Train Of Thoughts Of Trains
It’s said that in the final moments of our life, people and things flash past our eyes. If it’s true and if it happens to me, I know that I’ll be looking out of the window of a train. It’ll be a train that will carry me away and give me a glimpse of my life. This episode is about trains and Indian Railways as being the ultimate embodiment of India, as something that we ought to be but almost never are. The Indian train as the greatest and the most unassuming public servant that ever was. The Indian train that moves in every sense of the word. The Indian train as the obsessee to one of its most insignificant obsessor even before Sheldon Cooper made it seem cool. Happy listening!
Show Notes – bit.ly/IWBTS01E04ShowNotes
Music Credits – bit.ly/IWBTS01E04MusicCredits
(c) Copyright 2020 MotorMouth Media Pvt Ltd
Train of Thoughts of Trains
Hello and welcome to another episode of I Went Back To brought to you by Motormouth Podcasts. A show where our present plays cupid and rekindles our romance with our past. And like any instance of two lovers reuniting, there is both happiness and heartache. I am Kalyan, your host and a serial philanderer with things gone by.
When different things stir the same emotions twice within a span of 4 days, one is but inclined to take it as some kind of a Delphic prompt for one’s next episode especially when the thought has already drifted back and forth several times in the past months. So, even if it seems rather impossible to contain the theme within a 20-odd minute episode, one must still soldier on and give it a good shot.
On August 26th, a Twitter handle dedicated to Indian cinema which I follow had posted about the film Pather Panchali completing 65 years. That very film, at whose birth Indian cinema came of age.
Four days later, on the 97th birth anniversary of the poet-lyricist Shailendra the same Twitter handle had posted a song of his, which, when confronted with the unreasonable task of choosing one song over all others, is the Shailendra song dearest to me. A song from the film Kala Bazaar.
In Pather Panchali it is that long shot, the film’s tour de force, of the two children getting to see a train for the first time in their lives. So much has been said and written about this captivating 4-minute sequence by more eligible people that I can hardly add anything meaningful to it. For me it is primarily a souvenir connecting me to one of my most endeared loves – the Railways. Each time I watch the sequence and the train makes its cathartic appearance at the end of the sequence I go into a tizzy like a smitten fan enthralled by the star’s entry. Since trains were too normal to my childhood for me to have a first trainspotting or train-riding memory, I always think of Durga and Apu as my surrogates for this fascinating experience. Merely discussing how poignantly the railways features in Satyajit Ray’s works – both cinematic and literary – could be an unending activity and a potential theme for a separate episode altogether.
Kala Bazaar. Each time Mohammed Rafi croons to the surreal tune of S D Burman to say Apni To Har Aah Ek Toofaan Hai <sing> it inspires a kind of happiness brimming with train emotions like no other. This song with its double entendre is perhaps the greatest ode to the upper berth ever conceived. One recalls several sublime songs characterizing a train but none ever like this.
As a south Indian born and raised in Bengal, my earliest memories of railways are associated with our annual trips to Madras from Calcutta during the summer holidays.
The moment the stunning Howrah bridge would come into sight, my heart would begin to race with a speed the sluggish Calcutta taxi carrying us could never attain. The bridge came with the promise of the station. They were like an inseparable couple destined to remain in an eternally happy marriage. A quiz question that would often be asked back then was, how
many nuts and bolts did the Howrah bridge have in it. And one had to spot the trick question and say ‘0’ because the entire structure had been made by riveting the pieces together. Riveting – what an apt word to be associated with the Howrah bridge. Anyway.
So organic was my fascination for Indian Railways since my boyhood that I never really noticed how and when it had assumed this fervent, almost quixotic form. And this blind devotion was its own fodder. The better I got to know it, the more I fell in love with it. And the more I loved it, as always, the harder it became to articulate what and why I truly felt for it. But I shall nonetheless try.
For a young boy, most of all, there was a baffling immensity and unattainability associated with trains, seeing it as cutting through mountains or running above them in an act of mastering the altitude or bridging vast rivers or going through underground tunnels or penetrating forests seemed like accomplishments no less intense than the labours of Hercules. And it would confound me to think that it could take 2 full days of continuous movement to reach from one place to another. And that it was just one of the several thousands of movements happening simultaneously. Imagine moving the entire population of Australia and New Zealand. That is the number of people carried by our Railways on one regular day. Even if not flawless, how could this incessant clockwork be possible?
Added to that was its astounding consistency, a homogeneity that transcended even the generous limits set by seasons, geographies, cultures, history, economic standing and human behaviours.
It seemed so steeped in commonality and so bereft of variation that in some ways one wouldn’t be able to say an Assam from a Gujarat while in a space owned and created by Indian Railways. And yet, while in a new and friendless place a railway station with its unvarying tropes would come with a promise of familiarity and fellowship, it also epitomized the place itself by bringing together its people and its food – two things that made a city’s soul.
