Since my childhood I was fascinated by trains. The interest went far beyond a childish dream of becoming an Engine Driver that many of us have heard about. I feel it is magical to watch the railway signals and tracks in the late evening as they shimmer in the gloaming light.
As a mode of travel I enjoy it more than taking a flight or travelling by the road. In India train journeys often last well over a day – shorn of options to keep oneself occupied the journey provides great opportunities for amusement as you can read a book, scan the paper, work on your laptop, stretch your legs and have a cup of tea on the various stops that happen intermittently.
But more often you simply strike acquaintance with different people from all walks of life. It is interesting to get to know them and one can share things with the great comfort of never seeing the person again. That creates a very different kind of intimacy and bonding.
So train trips remain my chosen mode of travel inspite of having spent years travelling in the ‘packed-to-the-rafters’ Mumbai local trains. Trains are ubiquitous in our lives and we see their influences in popular culture be it films, books, songs or memorable train journeys. Some of my favourite experiences are summed up below.
Bhowani Junction by John Masters – Set in turbulent times just before India gained independence from the British, the story has a perfect railways setting. The story revolves around Victoria, who is an Anglo-Indian and a daughter of a railway man. She has served in the British Army and is shown to be a liberated woman who wants to live life on her own terms. Patrick Taylor is a fellow Anglo-Indian friend and a Railway Officer who competes for her affections with Colonel Rodney Savage, a dashing British Army Officer.
The story has a rather unique format wherein it has multiple sections that are narrated by each of the three Principal characters. The events look as different as the patterns made by a kaleidoscope and it helps the reader develop a composite picture of the narrative, far better than the characters themselves as they are bound by their own perspectives.
Initially it seems to be choice between a bumbling boy and a mature man and we are sure that Savage will win the day. But the final twist has Victoria opt for Patrick as an acknowledgement of her roots and in the hope of providing her children a more coherent identity that will help them to assimilate themselves in the new Republic. She seems to be willing to also ‘mother’ Patrick a bit as well for his own good.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux – It would be considered to be anachronism today for someone to decide to make a four-month trip on numerous trains covering London, Paris, Istanbul, Lake Van, Tehran, Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, Amritsar, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Rameswaram, Ceylon, Galle, Colombo, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Saigon, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and finally the Trans Siberian railway.
Bet that is a mouthful since it covers various parts in Europe, Middle East, Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is a great travel book though and the writer regales with you with great anecdotes.
The Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh – We are introduced to the quaint world of Mano Majra, a village on the border of India and Pakistan where the daily routine of life follows the train time-table. Imagine the trains serving the role of the morning wake up call, time for prayers, the afternoon siesta, time to milk the Cows and finally the time to retire early to bed. In the narrative the disruption of the train schedules is symbolic of the chaos that has been unleashed on the innocent masses.
The Regional Magistrate struggles to maintain law and order in the backdrop of the tumultuous event of the Partition. The choices he makes may seem to be manipulative but at the end of it he seems to succeed in ensuring the greater good for his people. It seems to be a rhetorical question to ask whether ends can justify means or not?
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – The book was a delightful adventure set up by Christie by boxing in everyone using the device of a snowdrift. It was followed up by a movie wherein you can see the stunning visuals of the Orient Express.
The train was synonymous with luxury travel and a delightful ritual that enabled the élite to travel in comfort to the Riviera to enjoy a relaxing holiday.
Julie – The songs were a lovely delight – guess many can still hum Preeti Sagar’s delightful number, ‘My heart is beating …’. Om Prakash gives a masterly performance of an Anglo-Indian railway driver while Utpal Dutt plays a rather restrained role as his Manager. It is however Nadira’s show as she plays the role of Mrs. Morris – a spirited Anglo-Indian lady who has her heart set at migrating to England.
Though full of cultural stereotypes it still conveyed the right message and we were reminded that ‘all’s well that ends well’.
Ijaazat (Permission) – Released in 1987 and directed by Gulzar the story is set in a waiting room at the railway station and the lead roles are donned by Rekha and Naseeruddin Shah. For once we have a strong female character and the story seems to be ahead of its times.
The ideas that seem routine to us now were rather revolutionary in those days when patriarchy dominated the Indian society. An homage to the same is seen in the symbolic ‘Ijaazat’ Rekha takes from Naseer when she parts his company – it is a final acknowledgement of the separation that had happened many years earlier.
Kitaab – Its Gulzar again, only the movie is set in the late 70s. A real fantasy piece , it is a simple tale of a young kid running away from his home and relatives in the city with a plan to go back to his village and be with his mother. It is a telling tale of his loss of innocence and coming to terms with reality.
It has a lovely number pictured on the railway driver, ‘Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein Raat Ka Surma …’
Favorite Toy Train Journeys
Mettupalayam to Ooty – Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu
A staple in most movies, the curving tracks were immortalized in Balu Mahendra’s ‘Moondram Pirai’ (Sadma in the Hindi version). Imagine the delight of covering 46 KMs in about 5 hours. Numerous stops happen – you can grab a cup of Tea and just run up a bit to board the train as it chugs along.
Shimla to Kalka in Himachal Pradesh & Haryana
Its 96 KMs again in about 5 hours and you can savor the splendor of the Himalayas.
Neral to Matheran in Maharashtra
Is not so well-known as its peers – about 20 KMs of the green mountains is covered in about two hours time.
Am yet to travel on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that traverses the North East region from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. It seems to be a real fun journey and I am sure to make it some time. Have also heard that the Konkan railway route from Thokur, near Mangalore in Karnataka to Roha in Maharashtra via Goa is a great trip to see the Western Ghats in India.
Even BBC did a great documentary series on the Indian railways that allows you to vicariously relive these fun journeys.
The best journeys by train are for leisure and not focused to reach the destination. The journey is what one relishes – liked the punchline in the acclaimed movie Lunchbox where Irfan is seen to say, “Sometimes even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.”