Katihar Chronicles: A Childhood Drenched in Darkness But Lit by Adventure

The author reminisces about his childhood in Katihar, India during World War II, a time marked by lack of electricity, but enriched by unique experiences and adventures.

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Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.) was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in December 1957. He participated in the Wars against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. He was awarded 'Mention in Dispatch' in the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. His contact details are: [email protected], Ph: 9818260900 * Views are personal.

The story of Lahore and Jalandhar, narrated by some of my colleagues, reminds me of my own school days. Since I was not lucky enough to belong to an elite and prosperous state like Punjab, I spent my early life in an obscure place called Katihar, where my father was posted in the Railways. Life began at dawn and ended at dusk, as there was no electricity.

Wick and hurricane lamps were the only sources of light.

Those were the war days when everything, including kerosene, was rationed. Kerosene was sold in bottles, and we used to get six or so bottles in a month. So when the stock finished, we would buy unrefined kerosene, which gave heavy smoke and resulted in the glass chimney getting blackened after an hour or so of use.

Daily maintenance of oil lamps was thus a major task we had to perform, and there was no alternative to it.

There were a few cinema halls which ran on generators. Besides this, there was no other place of entertainment.

Only a few people owned radio sets that worked on dry batteries, which had limited life and were quite costly. We looked forward to a visit to the railway station, which was always full of life. Army special trains carrying troops were a major attraction.

I remember once we saw a train full of Gorillas that were being transported to the Burma border. At that time we did not understand what role the Gorillas would play in a war.

Much later, we learned that they were used in mine clearing operations.

Another thing I remember about the Gorillas. In those days, train coaches did not have railings in the windows. You could lower the shutters and peep outside, which we as kids always did, much to the annoyance of elders.

In this particular train, all windows had bars. One Gorilla somehow managed to get out, perhaps through the door only and sat on the roof of the bogie. It took quite some time for the officials to get him back into the coach. They had a trainer also with them who carried out this task.

In front of the house where we lived, there was a large courtyard where we mostly played football in the evenings. Quite often, out of nowhere, we would find nomads descending with their families and belongings and park themselves in the courtyard.

Perhaps the well in the courtyard and the shrubs on our side of the road, where they could perform their morning parade, made the place convenient for their stay.

Their entourage consisted of women, children, and some animals.

They would disappear just as suddenly as they had come.

One fine morning, when you woke up, they were gone. No one knew where they came from or where they went away.

People from various interests and skills lived in the neighborhood. One family that attracted me was the family of a showman who performed on the roadside.

Their skills included rope tricks and stunts, such as walking on a rope and removing steel balls from their stomachs.

He would make a belching sound and contract his stomach like one does while doing Kapalbharti, and a steel ball would come out of his mouth.

The steel balls were quite big, maybe of a size of a billiards balls. Before the show, he would swallow the steel balls & had to remain in empty stomach till he had performed at the show.

This man was also a snake charmer. He showed me how he made a poisonous snake sterile by removing venom from its body. It was quite interesting to watch. He opened the bag, and when the snake came out, he grabbed its head with lightning speed and suspended it, thus making it immobile.

He then prized its mouth open, exposing the jaw. There were two small capsule like sachets in the upper jaw, which contained the venom. With a sharp knife, he cut it out & removed them before releasing the snake. As it started slithering away, he grabbed it and again put it in his bag, declaring that now he was harmless. He would bite, but no venom would be released. When asked if the snake was now harmless, he did mention of some time duration, after which a fresh sachet of venom would appear again, making him as deadly as before.

Another interesting trick that he performed was one in which a rope danced and stiffened to the tune of his Been (a kind of flute that is played by blowing into it with the mouth).

He would play his Been and the rope would uncoil and start climbing straight up. It would go up to a height of 10-12 feet and would drop down the moment he stopped playing his Been. People would examine the rope to check if there was some hidden mechanism which made the rope climb, but no such thing could ever be found. Even till today it remains a mystery to me as to how he performed this trick.

Somehow, I have had frequent encounters with snakes during my earlier days in Katihar.

We used to go for tuition classes in the evenings carrying a lantern in pitch-dark nights. The roads would be deserted and it was scary too.

