The most exciting job that I had as a child was that of collecting newspapers. Rameswaram had a tiny railway station, but the train that passed through did not stop
there during the days of the War. But this train also brought the town’s newspapers. So the only way for the newspapers to get collected was for someone to stand at the door of the chugging train and throw the bundles on to the platform. I had the job of standing on the platform to collect these bundles of newspapers and taking them to my cousin Samsuddin who distributed them across the town.
In the morning, I could be found waiting at the railway platform, my ears tuned to hear the whistle or clattering of the wheels of the train. Then it would come into view, rushing up busily, puffing smoke and making a lot of noise. Waiting to catch the first glimpse of the train’s smoke, I started thinking about how steam engines work and the complex machinery required to turn steam into locomotion. This was where my fascination with engines and with the story of the invention of the steam engine began.
I would be hopping from one foot to another, anticipating the newspaper bundles getting thrown out of the moving train. Then there they would come, landing with big thuds near my feet. The person inside would wave at me as the train chugged away whistling and puffing steam. I would pick up the bundles and take them away. They would be heavy but in my youthful excitement, that didn’t matter.
In the evenings, when school was done, I went to meet Samsuddin again. Then, he and another cousin would read from the newspaper, telling about all that was happening in the world outside our town. How I longed to go out and see parts of this world for myself. They read aloud about the War, the unfolding freedom movement in India, little snippets of local news, the prices of various commodities. Everything seemed so big and important and faraway. Jalaluddin, a relative who had moved to Rameswaram on work and with whom I shared a special friendship, would tell me, ‘See, Abdul, you too will go out there one day and see more of this world. You must study hard and go to a big school and then college.’