Romancing the railways

The book puts the railways in the context of Mumbai’s growth and provides nuggets of information about the heritage of the Central Railway.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

IT is an arresting title for a book. Halt Station India: The Dramatic Tale of the Nation’s First Rail Lines is not dramatic but is certainly a page-turner. Facts about the Indian Railways, sentiments and myths attached to the country’s biggest employer, the larger-than-life men who battled terrain and other conditions to lay lines over land and water —in fact, every aspect of the railways that locomotive enthusiasts would want to know—are presented in this book. The author’s own intensive research as well as facts sourced extensively from other works make the 202-page book a splendid read.

The author of the book, Rajendra B. Aklekar, is a journalist, and to quote the blurb on the flyleaf, “he has two things on his mind—the railways and Bombay”. He started his career with the now defunct The Daily where he wrote a weekly column on the history of Bombay’s (now Mumbai) railway stations. So deep is his interest in the subject that he has trained himself in museology in an effort to document the city’s vanishing rail relics. He has helped the Indian Railways set up heritage galleries. For this book, he covered many miles of tracks leading out of Mumbai by foot, over several years.

Apart from pictures taken by him during his exploration of the railway lines, the book contains photographs accessed from the archives of the Indian Railways, giving the reader an interesting array of visuals, which would otherwise have had a limited audience.

Ther iron demon In tracing the history of the Indian Railways, he revives the social customs and beliefs of those times. For instance, he writes: “To those unacquainted with industrial developments… the smoke-belching locomotive, spitting steam and pulling wagons, was a mystery!... Many were confident the monster would spread malice across society. They called the train the ‘ lokhandi rakshas ’ (the iron demon in Marathi); no native of a good caste would ever ‘defile himself by entering a carriage’, wrote some Marathi authors in 1889.… There was also the belief that if one travelled by rail, one’s lifespan would dramatically decrease. After all, if one reached one’s destination so much faster, one was bound to speed up life and age!”

The Railways was seen by some as eroding the prevailing caste system. Quoting from K.R. Vaidyanathan’s 2003 publication 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways , Aklekar writes of the unfavourable response of a high-caste Hindu in 1874 when he learnt that “the sweepers, chamar s and the like classes of people were in the same carriage along with Hindustanis of the higher order”. Aklekar writes that upper-class Muslims were equally uncomfortable with the arrangement. Quoting Vaidyanathan again, he writes: “A Muslim paper in Lucknow pressed for the ‘provision of separate carriages for the respectable classes of Hindus and Mussalmans on the one hand and the lower classes of the natives on the other’.”

The book reveals some interesting episodes connected with the early day of the railways. The discussion on what the railway locomotive should be called in native languages threw up various points of arguments. Should it be called an ag -boat (fire boat), which is what steam vessels were called, or bauf ki rutthee meaning steam chariot? The Bombay Telegraph , a periodical of the time, officiously wrote on what was clearly a matter of great importance at the time: “Now is the time to settle this important matter. If the term ‘ Ag -boat’ is allowed to prevail at this time, it will infallibly stick.”

Then there were the bigger issues. At one point during the construction of some lines, tension built up in “the relationship between the labourers, contractors and the British engineers…. [to save the situation] a full-fledged labour law—the Employers and Workmen (Disputes) Act had to be enacted in 1860 empowering magistrates to settle wage disputes.” So, it was the railways that gave birth to the Industrial Disputes Act.

The book puts the railways in the context of Bombay’s growth and, consequently, India’s growth. The city’s physical expansion and prosperity, from a tiny port to a financial capital, is undoubtedly linked to trade and commerce and these partly owe their thanks to those initial small rail tracks. The cotton trade and its rise and fall, which was linked with the fortunes of its sister trade in the United States; the actual expansion of Bombay with the creation of more and more land; the public-spirited businessmen of those days; people such as Laxman Harishchandra Ajinkya or Bhau who “constructed Bombay’s first wet dock for commuters from Konkan to land safely and for incoming ships to load and berth. This is known as Bhau Cha Dhakka, or Ferry Wharf”—all these show how the railways was integral to the growth of Bombay. There is also one chilling recent reference that links the past and present—“November 26, 2008, has a strange historical link. The spot where terrorists Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan were standing at VT [Victoria Terminus] was once used as public gallows and was named Phansi Talao [ phansi means hanging] where criminals were executed.”

Likewise, there are enlivening bits of information about the British and the contractors who built the railway lines. The author writes: “To avoid diseases and epidemics, British engineers consciously kept the rail alignments in a straight line and away from cluttered Indian inhabitations or villages with stations accessible by a road…. Railway contractors were a different breed. There was this one who was careful enough to keep the Sion Fort tower intact while quarrying the Sion Hill, while there were others such as the one who constructed the Lahore Multan Line (now in Pakistan), by unknowingly using Harappan bricks as track ballast.”

Aklekar’s devotion, for want of another word to describe his passion, to the railways comes through as he tramps along what was the Great Indian Peninsular Railway and is now the Central Railway.

He shares nuggets of information about 150-year-old tracks, which are used as roof supports; an old cannon, which is now worshipped as a Siva linga; fretwork ticket windows; ornate cast-iron roof struts; and an 1897 inscription on the pillar of a bridge, which is still in use. In one of the yards, signals still have the inscription “MV–GRS (Metropolitan Vickers Railway Company UK and General Railway Signal Company of Rochester, New York, USA), a reminder of one of the biggest industrial mergers in the 1920s”.

Sorely missing in the book, which is a mine of information, is an index which would have helped in quick referencing. The author and the publisher should include an index and more photographs in a future edition.

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