94-yr-old in Mumbai to retrace Pondicherry Railway history

Feb 11, 2018, 13:00 IST | Rajendra B. Aklekar

Ahead of his fifth book, Railway historian Srinivasa Venkatraman reveals why he wants to tell India's train story

Srinivasa Venkatraman started writing books on the Indian Railways at the age of 88
Srinivasa Venkatraman started writing books on the Indian Railways at the age of 88

When we meet 94-year-old Srinivasa Venkatraman at his brother's residence in Mulund, he speaks about the Indian Railways with child-like enthusiasm. That the nonagenarian has travelled all the way from Mylapore in Chennai to carry out research for his fifth book on the railways only goes to show how passionate he is about the subject.

An old railway map and time-table, which will be published in his new book
An old railway map and time-table, which will be published in his new book

Venkatraman, who is one of the oldest living railway historians in India, is currently on a two-day visit to Mumbai to sift through archives at CSMT, as part of the final leg of his research on his new book, which provides an overview on Pondicherry Railway. "Work on the book is almost ready. My family and I are deciding on the size and shape of the book, after which it will go for printing," said Venkatraman.

Old love affair
Born in 1923, Venkatraman joined the Indian Railways in 1942 and retired in 1982 as a senior stores officer. "I fell in love with trains at the age of five," recalled Venkatraman. "Thanks to my job, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country and documented everything possible," he said.

While his association with the Indian Railways goes a long time back, the historian only started writing books as recently as six years ago. "I began compiling my research at the age of 88, after my wife Lalitha passed away. She was a political science lecturer at Banaras Hindu University and my books are dedicated to her," he said.

Venkatraman has self-published all his four books. "I want my writings to inspire the younger generation to document the history of the country," said the historian, who is a member of most of the archive centres and libraries across the country.

Dr Dilip Balsekar, former director of Maharashtra State Archives at Elphinstone College, who now works as executive editor and secretary, Gazetteers Department, Maharashtra, remembers an encounter with Venkatraman over a year ago. "In three days [at the Maharashtra State Archives], he picked up a number of files and prepared a brief summary of 139 pages. I was surprised to see the enthusiasm and meticulous notings. He is indeed an inspiration," he said.

A slice of history
What makes Venkatraman's books unique is that they are free from comment and offer a sincere documentation of the Indian Railways archives, including old photographs, letters, contracts and rare documents that he has collected over the years, touring various railway lines and stations.

His first book, Railways At A Glance, offered an overall history of the Indian Railways, with nearly 200 photographs. The second book, Railways: The Beginning, with 600 photographs is his mostly extensively researched book yet. It tells stories of how the railways started in India and went on to change the social life of Indians. The third and the fourth book are about the construction of Madras Railway and the Southern Mahratta (Goa) Railway respectively.

"The new book on Pondicherry Railway is exciting because of its French connection and how the railway was set up there and handed over to British India. I intend to get the book released at the hands of Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry Kiran Bedi," added Venkatraman. Among other things, the book, he said, retraces the story of how Pondicherry Railway Company merged with South Indian Railway in 1891.

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