The rail budget is in some danger of extinction this year, privatisation of the world’s biggest railroad system is being seriously considered in certain quarters and India appears to be preparing to leave behind over 150 years of the romance of the rails to embrace the hard-nosed futurism that the bullet train symbolises. Maybe it’s a done thing already, in the mind. If train passengers are ordering chicken salami pizza over the internet instead of the fabled railway chicken from the liveried bearer in the pantry car, something critical has changed.
The popular literature of the age of steam is being forgotten, too. Rudyard Kipling is enjoying a popular resurgence because of the success of the 3D Jungle Book movie, but for decades now, he has been useful only to academics, who dissect Mowgli and Kim in search of arrant colonialist ideas which their predecessors may have missed. His verse was written to memorialise the middle and lower orders of British society which powered the colonial project, which is extinct. And his journalistic work, like Among the Railway Folk, is forgotten.
In 1887, Kipling quit the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore to join the Pioneer, its sister publication in Allahabad (a century later, it helped to popularise the paper when it was revived by Vinod Mehta). His duties included a daunting responsibility. The author of Plain Tales From the Hills was to be to Anglo India what Boz had been to London, contributing sketches of the life of the community. Kipling took to the rails, starting his journey in the vast loco sheds of Jamalpur, the town near Munger where the sinews of the East India Railway were built. It is on the Sahibganj Loop, which prestigious trains no longer use. But it was then on the route, which is still called the ‘Main Line’ of the Indian Railways, running from Old Delhi to Howrah.
“They (railwaymen) have towns of their own at Toondla and Assensole; a sun-dried sanitarium at Bandikui; and Howrah, Ajmir, Allahabad, Lahore, and Pindi know their colonies. But Jamalpur is unadulteratedly ‘Railway,’ and he who has nothing to do with the EI (East Indian) Railway in some shape or another feels a stranger and an interloper,” wrote Kipling. He started his journey on Jamalpur’s Steam Street (this naming convention continues in industry: data storage leader Seagate used to be located on a California street named Disk Drive). It led to 40-50 acres of “shops” — workshops which could hold 25 locomotives at a time, where 3,500 men, English, Anglo Indian and “native”, worked under supervisors from Manchester and Clydeside. Jamalpur was “a sort of Crewe of Eastern India, where men make locomotives and control many hundreds of miles of lines.” Kipling’s journey continued down to Kolkata, which he explored by night in the company of a European police party from 22 Lalbazar Street (No 18 is now headquarters of the Kolkata Police), and his ethnological findings enliven a very adventurous two-part essay titled ‘City of Dreadful Night’. These sketches appeared in the Pioneer through 1888 and later featured in several collections of Kipling’s work. The two most popular books were City of Dreadful Night and Among the Railway Folk, a very slim volume with three sketches of Jamalpur, exploring the personal and professional lives of railwaymen. Neither seems to be in print in India, but both are available from various collections online. The versions in Project Gutenberg and at the University of Adelaide are well proofed, and extensive background notes are available online from the Kipling Society in the UK. They’re worth looking at, since both India and its railways were quite different at the time.
Jamalpur was a neat little town where everyone lunched between 11 and 12 o’clock, had neat little gardens and a tendency to call clubs “institutes” (Kolkata still has its Dalhousie Institute, an excellent watering hole). They lived on the assurance that after retiring from a job paying Rs 370 (for a train driver) to Rs 400 (station master) per month, one could expect one’s son to be apprenticed for the princely sum of Rs 20. The only hardship faced by the 200 Europeans at the station was a paucity of beef, since the local raja was a gau rakshak.
That era, when Anglo Indian train drivers were elite and surpassed only by river pilots, is long past. Now, the railways are about to lose the last sign of a service held in esteem, a separate budget. But a few threads of continuity remain. The gau rakshak is still a high-profile citizen, though he has acquired an appetite for cinematic and puritanical violence in the meantime. And as in Jamalpur in 1887, the Babu still keeps the trains running by doing battle with a sea of ledgers, “silent as the Sphinx and busy as a bee”.