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'No Railways, no India'

The Indian Railways have built the nation, says noted railway scholar Ian J Kerr, as was prophesised by Karl Marx in the 19th century. With the recent release of the book, India Junction, Kanika Sharma revisits why trains are a special zone for friendships, tiffins, drama and stories, eventually becoming a metaphor for life

Indian is, as Indian does
“Building railways manually in India inevitably presented problems for the engineers used to conditions in Britain who had to work with those armies of Indian labourers.

Indian visitors watch a 1947 model British-built steam locomotive engine that commemorated 155 years of trains running in Eastern India. PIC/AFP
Indian visitors watch a 1947 model British-built steam locomotive engine that commemorated 155 years of trains running in Eastern India. PIC/AFP

The engineers found it was necessary to devise methods of construction which combined western with Indian techniques. So a new syncretic Indian approach to railway building emerged, an approach which married British and Indian traditions.

Railway mail service
Railway mail service

Indian workers, for instance, did not like the wheelbarrows which Irish Navies had used as they dug cuttings, bored tunnels and built embankments to construct Britain’s railways, so the Indian method of carrying earth in baskets on the head was adopted. It wasn’t just tradition which made the workers favour this method. It involved employing more manpower.”
— Sir Mark Tully

Jules Verne and the Western Ghats
The profound impact of the railways on India’s economy and agriculture even finds a mention in Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in Eighty Days.

An old photograph of a rail car on the Neral—Matheran section
An old photograph of a rail car on the Neral—Matheran section 

The following passage describes Phileas Fogg and Passepartout passing through India’s Western Ghats: Passepartout, on waking and looking out, could not realise that he was actually crossing India in a railway train. The locomotive, guided by an English engineer and fed with English coal, threw out its smoke upon cotton, coffee, nutmeg, clove, and pepper plantations, while the steam curls in spirals around groups of palm-trees, in the midst of which were seen picturesque bungalows, viharis (sort of abandoned monasteries), and marvellous temples enriched by the exhaustless ornamentation of Indian architecture.
— Sandipan Deb

Making of modern India
The railways, India’s pre-eminent form of mass transportation, has contributed significantly to the creation and integration of the Indian nation. This is a claim, suitably qualified and nuanced, that finds support among more scholarly writers, and which is sympathetically endorsed here.

Toy train at Matheran is now 107 years old. Pic/Sameer Markande
Toy train at Matheran is now 107 years old. Pic/Sameer Markande

Indeed, some historians have argued that without the development of a large network of railways, there would have been no India as we know it; in effect, no railways, no India...The railways came early to the Indian subcontinent — much earlier than to other parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. By 1901, India had the world’s fourth longest railway network (although the exact ranking can be disputed) as measured by route miles in operation, a ranking the country still holds.
— Ian J Kerr

Pedas on the platform
“Almost every station in India sells a regional specialty that causes passengers to dart on and off trains. My parents have awakened me at 3 am just to taste the hot milk at Erode station in Tamil Nadu. Anyone passing by Nagpur station is entreated to buy its glorious oranges.

Godrej Soaps’ advertisements on the train. Pic courtesy/Sandipan Deb
Godrej Soaps’ advertisements on the train. Pic courtesy/Sandipan Deb

Allahabad, home to Hinduism and the Ganga River, is famous for its guavas; Agra, where the Taj Mahal stands, has wonderful pedas (chewy squares of candy made with milk). Simla, called queen of the hill stations by the British, was known for its apples. Kerala, where my father spent his childhood and still leaves his heart, has the best plantain fritters, fried in coconut oil on the platform.”
— Shobha Narayan

Chugging through Bollywood
The film, however, that uses trains to best effect is Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975). There’s a great sequence in the opening when the dacoits attack the train and the inspector (Sanjeev Kumar) must make a decision about letting Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) free to help him ward off the attack.

Sholay

This was beautifully picturised and elegantly shot and written. Forever inscribed in my memory is the way in which Veeru is created. He had a long and hectic battle with some dacoit and finally manages to beat him off. And he says, insouciantly: Veeru se takkar? (Taking Veeru on? What were you thinking?).
— Jerry Pinto

India Junction: A Window to the Nation, edited by Seema Sharma, Rainlight by Rupa Publications, R695. Available at all leading bookstores.
India Junction: A Window to the Nation, edited by Seema Sharma, Rainlight by Rupa Publications, R695. Available at all leading bookstores.

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