As I got to know our Railways better, I realized that there was a massive workforce committed to an intricate method and thoroughness to manage this enormity. Every structure with its cluster of complex equipment, every marking, every board with a profusion of letters, numbers, signs and images in unguessable combinations, every mound of stones called track ballast piled along the tracks in shapes of trapezoids, every different length and intensity of a locomotive whistle, every different number assigned to a train or a locomotive – everything which either seemed utterly incomprehensible or inconsequential was actually infused with essential meaning and specific functionality without which the behemoth wouldn’t function.
And my real admiration for Indian Railways lay beyond its infinite uniformity, its sheer size, its myriad jargon and extraordinary engineering triumphs. For the way it doggedly and uncompromisingly dedicated itself to public service and has never gone quite off the rails on that front.
All this and more formed for me the image of a gigantic power that gave more than it took, that may be impersonal and mysterious but was also benevolent and accessible, and that
came with the assurance of generously carrying not just its passengers but also the heavier burden of their aspirations.
On the other side of the break, how, for me, a typical train journey from Calcutta to Madras was every bit a microcosmic embodiment of an incredible conception of India and the values it stood for.
Imagine a train traversing over 1600 kms through 4 states, spread across 5 railway zones, crossing over 300 stations, 17 odd rivers, several scores of creeks, dried up canals and rail bridges, any number of manned and unmanned level crossings, crossing and overtaking close to 200 passenger trains and several freight trains headed to various parts of the country, effecting one rake reversal and at least 3 locomotive and pilot changes and all this while carrying and feeding more than a thousand people. Imagine the resources that needed to be put into effect to make this single journey possible. And imagine this being only one of the several such journeys these resources enabled in a single day.
Furthermore, when we consider the infrastructure and its components, we can truly fathom how any one train journey happening anywhere in the country at any point in time is empowered by railway entities all over the country. For instance, the rake would have been manufactured at the Integral Coach factory in Chennai or the Rail Coach factory in Kapurthala, the locomotive would have been built at the Chittaranjan Loco Works or the Diesel Loco Works in Varanasi, the wheels and axles would have been made in the Rail Wheel Factory in Bangalore, the coil springs would have been produced at the Rail Spring Karkhana in Gwalior and so on and so forth. The physical train – in its parts that formed the whole – is perhaps the most bona fide product of India.
But this wasn’t the only intriguing aspect of it. For me, there was a truckload more of consciousness which a simple second-class train ride from Calcutta to Madras and back evoked.
And what was that?
The longest and the most magnificent cantilever bridge above the holiest river of the country connecting one of the most flavourful cities in the world with the largest railway station in the country.
A nondescript town, a speck on the map really, known for nothing other than serving the most sublime puri – aloo in the universe, being home to the first and the biggest Indian Institute of Technology, and, back then, the town whose station had the longest railway platform in the world.
The largest coastal lagoon of the country and the second largest backwater lagoon in the world not to mention the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in South Asia.
4 of the 7 longest rivers in the country. And another river that lent its name and setting to one of the greatest Indian films ever made.
A district for long years known as the rice bowl of India for its abundant and rich paddy crop.
A small town from where hailed one of the most fabled Telugu personalities also the court-jester and one of the Ashtadiggajas in the court of King Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayanagara Empire.
4 Indian states, 1 of them widely, even if arguably, considered the cultural polestar of the country (remember episode 1?). The other 3, home to 3 of the most important classical dance forms of India and with one of them home to the oldest living language in the world.
And the entire stretch of the journey, the setting for some of the most monumental times and occurrences in medieval and modern Indian history.
All this was also what this journey manifested for me. Like any consummate experience, this train ride simultaneously sheltered simplicities with superlatives, banalities with spectacles, and uniformity with multiplicity. It was a master class on India that neither professed to instruct nor compelled one to learn. But like any great pedagogue, it showed more than it told and implied more than it showed.
It granted the greater privilege of spending time rather than saving it. Unlike a plane ride, although that was hardly affordable or accessible back then, there was a realism to its pace and movement which afforded contemplation and appreciation. One could literally sense things change and unfold – the sight, the sound, the smell of things as Purs and Nagars mutated into Purams and Nagarams as Jhal Muri and Vegetable Chop changed to Masal Vadas and Chilli Bajjis. And all of it from inside the same railway compartment which while being a universe of its own, never quite disengaged you from the world outside of it.
Over the years, as I grew and my horizons widened, this journey too ripened to newer levels of gratification and evolved into some kind of a quest. I have learnt more about my country through trains than any classroom or book ever taught me.
And come to think of it, this journey which I am paying such rich tributes to, is a mere smidgen in the larger scheme of things.
