fish, vegetables and everything a family needed, except for the rice, masala etc., which was bought monthly.

People like the Raja of Pithapuram and the Raja of Kollengode spent time in the Egmore railway refresment room waiting for their trains. But in those days, railway refreshment rooms were not only for travelers. They were numbered against the few restaurants in Madras. Eating out not encouraged in those days.

My father used to take us for a treat to the Egmore railway refreshment room. We looked forward to the sponge cake and lemonade fare and spent time moving around watching cars drive onto the platform, people alighting and entraining, something so much in the past, then, the guard blowing a whistle, waving a green flag and the train steaming out.

No idli-dosai. Only English breakfasts of two fried eggs, bacon and coffee. Really expensive. You could have a four-course English lunch: soup, a fish dish, meat dish and a dessert. You couldn’t just eat with a fork, strict British manners were followed, with cutlery meant for specific purposes, so knives and spoons were also used. A great favourite, which now may be termed Anglo-Indian, was Rice and Curry and the famous Mulligatawny soup which is really a kind of pepper rasam with some other ingredients put in, even some chicken pieces could be added and you got Chicken Mulligatawny soup.

Trains in those days had four classes. First class, which was only for the rich and the British. The first class four-berth compartment had an attached bathroom. Then, there were the second class and interclass, classification depending on the degree of thickness of the cushions (interclass cushions were very thin). Last but not least, the third class with wooden seats. A third class compartment would have forty to fifty seats on long wooden benches.

Any travel meant a hold-all, suit-case and a trunk. Travel light was years away. Round the corner near Egmore station was the Egmore Ice factory which has a history of its own.

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