Exploring the Raj and its Railways

AS ANY SCHOOLBOY will tell you, if you are late in arriving at the station, you miss the train. Pretty much the same thing happened here as far  as my camera and I were concerned. The few books on rail history I had on my shelf were a treasured possession which I held in the greatest regard. I read them, pored over the pictures, re-read them. These books told about the railways of India, how the system began, and what the earliest carriages were like, and how the early engines worked. Reading these works not only gave me pleasure, they also did something else. They clothed me with a false sense of security. Why bother to take pictures of steam trains with those books lying around my shelf?

Then the bombshell exploded. The engines I loved began to get fewer in number with each passing year. I knew what was happening, but was too complacent to do anything about it. When I finally did carry a camera to the station, I was late in arriving. Steam traction had been dismissed contemptuously as an antique mode of power: everything had turned modern and sophisticated. And the antique engines had all been sold for a song, I was told.

Accident Relief Trains were stabled in the locoshed
in earlier times. Here is a modern ART stabled on
the main railway station itself.

Fortunately for me, there’s more to my fascination with trains than just photographing steam engines. Railways are a fascinating hobby, one that can grow around a person like a creeper. Here is a youngster who is fond of watching engines steaming in the yard. Oh, how he rejoices to watch an ageing loco as it draws out of the yard with a line of carriages, throwing up plumes of smoke into the air! These engines are his life, and he may be seen pottering about near a siding, even the yard, looking up those magnificent old machines at work.

Manufacturers' Plates.
Picture courtesy of
Dr A. B. Damania
Soon our boy tires of watching engines alone; he comes to recognize that each iron horse is a distinct entity with a personality of its own.  Manufacturers’ plates suddenly take on a new significance for him; they reveal to him the loco’s identity, and help him to look upon each loco as he would look at each individual boy in school. So he begins to keep a diary where he will begin to document each loco he sees by noting down engine numbers.

After a while, our young man with his notebook full with numbers moves on to explore the yard, then the station, the level crossing, and the locomotive shed. If he has a technical bent of mind, he may be tempted to explore how the railway is run. He is going to make friends with the station staff, eager to learn what comes his way. And if he has access to a library, he will find himself looking up books on history, old documents. Since the past is nearly always more interesting than the present, he will set his sights on the antiquity of the railway: a signal lamp made a hundred years ago, an ageing brass buckle once worn by a refreshment room bearer, a rustic old platform bench, old locos lying around in the scrapyard. And when our boy reaches the stage where anything that points to his beloved railway is a joy to contemplate—anything ranging from an old movie that features the railway to the picture of a merry faced station master in baggy trousers—when he reaches this stage he may be said to have reached maturity. His pastime is no longer confined to watching old locos in the yard; it has become an all-embracing pursuit.

This is far from being an exhaustive list, and followers of the railway trail will find many other facets to arouse their curiosity and interest. But after exploring the railways as far as I could, it still leaves me feeling empty within. There is a void within, a void that is as inexplicable as it is agonizing. If you are a victim of this malady, you need not despair. The cure is straightforward enough. Turn to literature; turn to memoirs, to old timer’ tales; turn to stories that dwell on the railway age long past, no matter how briefly; watch movies based on the Raj. It will act as a soothing liniment to the troubled, wandering soul, a spring of fresh water in the parched desert.

Bill Aitken discovered this and proclaimed jubilantly to the world that John Masters’ Bhowani Junction was unlikely to be bettered for the most genuine flavor of India’s steam age. Aitken got his flavor from a footplate ride described in great detail by Masters in his book. I read the novel and found that nearly every page of the book smacks of the railway; it is a railway story in the truest sense of the word. Forster’s A Passage to India in contrast, is not set in railwayland throughout its entire breadth ; yet if you are a lover of the railways of the Raj, you are bound to be an ardent admirer of the Raj too; and Forster does dwell on the railways of hisday, though briefly. Spend a night pacing up and down the platform of Chandrapore station with Dr Aziz waiting impatiently for his English company to arrive who he will gallantly escort for a picnic at the mysterious Marabar caves. Here at the station you will find at the first hint of dawn third-class passengers stirring from dark corners preparing to clean their teeth on the twigs of a tree while a man from the station office goes putting out the lamps. The Raj, the English, the railways, the natives…. it is all there. And when you are done with Forster, I would recommend that magnificent epic which earned Paul Scott a name in literature. You have probably already seen in on television, but nothing can quite equal reading the original Raj Quarter comprising four novels set in the final tumultuous years of the British Raj. “… If in a hundred or three hundred years from now,” wrote M M Kaye, “anyone wants to know exactly how it was like, they will be able to find out by reading The Raj Quartet.” That is enough reason for anyone to want to read the Quartet; there is not much of railways in there save for a hint or two, but there is enough of Raj and Railways to satisfy the perpetually thirsting soul.