When we extrapolate all this to the rest of our country containing 17 Railways Zones over 70 divisions with over 7300 stations, all of which enabling movement of over 13000 passenger trains and over 9000 freight trains, with an infrastructure, at best, a few generations behind the most developed railways in the world but in a country whose people largely depend on their Railways to reconcile their high aspirations with their low means, what does it tell us about our Railways?
To put that into perspective, let us consider a hypothesis. If today, against all odds, there is a decision to pull the plug on our railways and suspend its operations altogether for whatever reason, such is the inertia and rigour in the system that it will take up to 10 years to actually bring this termination into full effect. That is the magnitude of life this institution is loaded with.
On the other side of the break, further explorations into Indian Railways as a true messenger of India with names of trains as a use case and the function of our Railways as a model unifier for our country.
Impractical as it might be to derive the joys of a train ride by actually being in one all the time, I often do it vicariously by simply reading the railway timetable; an activity I find remarkably enlightening.
It is like opening a large window into our country with rich references to our history, geography, literature, religions and various other themes and motifs.
The very thought that there is a Kamayani Express named after one of the most celebrated poetic works of modern Hindi literature written by Jaishankar Prasad running from Mumbai to Varanasi, the birthplace of Prasad. Or that there is a Tebhaga Express going between Kolkata and Balurghat in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal named after the iconic Tebhaga peasant Movement of the 40’s, the precursor to the Naxalbari uprising. Or the Vishwamanava Express going from Mysore to Belgaum named after the great Kannada poet Kuvempu’s idea of a universal man. Or the August Kranti Rajdhani between Mumbai and Delhi referencing the epochal Quit India speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi in the of August 1942 at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay now come to be known as the August Kranti Maidan. Or the Licchavi Express running between Delhi and Sitamarhi in Bihar near the historical city of Vaishali and the capital city of the ancient Licchavi clan, rulers of one of the 16 ancient oligarchic kingdoms in northern India called the Mahajanapadas. Aren’t these absolutely delectable names trains could have?
Just the thought of taking the Kaifiyat Express to go from Delhi to Azamgarh, the native place of Kaifi Azmi, adds so much more heft to the pursuit than taking a train simply named the Delhi – Azamgarh Express.
As a boy I would deeply lament the fact that we had no reasons to go to Bombay because if we did, then we could have travelled by the Gitanjali Express. That was such a glorious name for a train. I remember wanting to read the Gitanjali not so much for its nobel-winning lyrical value as I did because there was a train named after it.
Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Valluvlar, Basavanna, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Jaishankar Prasad, Malik Muhammad Jaysi, Tulsidas, Maithili Sharan Gupt, Krishnaji Keshav Damle or Keshavasut, Sant Dnyaneshwar, Kamban, Ganagadhar Meher, Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay or Banaphool. These are some of our literary titans to whom our Railways doffs its hat by dedicating trains to their memories.
Similarly, with names attributed to dynasties such as Chalukya, Satavahana, Maurya, Chozha or Pallava or classical places such as Avantika, Karnavati, Neelachal, Vanchinadu or Kapila Vastu or historical events such as Chauri Chaura , Jallianwala Bagh, Haldighati or Koma Gata Maru (although that is not a train but a station) – it feels like these trains are a relic or an artefact from the past running on the very terrain which were the settings and backdrops of these illustrious kingdoms and momentous instances in the long history of our country.
I have never been to Simla, but if I do, I know it will only be in the Himalayan Queen, a name fully in keeping with the elevation associated with both royalty and, of course, the Himalayas.
Add to these, trains with names of regions, rivers, mountains, holy sites, monuments, or personalities. I think of it as nothing short of a pocket edition of a decent encyclopedia on India.
I believe, named trains add character to their destinations, don’t they? Embellish their charm, celebrate and memorialise the regions they run in and beyond anything, illustrate and advertise our own country to us.
Of course, not all trains are named. In fact, many of them merely mention the end points and suffix an express or a mail to it at the end which I seriously think should change. How delightful it will be for a hypothetical train running between Mumbai and Ludhiana to be named as Sahir Express. Just like, our sibling railway network in Pakistan which already has a train named Faiz Ahmed Faiz Express. Or how cool will it be if the Delhi – Howrah Rajdhani Up Train is renamed as the Purani Rajdhani Express, you know, because Calcutta was the old capital and the Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani is the oldest of them all. Or how appropriate will it be for a hypothetical train running between Hyderabad and Bengaluru to be named as the Silicon Valley Express. Anyway, I’ll stop before I go off on my own trip.
Take my word, just read a railway train catalogue sometime. Give it one shot even if it is remotely not your idea of a pastime.
