Book review: Keeping the romance of train travel alive

Book review: Keeping the romance of train travel alive

The book maps the trials and tribulations of the growth of the rail network.

In 1880, Durgacharan Ray published Debganer Martye Agaman (The Gods come to Earth). Brahma, Indra and Varuna visit earth, more specifically Calcutta, the then capital of India. The purpose of this visit was to take stock of the effects of the British rule in India which, inter alia, included the recently introduced railway system. The gods were so impressed that they resolved to replicate the railways in heaven!

This is just of the delightful vignettes which you encounter in the recently released book titled Weaving of a National Tapestry. Co-authored by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi, an eclectic trio of an economist, a bureaucrat and a researcher who have been closely associated with Indian Railways in various capacities, the book has been published by Penguin as a part of the series of books on Indian Business. The writers state that their aim is to present the reader a cross between an academic book (“well written but dry and boring”) and a coffee-table book (“light in text”). The challenge to build a theme of the development of Indian Railways over a hundred years with the use of anecdotes and similar such has been suitably delivered.

On the whole, who doesn’t love trains? The teeming and diverse life of a station and train travel has attracted various writers ever since the advent of the Railways to India. Rudyard Kipling, Julius Verne, Satyajit Ray, Jim Corbett to name a few have built fascinating narratives around railway life. Even today, railway continues to enthral. Closeted together in a coach, a train traveller is in a closed ecosystem for the duration of the journey. You exchange gossip, talk politics, share food, struggle over the air conditioning, have a serious discussion on the sounds made by the train as it traverses makes way for the free loaders while seriously anticipating those halts where you can gorge. If you don’t want to do any of the above, you simply find an upper vacant berth and doze off! And to add to that fun, if only you could know that perhaps the engine chugging you to your destination has a name. Yes indeed, did you know that it was three steam locomotives called Sindh, Sultan and Shaib, which took India’s very first train to its destination?

The book maps some serious debates on the initial controversy of the growth of railways vs inland waterways in India in a dialogue between the anonymous “P” and “C” which appeared in the Madras Times of 1857. But once the policy was in shape, the railways expanded rapidly. The events of 1857 cemented the growth of the railway network with all railway construction buildings near cantonments being converted into fortified military posts. Sooner than later, the country was rapidly patterned with railway lines which fortuitously cemented the sense of nationhood as well.

The book maps the trials and tribulations of the growth of the network. One particular stretch involved cutting through the Sahyadri range and it took about seven long years just to lay a 15-mile line. When a line was constructed from Karachi to Lahore, ballast was required for the tracks which were sourced from the two ruined cities of Harappa and Brahminabad. Extremely disheartening was the effort of one Colonel Barog, who was constructing a tunnel in the Simla-Kalka region and ordered boring at either sides of the hill in a mistaken hope that the two would finally converge. They didn’t and he shot himself in disgrace but lives on in that tunnel haunting it as a ghost!

The initial piecemeal approach to railway construction soon changed and modernisation of the system became a serious focus by the end of the 19th century. New coaches were introduced; to give relief to the travelling public khus-khus tatties were deployed. While early passengers had to carry their own candles and oil lamps, by the turn of the century, lights and fans were found to be a regular feature. Toilets were purportedly introduced in the early 20th century when a passenger, Okhil Chandra Sen had an overdose of jackfruit and got off at a station to use the “privy” since train service lacked this facility and got left behind at the platform.

The book also throws interesting highlights on the evolution of the Wheeler and Higginbotham culture. Few know perhaps that railway booksellers had been the pioneers of publishing in India. Frequent train travellers still stop at such named stalls to pick up their travel reading material. In the early 20th century, the Indian Railway State magazines provided rich reading material on various topics for the travelling public. The recounting of Mahatma Gandhi’s experiences with train travel and early cinemas based on railway themes makes for interesting reading though sadly, the book lacks in detailing of yet another passion of train travellers, viz. the cuisine which evolved with the growth of the Indian railways.

The second half of the book gets relatively serious as it speaks of the events which finally led to the financial and structural modelling of the Indian Railways in the early decades of the 20th century. In a sense, with the desire and push to expand the Railway system, the economic criterion was often given a go-bye. For instance, in 1902, Lord Curzon visited the area around Lumding and had this conversation with the agent of the newly-constructed railway line.

Now Mr Woods that you have built this line, what traffic do you expect to carry?
Nothing Sir.
Then why build a line at all?
‘I don’t know Sir’ was the reply. The Government of India ordered it to be built!’ Therein lies the more serious concern which the Indian Railway faces of evaluating its investments vis-a-vis the economic returns.

What irks in the narrative are the occasional comments on the state of the Indian Railways some of which are in the present. Since the book aims at recounting the romance of Indian Railways, which the authors have firmly fixed with the era of the steam, bringing in contemporary references here and there to an otherwise agreeable read jars. Ignore that and also the odd errors in the narrative that can be misleading such as the statement that Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains are not identified by numbers and then you are on a roller coaster ride of fun, information and lots of trivia. The book appeals essentially for the glimpses you get of anecdotes and details associated with Indian railways.

We learn in the preface that there is an Indian Railways Fan Club Association which has been liberally referred to by the authors. By the end of this book, you too will be enrolling as a fan of the Indian Railways whether or not you agree with the authors that the romance of train travel ended with the steam engines!

The writer is a civil servant. Views expressed are personal.