Literature then is the path the rail enthusiast must take if his excursion is to be deep and satisfying. Mere facts and figures serve to inform; they do nothing more than that; a tale takes one back in time and makes him re-live history with all its sights and sounds and smells, its places and its people. It is like an exciting replay of a bygone era that has passed into history.

Along with literature I had mentioned anecdotes and old timers’ tales. These are hard to come by, but the reader who takes the trouble to hunt up a copy of K R Vaidyanathan’s A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes will find his effort is amply rewarded. This book is literally a treasure trove of little nuggets gleaned from old railway magazines, newspapers and other sources. Each of these tales is like a gem which borrows sunlight and reflects it back in a thousand glittering shades. They are priceless little commodities, sometimes plain and unadorned, often witty and humorous. You can never tell how many times a tale has changed hands before it falls on your ears; we can’t even be sure who originated it in the first place, and how much of it is fact and how much invention. They stand like sublime little pointers to the past; they serve to regale us as well as inform, like lighted lanterns casting their glow amid the cold world of historical fact and figures.

Here is an excerpt from an old letter written many years ago. The writer is a lady named Eleanor writing to her friend Julia who had taken ill after a short stay in India and had to return to her home in Windermere in England:

Dear Julia,

It is ages since I last heard from you, and yet you complain I am irregular when it comes to replying to mail ! I keep a record of my correspondence and my entries show I have written four letters to you over a period of one year, while you have written only twice. How baseless are your accusations.

And so here I am in Nawabganj to spend a Christmas with Melanie and Frank. I am here seated on the lawn and how I wish you were here with me! Bougainvilla, azaleas, and dahlias are all around me. I have just finished doing my cards. Little Doris, playful as ever, is rolling on the lawn. In between spells of play she looks up at me with eyes screwed up as though seeking my approval. Winter sunshine can be kind, I think I can sit here on this cane chair for ever.  This garden is truly paradise; cuckoos and robins are all around me, within trees, on hedges, and on walls, letting out chirps of birdsong.

I still carry pictures in my mind of the tender affection that grew up between you and James, but that was a year back or so? He is magnificent, something like a knight-in-armour, so very chivalrous. I can tell you the young knight still pines for his lady, that his affection hasn’t cooled a bit. It is such a shame you had to go home before we had wedding bells ringing here. But you needn’t despair, my girl,  you needed a long rest after your illness. What better place to breathe in health giving air than the countryside of Windermere?? Beatrix Potter herself lived there, so it must be a place full of memories, so full of inspiration amid the lakes. How cruel it must feel to be forced to separate from the one you love! And yet it is only for a while, for James is preparing to return, as he no doubt must have told you, so eager to join up with you. Delays are never denials, and the sooner we learn this, the better....

As for me, romance if out of the question it seems, miserable old spinster that I am! But there are compensations. There’s freedom to come in and go as I please. There’s freedom to spend my leisure as I wish. And there’s also time on hand to indulge in a bit of fantasy with romance fiction.... You will find some very good titles at the Wheeler’s bookshop on the station. Melanie, full of chatter, full of jokes, is a constant companion on these excursions. First comes coffee at the refreshment room, gossip over cups and cups of brew. Then we dash down to the platform threading our way through the growling crowds to those two jazzy ticket weighing machines side by side close to where the ticket collector stands. Melanie has to get atop one of them fervently hoping those blinking red and orange lights will dispense a bit of luck. She climbs on, and the little red and white wheel behind the glass begins to turn. She inserts her coin, clunk-thud, and the ticket pops out. The verdict printed is always a dismal seventy kilos—oh, how disappointing! Clearly the result of more of weight-watching, less of dieting and exercise ; but I am told those machines sometimes do give a false reading. From there, on to the Wheeler’s bookstall down the platform. The variety of books you will find here is astonishing; books on puzzles, books on travel, books on leisure and management and humour, horror stories and fiction—and magazines, magazines, magazines. I wonder if those men you see leaning so studiously against the counter are really interested in making a purchase—or are they only whiling away time? The rest of the station is a seething mass of humanity sweating to catch a train, but these men appear strangely aloof, lost in profound thought. Mr. Diwan, the proprietor, is an old friend and he’s always prepared to show me some interesting titles. I found some pretty story books for little Doris, a Kodak book for Frank, and a number of mystery novels. And my collection is growing all the time....

A selection of books from the
Wheeler's bookstall

Wheeler is still a name synonymous
with the railways of India
It is interesting to note how the mere mention of a platform weighing machine or a Wheeler’s bookstall conjures up pictures of a crowded Indian railway station. The enthusiast who has blossomed into maturity does not require constant reminders in the form of images of trains to give him pleasure: a tale set in a waiting room, a short piece telling about the RMS, a picture of a refreshment room bearer… all these and much more make absorbing material for the hobbyist who has learned from long years of experience that there is a whole world to explore behind the steam train he watches each day from his backyard chugging  across the landscape.

The lone railway platform

A train is shunted out of the station

Ravindra Bhalerao