Seeti baa rahi hai, Chalna hi zindagi hai, chalti hi ja rahi hai……….
This is one of my favourite songs, with such a haunting quality and such a gorgeous looking young Dharmendra. There have been many poems and metaphors linking trains to the journey of life itself. We meet a few people, for a short while, everyone gets down at their own destination, we may move from one compartment to another while the train is hurtling away towards its own unknown last stop.
Trains play such an integral part in our lives as Indians that everyone has at least one train story in their life! It may be a story of some madness erupting during a routine local train ride such as my sister or my mother’s aunt (Kaku-aji) would experience once in a regular while. It may be a horror story like my friend shared of a young man jumping into the ladies’ compartment during a signal stop and attempting to misbehave. It may be funny story of falling asleep in the train and finding yourself returning to work, back from the last stop!
Or it may be an adventure filled journey like Jab We Met, which my medical college batch undertook from Bombay (as it was called then and may always remain so in some part of our hearts) to New Delhi in our very first year, by the Ferozepur Janata Express. Some of us who ‘met’ each other during that journey are going strong to their 25th anniversaries now…..
The Mumbai local train journey is not complete without the most creative beggars’ songs, hijras, trinket sellers and the bhajan groups. There are also women who cut vegetables during the journey home, a testimony to their hard work as well as the stark gender inequality in that no working man has ever been seen doing this chore (yet) on the way back to the same homes…..
For those who have grown up and studied or worked in Mumbai (as it is now), the local trains are our lifeline and there are too many urban legends and an entire genre of folklore around it. VT station (now called CST) is famous for being probably the largest working Gothic building in the world. The making of the famous gargoyles was under the supervision of Lockwood Kipling, whose son Rudyard would go on to write some of the most loved stories set in India. http://www.natgeotraveller.in/discover-the-secrets-of-mumbais-chhatrapati-shivaji-terminus/
The very first commercial train journey in India started from here and went to Thane on 16 April 1853 in a 14 carriage long train drawn by 3 locomotives named Sultan, Sindh and Sahib. In so many Bollywood films set in Mumbai, the young men and women with dreams in their eyes still come spill out of this enormous station, right into the golden streets of Mumbai.
Tragically, the station was also witness to the horrific killings unleashed by Ajmal Kasab during the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 but many hundreds of lives were saved by an alert announcer Vishnu Dattaram Zende , sitting in the announcement booth in the balcony, who saw him shooting and repeatedly told all those on the station to run away. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/37808/announcer-saved-thousands-lives.html
Although urban legend has often claimed that the Indian railways is the largest employer in the world, it comes in 8th, astonishingly just ahead of the Indian Army! http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Indian-Railways-Army-among-worlds-biggest-employers-Study/articleshow/47853593.cms
Our trains often have poetic names such as the Flying Ranee ( a superfast express going from Mumbai to Surat, probably carrying more diamonds held close by angadiyas than the shops at Antwerp can handle) and the Deccan Odyssey ( which can set you back by a fortune but give you an experience of what it feels like to be royalty !)
India has some of the most remarkable mountain trains which are world heritage sites also. http://www.walkthroughindia.com/walkthroughs/trains/the-5-mountain-railways-of-india-world-heritage-site/ and two of the most popular songs in hindi cinema have been picturized around these. ( but more on that in the next post).
Some trains have names which are so evocative such as the August Kranti Express, starting from Mumbai Central, close to the field where Gandhiji declared the Quit India movement in 1942. The Black Diamond Express, Chambal Express ( Dacoits! Phoolan Devi!) , Coromandal Express (Sarojini Naidu’s poem!), Grand Trunk Express (Kim and the Lama!), Samjhauta Express (Delhi to Lahore!), Tea Garden Express, Wainganga Express (The dhol attack from the Jungle Book!).
But we also have some trains which cast a dark and macabre shadow on the history of our nation. The train massacre that took place during the partition www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple
and the Godhra train fire much later https://www.quora.com/What-was-the-reason-behind-Sabarmati-train-burning-at-Godhra-in-2002
Famous trains outside of India include:
The Siberian rail, which is said to be the longest journey you can make on a single train: the longest of the three trans-Siberian routes, between Moscow and Vladivostok, covers 9,258km (6,152 miles) and takes seven days.
The Death railway, which is the Thai –Burma rail where the Imperial Japanese Army forced labour drafted from southeast Asian civilian labourers and Allied POWs to work on the railway. More than 180,000 people died including 100,000 Tamils and 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway. A beautifully crafted story by Neville Shute called ‘A Town Like Alice’ brings to life those desperate times. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Town_Like_Alice.
Bullet Trains: which can go almost as fast as a plane…….but can they replace the joy of chugging along slowly, stopping for kulladwali chai at Mathura, making a quick leap for the batatawada at Karjat, and standing by the door in the monsoon as the train moves cautiously along slippery tracks ? https://themysteriousworld.com/10-fastest-trains-in-the-world/
Trains have played a central role in so many of our stories and films ( such as Murder on the Orient Express, the station scenes in the Matrix Trilogy, the Orient Express in space in Doctor Who) and thanks to JK Rowling a whole new generation who may not have had any personal nostalgic memories of steam trains or any trains now have the memory of the Hogwarts Express chugging its way down a most picturesque and ancient looking bridge.
For my sister and friends who are wondering how I managed an entire post on trains without mentioning the Burning Train 🙂 wait for it ! The next post will be a list of some memorable songs and scenes from Hindi films that involve trains ………