It is impossible to imagine Darjeeling without seeing in the mind’s eye the Toy Train chugging down long and winding roads, merrily throwing coal dust in the air, toot-tooting like a petulant child, suddenly crossing over from the hillside to the khud-side, stopping on the tracks of its own sweet will and starting again when fancy takes it. As I watched the vintage British-built B Class steam locomotive, DHR 802, arrive haughtily at the Darjeeling station in a wet, white haze of smoke and mist, I had the distinct impression that it was alive and it was a she. In every respect it was a pert little queen who made her human attendants run helter-skelter as she made her grand entrance. The placid eyes of the Buddha were painted on its headlight but its own eyes must be proud, mischievous and a little crazed.
I watched intently as the railway men attended to the lady. A tightening of a screw here and it tooted, as if scoffing at the workmen for being too brash with its delicate self; a measure of oil poured down its nozzle and it puffed out a cloud of smoke, as if pleased with the offering. After it had made sure that the bandobast was just right for its exacting standards, it condescended to roll a little way down the tracks as the men looked on admiringly. But it was not yet ready for the short ride to Ghoom; it expected more pampering. Cowed into submission by its imperious presence, the passengers waited obligingly for our lady of the heart to make the final leisurely move out of the station.
The Toy Train has been mesmerizing people from the time it had made its first run to Darjeeling in 1881. Speaking of his ride in the train in 1895, Mark Twain had famously said, “The most enjoyable day I’ve spent on earth is of mixed ecstasy of deadly fright and unimaginable joy.” The “deadly fright” part, of course, would seem absurd to us now but it would have made sense to passengers from his time for whom the sharp climb from the plains of Siliguri to the elevation of 6,812 feet in Darjeeling must have been quite fearsome. I found an Illustrated Guide for Tourists to The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and Darjeeling: 1896 (Pagoda Tree), in the Oxford bookshop on the Mall. It has several helpful maps charting the course of the Toy Train from Siliguri to Darjeeling, besides such delightful photographs as that of a “Bhootea Beggar Woman” (who holds a tiny wicker basket full of wild flowers and ferns), of the “Loops” dotted with rickety thatched huts, of the train “Passing through the forest, near Sookna” and of “Darjeeling and the ‘snows’”. Photographs like the last two are striking in the impression they give of a less populated world — they can fit into apocalyptic visions of a denuded future. The text provides a gloss on Twain’s comment by explaining the reasons behind the sense of wonder the DHR created in every Westerner:
“The hill cart road was constructed by Government at a cost of some £6,000 per mile… On this road the traffic was carried on for several years by pack ponies, pack bullocks, bullock carts, palkees, and pony tongas. Although it is one of the finest mountain roads in India, yet the miseries endured by those — especially invalids and children — who had to avail themselves of these various modes of conveyance with their concomitant expenses render superfluous all comparison in favour of the present mode of conveyance by railway. Furthermore, the railway places it within the means of hundreds of the poorer classes to avail themselves of the benefits of a ‘hill climate’, often a matter of life or death to the European who has to work during the hot season in the plains of Bengal.”
A few years back, I had read a report about a British businessman buying the oldest surviving DHR locomotive model built in 1889 by Sharp Stewart and Company, and restoring it to run it in the lawns of his mansion. Reportedly, he had also bought an Ambassador car to run along the train, to complete the picture of Darjeeling as recorded in popular imagination. If wishes were toy trains, I would go round and round in one on a spot of Darjeeling in my private garden. Till fairy godmother grants me the wish, I’ll sing with Dylan that it takes a lot to laugh but it takes a train to cry, every time I leave the Toy Train-wrapped Darjeeling behind.