What else can we think of in India which is as exemplary a unifier as our Railways? The radio perhaps but that has seen better days and doesn’t make as many waves now as it used to. Some would say cricket but there is a conglomerate behind it which needs to bat for this unifying spirit to further its business cases. Some idealists would think of the constitution, but she’s been fighting her own battles of rights for a while now.
Our Railways has been both influential and valuable in the forging and crystallizing of us as a nation. It’s been like that inconspicuous and wise veteran every family or team has who silently but decisively suffers and combats the biggest of crises and becomes their primary agency and accessory for change. It’s been like that someone who is not just a prominent character in the narrative but also the co-author of it.
It was a railway setting that caused our Mahatma’s awakening and evolution into one of the most persuasive and inspiring figures in modern times and of course become the biggest architect of our freedom. They were our trains which were the prime movers, in more ways than one, when we were split into two nations carrying alive corpses and dead souls across both sides of the border. They are our trains which enable our people living in small and insignificant parts of the country to foster ambitions for a better life and earn a living by travelling to their workplace, often daily. They are our trains which don’t just enable migrations but also empower homecomings.
And the benefaction has not just been one-sided. If at all, our Railways and we have forever been in a symbiotic relationship relentlessly furthering each other’s causes. Acting as our
proxy, our academicians, our admirers, our chroniclers and our cultural agents too have earnestly and handsomely catalogued and extolled our Railways in their works.
Hours may not suffice to talk about the treatment of our Railways in our popular culture. It is a subject matter worthy of being written as a full-fledged book. And Arup Chatterjee has done it quite well in his book The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways.
It is imperative here to mention the Indian Railways Fan Club and their labour of love – their website titled irfca.org. There isn’t another singular source material on any Railway network anywhere else in the universe, which is as comprehensive, rich and illuminating as this website. Just goes to prove that genuine fandom is the greatest gift any entity could ever have.
It’s been 167 years since the first ever passenger train chugged into life in India hauled by 3 steam locomotives with names that had the gravity of mythical stallions ushering in a new era – Sahib, Sindh & Sultan.
Since then our Railways has been making its own way by making our way through our darkest times and has been repeatedly steering us towards the light at the end of each tunnel. And even today, the only promise it holds is the promise of eternally and selflessly moving on.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen for tuning in. I will be back once again with another thing I went back to. Until then, yatrigan kripaya dhyan dein. sabhi yatriyon se nivedan hai ke veh ghar par hi rahein, surakshit rahein aur keval mansik yatraon ka anand uthaen, dhanyavaad!
References & suggested Readings:
- www.irfca.org : The website of the Indian Railways Fan Club. IRFCA is a hobby group for discussing all aspects of railways in India
- The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways by Arup Chatterjee
- Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry” by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha & Vidya Krishnamurthi
- The Indian Railway Timetable
Names of places and references made in the second section of the show in a train journey from Calcutta to Madras:
The longest and the most magnificent cantilever bridge above the holiest river of the country connecting one of the most flavourful cities in the world with the largest railway station in the country: The Howrah Bridge or the Rabindra Setu over Hooghly (Ganga) river connection Calcutta to Howrah
A nondescript town, a speck on the map really, known for nothing other than serving the most sublime puri – aloo in the universe, being home to the first and the biggest Indian Institute of
Technology, and, back then, the town whose station had the longest railway platform in the world: Kharagpur and the Kharagpur Railway Station
The largest coastal lagoon of the country and the second largest backwater lagoon in the world not to mention the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in South Asia: The Chilka Lake
4 of the 7 longest rivers in the country. And another river that lent its name and setting to one of the greatest Indian films ever made: Ganga, Mahanadi, Godavari & Krishna
A district for long years known as the rice bowl of India for its abundant and rich paddy crop: East Godavari District in Andhra Pradesh
A small town from where hailed one of the most fabled Telugu personalities also the court-jester and one of the Ashtadiggajas in the court of King Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayanagara Empire: The town of Tenali form where Tenai Raman hailed.
4 Indian states, 1 of them widely, even if arguably, considered the cultural polestar of the country (remember episode 1?). The other 3, home to 3 of the most important classical dance forms of India and with one of them home to the oldest living language in the world: 4 states – West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu; dance forms: Odishi, Kuchipudi & Bharatanatyam; oldest language: Tamil
IWBTS01E04 – Train Of Thoughts Of Trains
- Theme music – Freestylah by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
- Incidental Music
Jimmy Free @ www.jimmyfree.club
- The Green Fields Of Home
- Composed by onemansymphony.bandcamp.com
- Breathe (Daylights)
- The Machinist
- Retro Dreamscape Composed by Twin Musicom (twinmusicom.org)
- Buzzkiller by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
- Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
- Flight Of The Swift by Shane Ivers – https://www.silvermansound.com