book review: 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways
April 16, 1853 marked a historical moment in the history of the Indian railways. It was the day when the first train made its journey from Bombay to Thane. Traveling a distance of 31 kilometers, “heralding a new era.
150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways, written by K.R. Vaidyanathan lays out the history of Railway transportation in the subcontinent. At the time when carts and palenquins were the major mode of transportation, other than a few cars owned by the British rules, the railways must have entered the civic life like monsters traveling at lightening speeds. The importance of the railways can be sense by Jawaharlal Nehru’s quote,
“The railways are and will continue to be our greatest national undertaking. They deal intimately with scores of millions of people in the country and have to look after their comfort and convenience. They deal also with a very large number of employees whose welfare should always be their concern. A great national and state-owned organization like railways, is not only an asset of importance but is also a great responsibility.”
The British not only had a technical and engineering challenge on their hands, but also a matter of people who were divided by caste and so there was a huge question mark whether the railways would work in India or not.
Vaidyanathan narrates the reaction of a ‘high-caste hindu’ in 1874, who deplored the fact that the railways seated “the sweepers, the chamars and the like classes of people in the same carriage along with Hindustanis of the higher order.”
Not that the ‘upper class’ Muslims embraced the idea of sharing seats with everyone else.
“A Muslim paper in Lucknow pressed for the ‘provision of separate carriages for the respectable classes of the Hindus and Mussalmans on the one hand and the lower classes of the natives on the other.’,” narrates Vaidyanathan.
“For all the opposition, however,” he writes, “when the natives saw the first trains thundering through the countryside, they stood in awe of the fire-carriages. According to the Overland Telegraph and Courier (16 April 1853), ‘they salaamed the omnipotence of steam as it passed.’ They believed that an engine which could move on its own without any external help must surely be a god. So in great reverence they applied red marks or tilaks on the smoke stacks on the engines, left offerings of food and money on the foot plate and placed flowers on the track.”
There are some humorous stories as well. Take the anecdote about the ‘suspicious’ Hindu gentleman who did not believe the trains had actually brought him to another town in so short a time:
“The ‘first rail journeys’ account published in Hurkaru also mentions Roop Chand Ghose, a flourishing dealer in piece-goods and perfumery. When he arrived at Hooghly after a long journey, he felt strongly suspicious and went down the street asking several people the name of the place he had reached!”
Then there is the English gentleman who became obsessed with speed:
“An amusing story is that of an Englishman named Jones. After performing three journeys from Howrah to Hooghly and back, he became so obsessed with the concept of speed that he could no longer reconcile himself to the jog—trot of a buggy horse. He went on whipping the poor animal in the vain hope of making it go at the same speed as the railways of his time!”
The trains! Must have been such great excitement. Here is a scene depicted in Plain Tales from the Raj:
….”then there were the station vendors and sweetmeat sellers with their hawkers’ cries: ‘hindu pani’ ‘musslaman pani’ from the water carriers who sold water to hindus and muslims separately; ‘tahsa chai, garami garum, hot fresh tea from the tea vendors; pahn, biri, cigarettes and betel nuts——“
The trains brought speed and comfort and a great sense of change, both within Indian society and its interaction with the world outside. Jawaherlal Nehru captured the feeling at the time,”the railways are and will continue to be our greatest national undertaking,” he said. “They deal intimately with scores of millions of people in the country and have to look after their comfort and convenience. They deal also with a very large number of employees whose welfare should always be their concern. A great national and state-owned organization like railways, is not only an asset of importance but is also a great responsibility.”
The trains also allowed for travel luxury. Oscar Browning penned his impressions of Indian Travel (1903) thus: “soda water is offered to you just as you are conceiving a wish for it. Tea comes punctually at 6 am. No sooner have you passed your hand over your stubby beard, a barber appears to shave you in the carriage. You get a ‘little breakfast’ of eggs and bacon with bananas and orange at eight, a delightful tiffin in the heat of noon, and a good dinner at sunset.”
But the comforts were confined to the rich and the poor traveled like cattle crowded standing up in a car:
This is how the Calcutta Review (1867) described the intolerable overcrowding in third-class carriages: “Huddled and crowded like cattle into carriages often unprovided with seats, the doors are shut and locked upon them and there they remain till they arrive at their jouney’s end.”
In 1886, a petition signed by over 3,000 persons was submitted to the Viceroy. It complained of imposition of ‘dire evil an slavery’ upon third class passengers in contrast with the comfort enjoyed by the comparatively few rich travelers.
“there is no shelter,” the petition continued,”from the heavy showers of rain lasting for hours….Many a poor native’s illness or death is traceable to suffering at the railway station while waiting for a train.”
The jewel in the crown was the Frontier Mail. Vaidyanthan mentions that it was recognized even by the Times of London “as one of the select few express trains worthy to be recognized as such in the then British Empire. It was a train which acquired a personality over the years ministering to the comforts on which the English gentry insisted on those days.
Rawalpindi to Bombay was the main artery of this famous train catering mainly to ‘home-ward bound’ British servicemen and their families or bringing them in reverse direction for service in the rugged North-west Frontier.
Victor Bayley was one of the chief engineers for the Frontier Mail. You can read posts about his book Adventures Through Khyber here.
You can visit the Mysore Rail Museum to see the old locomotives there.
The book also mentions female train station masters, as well as, train drivers. Here’s one Surekha Yadav.
“Two days before the central railway completed 147 years of its existence, Ms Surekha Yadav, a 32-year-old locomotive driver became the first lady to run a suburban local train. Ms Yadav, a mother of two, married to a policeman, achieved this feat when she drove a Dombivli local train from the historic Chatrapti Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai.”
The book goes onto highlight the evolution and successful trajectory of India Railways. I will get to that once I post about the second book dealing with Pakistan railways.