Fiona Fernandez: Who moved my railway station?
Can the Indian Railways and the gods who run our city join hands to salvage what's left of Bombay's priceless rail heritage?
"Passengers can alight now, and have a look at our railway shop and museum," a hip-looking, raven-haired ticket collector announced as she peered into the window of our vintage compartment, egging us and our co-passengers on board a narrow gauge train on the Southern Railway to hop off at the station. It was a 20-minute halt at Haven Street, an important stop that was home to the railway line's star attraction - a brick structure dating back to 1884, a wagon workshop that had been converted into a railway museum. The picturesque route ran on the lone track that plied on Isle of Wight, a tiny island off the south coast of England.
The railway museum and shop on Haven Street, Isle of Wight
Heritage nerds like yours truly will agree that there's a certain charm that comes with travelling on a narrow gauge route in slow-mo; even better when there's some history thrown in. So there we were, half-way through a scenic train ride, soaking in the memorabilia on view and for purchase as well. From calendars created from old newspaper advertisements announcing "luxury train services" across the British Isles to toy versions of steam engines, replicas of crests and other souvenirs dating back to James Watt's era, all of it was on display. We were spoilt for choice. Soon, we noticed smoke loops fill the clear August sky. A long, piercing whistle ensued, followed by a hoarse call-out to passengers by Ms Raven Hair to get on board; we were off, all smiles as we clutched on to our treasures.
In the 20 minutes, we learnt a quick lesson as well. That railway heritage was a passion and an obsession with the British. And that they would go to any length to ensure its legacy thrives and survives for their citizens, and for the world to admire in centuries to come. It was a bittersweet experience for us. We carried wonderful memories of the train ride back home, yet, time and again, our country's casual attitude towards its rich rail history stands out like a sore thumb.
Recently, a similar reminder surfaced. Last Saturday, this newspaper carried a news-breaking report (Hidden treasures tumble as station upgrades begin) on how historic remnants from stations like Mumbra and Bhandup had been discovered and saved in the nick of time. Sadly, a few others couldn't be recovered. Bhandup station, which was a halt on Asia's first railway train ride from Bori Bunder to Thane back in 1853, lost a few brackets with the GIPR (Great Indian Peninsula Railway) emblem from the original structure at the station; only four remain, according to the report.
Railway officials were quick to assure that these relics would be preserved either at the CSMT museum or someplace else. But the larger questions remain: Why weren't these historic remnants identified earlier, and safeguarded before the demolition began? What about the other missing brackets, railway counters and unidentified objects across stations that date back to that historic train ride? Have we lost those treasures forever? The answer to the last question is most probably, a big yes.
Our sense of treating history with dignity remains an old handicap, and this scant respect is evident across buildings and landmarks in Bombay. The tearing down of stations for upgrades is all well in the name of development but some amount of sensitivity and farsightedness from India's largest employer would be appreciated. Time will tell if the coming generations would be even aware that this great city they call home had been witness to Asia's first railway train ride.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to email@example.com