August 21, 2010

Musings from Ajni

Dear Lynne,
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Last month I had been on a ramble through the Ajni railway colony here in Nagpur and have come up with some interesting findings. Did you say you had visited Ajni back when you were a kid—or was it someone else? I tend to get a bit forgetful these days. The old landmarks are still there, but oh, what a crowd ! Hateful crowds on that road overbridge that spans the railway tracks below. Bikes and mobikes and scooters and autorickshaws, youngsters zooming past treacherously, everyone seems to be in a mad rush from morning to night. You cross the overbridge and begin to descend to find that a row of shops have sprung up, mostly cheap restaurants, photocopy, phone booths, and paan and cycle repairs of course. But it is still calm and quiet within the colony. You will still find those brick-red bungalows nestling among a jungle of trees and families seated on chairs drawn up in the frontyard chatting away or plainly savouring the calm and solitude of the greenery around. Then there’s that cheerful little church, St Anthony’s RC Church, where on Sunday mornings you can hear the congregation singing hymns of praise. The melody floats out, soft and sweet, mingling with the breeze and the gentle rustle of the trees, so quiet and restful.
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Ajni is a good 3 kms south of the main railway station. Why have a railway colony so far-removed from the station? As far as I know, there is no rule that says a colony has got to be next to the station. The easiest way to see why a colony came up here is to take a peek at the goods yard from atop the road overbridge. The Ajni goods yard was a wagon interchange point and was built nearly a century ago, a vast establishment complete with all the necessary accompaniments of signal cabins, Yardmaster’s office, carriage and wagon repair shop, transshipment platform, and loco shed. You can see the engine shed and the turntable installations in the pictures here. While railway officers stayed in bungalows specially built for them in the Civil Lines area, Ajni became home to a large number of operating staff. Drivers, guards, stationmasters, signalmen, traffic superintendents, loco foremen, ticket examiners, shunting masters, and pointsmen all lived in Ajni. While some of these men served in the goods yard close by, others worked in shifts at the main railway station. Remember that tiny 4-carriage train chugging between Ajni and Nagpur stations? I wonder when this train was first begun. I love to call it the ‘Ajni School Bus’ for it was just that : it carried workers staying in Ajni to the main railway station and back. There were 4 services each day, and in between runs the train was stabled in the Ajni steam loco shed.
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Over the past few decades a good many things have changed, some have even disappeared. The Ajni humpyard is a quiet place today, there is very little shunting, 4-wheeler wagons have passed into history and you won’t find a steam loco anywhere. Horrors ! As for the quaint little passenger train, alas, it was shunted out of use years ago. A tell-tale sign remains though: to the east of the goods yard you will find remnants of a deserted platform where the local train halted, barely recognizable today with overgrown shrubs and railway offices coming up along its length.
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I hate to see homes with sloping tin roofs, but this is how the bungalows in Ajni are. They were probably built with tiles to begin with, and later replaced with corrugated tin. Even the Institute has been subjected to this disfigurement and retains only a part of its splendid tiled roof.
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Ah, the Ajni European Institute …. What colourful images it brings to mind !! Margaret Deefholts tells me that no true-blue Anglo Indian get together at a railway Institute would be worth the name without everyone getting up on the floor and dancing. “Jiving was an Anglo Indian speciality,” she tells me, “and New Year’s Eve saw the dance floor absolutely thronged with people—competitions, novelty dances, exhibition dances, you name it ….”
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I stepped into the Ajni Institute where a cheerful looking keeper seemed to be eager to show me around. Through a door in the reading room I was led into a large hall with a floor made of wooden planks. This hall, equipped with a wooden stage at one end, also doubles up as an indoor badminton court. Later as he took me around the building, my companion showed me what appeared to be tiny ‘ventilators’ in the walls close to the ground. These air vents let in air below the wooden floor with the object perhaps of keeping the planks free from rot, although the exact purpose served by this arrangement still remains unclear.
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From the main hall I was led into a smaller hall having a decorative tiled floor. This was the dance hall I was told. My gaze swept across the room in wonderment; the tiles, hexagonal in shape, were dull red in colour spaced at equal intervals with cream coloured ones, and covered every inch of the floor from wall to wall. High up above me was the somber ceiling, its dark wooden beams set in a V-shaped pattern. The place is damp and cold, the floor hasn’t been scrubbed for ages. A sudden gust of wind set the wooden framework high above creaking and groaning, a door banged shut with a crash, followed by an eerie silence again. Then as if out of nowhere came the sound of laughter and murmur of voices, a jazzy tune playing from a hand-cranked gramophone and a jolly group of men and women are seen waltzing all over the floor. The lights are bright, the floor sparkling, the revelers are in high spirits. They pause momentarily. They have seen me, and now they throng around me asking me to join the dance. How very grand !!
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I wake up with a start to find my companion tapping me on my shoulder. The lights are gone and I can smell the damp and cold again. Bhonsle the keeper shows me a window through which drinks were served from the bar. I tried to open it but the shutter was set fast. This place is full of memories. It takes you back in time when Anglo Indians were at their peak and proudly ran the railways of India. The Institute was really built for them.
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Later I walked around the Institute in solitude. The decorative wooden beams and pillars on the outside have begun to chip away. At the backside which faces west, high up above on the masonry the year ‘1916’ can be seen marked in large sized raised letters. Today, more that nine decades later, the Institute is only a hazy reflection of what it once used to be. Before I left, the keeper showed me a tiny library room where stored away in a cupboard were two large boxes. One was an old radio set, perhaps a Murphy, working on valves and now out of use. Remember the tiny red glow seen through the back cover slowly appearing after the set was switched on? Next to the radio was an antique 16mm cinematograph used to project films in the main hall. Both these antiques are out of order, and sadly no one at the Institute could tell me the make. The projector I guess might be a Bell & Howell as this was a big name in portable film projectors in those days.
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I will sign off now. Shall tell you more about the Ajni railway colony later.
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Best wishes,
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Ravindra