To keep up my morale, I would keep singing aloud all the way. One day when I was going alone thus, someone from the opposite side started flashing torchlight directly into my eyes, blinding me completely. I was annoyed and was about to use some of my limited vocabulary of abuses when a woman ahead of me screamed “Oh Maa!”

As I looked down, I saw a huge snake crossing the road, and the person flashing the torch shouted,

“Just stay where you are and don’t move.”

He turned out to be my friend who had reached the teacher’s house early and realized that the teacher was not in, and that meant no coaching that day!

On another occasion, on my way to tuition class, I just managed to avoid stepping onto a baby cobra that came in my way.

I have seen quite a few cases of snakebites. Once, a snake bit a boy, and his parents brought him for treatment to an Ojha(a tantric). The parents had tied a rope around the leg, which had the snake bite to prevent the poison from spreading.

The first thing the tantric did was to loosen the rope, and then he started his rituals. Soon, the boy became unconscious, with his mouth frothing. A doctor was then called, who did give an injection, but the boy was dead, and his body slowly turned blue.


Katihar was a great place for Mangoes. I have never had more exotic varieties anywhere in my life. They were Gulab-khas, Kasturi, which had an aroma like saffron, apart from the usual like Langra, Malda and so on. We brought mangoes by 100s and not by dozens or kgs. For a strange reason which I could never figure out their 100 was known as Saekra, which was 125 in count.

 Another fruit tree that looked very lovely when fully laden was that of Litchis. It was oval shaped and started at ground level, which meant no climbing to pluck fruits. They were very sweet and never sour.

A part of our childhood days were spent in Allahabad also, where my father was trying to get himself transferred from Katihar. We spent around two to three years or so there between 1942 and 1945.

We lived in an area close to where my aunt used to live in a rented house, the rent for which was Rs 5/- per month.

Our school was around 4 km away from where we lived and our transport was an Ekka, a type of horse pulled cart with a flat platform to sit on. It had a canopy made with wooden poles to which we held for support as the Ekka moved slowly.

It had wooden wheels with a solid rubber tyre around it to make the ride smooth.

I always dreaded sitting on the side as quite often the tyre would get loose and you got a massive lash on your back. I did not have much of an option though as besides being older, I was a boy while the others were girls.

Public transport was non-existent. The only other transport available was a Tonga, the fares for which were high. We used to spot one or two odd buses which did not run on petrol but on steam. The country was at war at that time and there was an acute shortage of petrol and so the alternative fuel was steam. They had a long cylindrical structure mounted on the back of the bus which they called a boiler in which coal was burnt to produce steam which propelled the bus.

Even today it baffles me and I have not figured out what was the technology they had used to pull off this mechanism.

One could also spot an odd car on the road, which was called Motorand had wheels with spokes like in a cycle wheel and a honk which sounded as “pom-pom.”

Once when I was standing on the roadside, I saw a Motor whose front wheel was wobbling. I thought to myself,” this motor is not going very far” and just then one of the front wheels got detached and the vehicle travelled some distance on three wheels before coming to a halt. Those on the road who saw this happen, started laughing and so did those who were travelling in the Motor.

These days when most houses have a well-equipped modern kitchen complete with all the gadgets and appliances that one may need, the lady of the house is still wary of going to the kitchen and try out her culinary skills. So cooking of food remains the domain of the domestic help.

A daily task was the firing of coal stove or the “choolha” as we call it in the kitchen. Being the eldest son, I was often given this task on days when we did not have a maid, though this was not always the case as you always had a helping hand.

The fuel used could be firewood, steam, coal, or raw coal, as it is directly mined. The price difference for various grades of coal was quite substantial. The cheapest being the raw coal or ‘patthar-ka-koyla’ as it was called. It was heavy like a stone, as the name suggests, difficult to ignite, and quite messy to use. The first task was to break it into small pieces about an inch or so in size. We had a fixed masonry stove in the kitchen. Your implements for this task were wood twigs and a few drops of kerosene, if available, as its primary use was in the oil lamps for lighting in the evenings. A matchbox, of course, and a ‘phookni’ to blow the air directly onto the flame.

Phookniis is an iron tube of about an inch in diameter and around 18 to 20 inches long with both ends open, through which you blow air directly on the flame till your lungs start aching or the fire is lit, whichever is earlier.

