WONDER AND MELANCHOLY - Railway tales and travails from colonial India

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By Malavika Karlekar karlekars@gmail.com
  • Published 4.01.10

Shortly after its introduction in the 1850s, the railway network not only radicalized travel in India but also quickly became a rich source for real and fictional adventures and fantasies. Yet, a railway journey was not an enviable experience for all: the train became another site for racial segregation and while the Europeans travelled in first class compartments, most Indians were crammed into the third class, with little access to water and sanitary facilities. In fact, it would not be too fanciful to imagine an early train as India in microcosm: the rulers cocooned in luxury, a few privileged Indians their neighbours in a compartment (though perhaps not in real life), and the majority of passengers in second and, more likely, third class carriages. And life aboard a train for Europeans and a handful of privileged Indians could indeed be luxurious.

Lady Rosamond Lawrence, wife of civilian Henry Lawrence, writes in Indian Embers of train journeys where their official saloon “was shifted from train to train as desired”. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen, in addition to the public area furnished with chairs and couches. A few coaches down was another story where the general carriages, wrote Kipling in “A Railway Settlement”, “are just now horrid — being filthy and unshaven, dirty to look at and dirty to live in”. Over a hundred and fifty years later, cynics might ask, has anything really changed for the vast majority of Indian rail travellers?

Among the many stories early passengers had to tell, a favourite theme was surely about encounters with those one was unlikely to run in to otherwise. In her autobiography, A Look Before and After, the Oriya educationist, Sailabala Das, narrates with some relish her contretemps with English passengers on a journey from Calcutta to Cuttack. Sensing that she may have problems getting a berth in a first class compartment, Sailabala sent her khansama (cook) ahead with the bedding, instructing him to spread it out on a lower berth in the ladies’ compartment. Soon enough the chaprasis (peons) of the travelling English family arrived and, disconcerted to see Sailabala’s luggage, reported the situation to their master. Sailabala writes, “the gentleman got quite red in the face, sent for the guard and asked him to turn the native woman (me) out and tell her to travel in the third class”. The embarrassed guard could say little when he looked at Sailabala’s first class ticket. Not one to let matters rest, Sailabala “did not mind being called a ‘native woman’, for I am a native woman and proud of it”. But she was insulted by the Englishman’s tone and “wanted to punish them”. She quickly changed her khansama’s and ayah’s tickets into first class ones and watched with glee the consternation on the faces of her fellow passengers who then tried their luck with the station master — but to no avail.

Confusion prevailed and as the memsahib shouted out, “Alec, Alec my dear, see the feet of the native servant dangling just above your head”, a distraught Alec tried to barge into the more conducive ladies’ compartment. Imagine Sailabala’s triumph when she instructed the guard to turn the man out of the ladies’ compartment — “I strongly objected to his travelling in the same compartment as me,” she reported smugly. The final denouement, however, was an apology when the Englishman, who turned out to be the district magistrate of Cuttack, discovered that she was the daughter of the well-respected M.S. Das. And as a mollified Sailabala reports this too with some pride, we are reminded that the incident did take place a hundred years ago when demonstration of regret from an Englishman was no mean thing.

As the railways opened up new, uninhabited areas, it was important to provide for the security of trains, railway lines, bridges, and tunnels. The photograph shows clearly that railway lines often traversed difficult terrains, through dense jungles and across mutinous rivers. The shack at the left-hand side could be that of workers, employed in the construction of the railway bridge. The two men wearing the ubiquitous sola topis were likely to be of the same ilk as the hard-working Findlayson, C.E. in Kipling’s “The Bridge Builders”, who turns to opium at the thought of his months of perilous labour and supervision being destroyed by an early flood. Being photographed while at work (and building the railway system was no small task) had gained in popularity by the closing years of the 19th century. It was important to remind the family and posterity of what constructing the empire had meant, and men were quick to underline the hazardously unknown aspects of such work.

Nor were these emotions entirely absent among train passengers. An ambience of slight uncertainty, a latent tension combined with some underlying excitement was common. And often there were serendipitous encounters, not always of the most welcome kind: theft and pilferage became rampant in the railways and often after a robbery, hapless victims were reluctant to report it. Not only had fear of the police network and its unkind ways of functioning become a part of the mythology surrounding the colonial State, but also victims had no common language in which to express themselves.

Imagine a Bihari worker on his way to try his luck in Bombay Presidency being robbed in the forbidding thugee-infested badlands of Central India; while broken Hindustani may have got him some mileage with the local police, it would hardly be enough for him to be able to say where, when and how he had been robbed, if not mugged. Would he have known the route and stations that the train had passed through in the dead of night? Unlikely. Not unexpectedly then, a 1904 Joint Commission on inter-provincial crime in Assam, Bengal and the United Provinces identified the railways as the most significant reason for the alarming rise in theft in this region. Used to a stationary population, the police force was hard put to ferret out ‘mobile’ thieves.

As one would expect, children, particularly those who travelled in the first class, were immune to such grown-up fears; for them, there was little to rival a train ride. Colonial memoirs recount many such journeys, some more exciting than others. Jon and Rumer Godden in Two Under the Indian Sky write of long train journeys to north Indian hill stations. As high-spirited children, they swung from the upper berths, visited the lavatory endlessly — assiduously disinfected with Lysol by their mother — and waited for entertainment at the next station.

Ample food lay safe in tiffin baskets, “large oblong Japanese cane baskets with leather strappings to hold enamel plates and mugs.” Bottled water was carried from home and though during the journey, “bread went dry, butter melted, shells off the hard-boiled eggs got into the buttoned upholstery of the bunk seats... we thought the meal ambrosial”. An accompanying servant would come to wash up, squatting on the floor of the lavatory shower room that led off from the compartment. In the blazing hot summer when travelling in what were basically metal boxes on wheels could be unbearable, a zinc stand with a deep tray beneath it was set up in the middle of the compartment “and every morning with shoutings and staggerings, coolies would carry in a huge block of ice and unwrap it from its sacking”. A fan often circulated the cooled air and telegrams used to be sent down the line for replacements of ice during the day.

As dusk came about the countryside, “a curious sadness would fall on us” and the compartment suddenly seemed small, “the train infinitesimal as it travelled over the vast Indian plain”. And then finally, out came the bedding from those “invaluable roly-poly pieces of luggage rightly called holdalls into which anything and everything would go”. Those irreplaceable holdalls may be difficult to come by today, and ice blocks have given way to fitful air conditioning; yet which train passenger can deny an inexplicable sense of wonderment — or maybe even melancholy — as night falls, a few lights twinkle on the horizon and the edges of India fade away beneath the criss-cross of railway tracks?

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