The first step was cleaning the choolha in the morning and then stacking coal pieces in the furnace in such a way that allowed free passage of air. Underneath would be placed small wooden pieces that were easy to ignite.

On top of it were stacked coal pieces. Once the fire has caught on, we had to quickly vacate the kitchen as intense smoke would emerge from the stove. Upon fully ignited, the smoke would be gone and would give you a couple of hours of smoke free use.

When cooking was over for the lunch, you doused the fire with a bit with water so that it is not completely extinguished and can be re-ignited by prodding and addition of more coal (steam coal this time that is smoke free). A phookni could also be a handy weapon of self defence for maids, who are alone in the kitchen, which is normally detached from the living area in houses.

In Katihar, we learned about various grades of coal that were used. Raw coal that is mined directly is the basic product. It is processed according to its end use. For example, for cooking purpose it is the steam coal that is used. You stack a pile in the open and set fire to it and let the heap burn till all the toxic matter and undesired elements are burnt away.

The fire is extinguished by dousing with water. It then becomes lighter in weight, less messy and easy to ignite. It is of course quite costly. We normally got raw coal for our use.

Sometimes, you had an Angethi, which is nothing but a portable iron bucket that has a ring like mesh to hold the coal in the middle, a small opening at the base to allow free passage of air, and for cleaning the stove. The hearth part was made of clay, which holds the coal. We stacked the coal in the Angethi like in a normal choolha and follow the same procedure to ignite it and leave it out in the open till the smoke had gone and then bring it inside the kitchen for use. I normally preferred the Angethi as you could work on it in the open.

In steam engines, only raw coal was used. Often, at the start, the engine would huff and puff before the traction is passed on to the bogies. Sometimes, at the start, the wheels would spin at the same spot, without the engine moving forward, till enough traction was built up to push forward.

In steam engines in the Railways, the staff would consist of the driver and the fireman. While the driver was the boss, the fireman’s duty was to keep feeding coal in the boiler’s furnace with a shovel at regular intervals to ensure the nonstop production of steam.

In academics, maths was the most difficult subject for everyone. FPS system of weights and measurement was in use in India then, which made calculation even more difficult.

In currency there was rupee, anna and paisa, and the price of any item was given in these denominations only. (The conversion was, 1 rupee = 16 annas, and 1 anna = 4 paise).

A question would be asked, if one mango costs three annas and two paise, what would be the cost of eight mangos?

Look at the complexity of the calculation!

You had to convert paise into anna and anna into rupee.

If you made a mistake & got the answer wrong, you scored a big zero for your effort!

In the current metric system, in one single step, you have the answer.

In the town, there was no electricity. It was a common sight to see the light man from municipality to come on a cycle carrying a can of kerosene and a ladder.

He would climb each pole, bring down the oil lamp, clean it, and top it up with the measured quantity of oil, which was not enough for the lamp to burn for the whole night.

Those were the WW2 days when everything was rationed & this included the kerosene, and on top of it, the light man had to save some oil for his own use, too !

The result was that all lamps would be extinguished by around 10 pm or so.

In houses, we had a variety of lights, each giving different intensity of light and had different oil consumption according to its use.

We had a double wick lamp which gave more light. There also used to be a tiny one called dhibriwith no chimney. It used to be placed in niches on the wall. It did not light up the area but gave a general direction to allow free movement in the dark and used to be extinguished before we went to sleep.

Then there was petromax with a filament which burns bright and was used to light up an area.

Its oil consumption was quite high; hence, it was used only for special functions.

There were hardly any places of entertainment in the town.

The circus would come and stay in the town once in many years and that used to be an attraction we looked forward to.

There were two cinema houses that showed Hindi movies only. Even if they did screen an English movie, it was doubtful if they would get enough audience to watch.

There were electric generators that provided the light.

Even if one was not watching a movie, it was a popular spot people visited, either to have a paan or a cup of tea because that was the only lit up area in the town.

Some time, it was quite amusing while watching a movie to see a married woman, being shown as an unmarried girl in the following scene.

This happened when the projector operator made a mistake in the sequence in which the reels are screened.

There would be an uproar in the house, with a lot of whistling from some audience members, and then quickly, lights would be switched on until the operator changed the reel in the right sequence.


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