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Monday, September 20, 2021

Last Train to Little India

Nostalgia and human stories drive a photo project that chronicles what remains of India’s metre gauge train network.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul |
Updated: December 3, 2017 7:09:07 pm
One-way ticket: The metre gauge trains can travel through treacherous terrain.

Growing up in a house overlooking the Byculla railway yard in Mumbai, Nandakumar Narsimhan would watch red-coloured trains clang in every day. The seven-year-old had memorised the timetable of the outstation trains and knew their frequency, route and the time at which each arrived at the yard, after concluding their journey at the nearby Victoria Terminus.

He was fascinated that the trains could transport so many people to faraway destinations, places he knew only by name. By the time he grew up and left for Singapore in 1999, there were no red trains trundling into the yard anymore. “Two years ago, I saw a video on YouTube that traced the journey of a metre gauge train from Patalpani to Kalakund Ghat in Madhya Pradesh. The line had been laid in 1876 by the Holkar dynasty that ruled Indore at the time.” As he saw the train from his childhood travel through scenic ghats and past waterfalls, he was intrigued. “I looked up the train on the internet and realised it covers one of the last remaining routes on the metre gauge train network,” says Narsimhan.

The 35-year-old photographer has since been working on a photo project chronicling what remains of India’s metre gauge train network. Taking a break from his work as a commercial photographer, Narsimhan visits India once every few months in pursuit of the trains. “Till the 1970s, the metre gauge trains formed over 50 per cent of the rail network in India. As broad gauge trains, with higher carrying capacity, rapidly replace them, only two per cent of the metre gauge network now remains,” says Narsimhan, who has been researching the subject since April 2016. The handful of routes still working are in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

Initially, the project was driven by nostalgia. But Narasimhan was soon hooked by the stories of the people he met on the journeys. He recounts a meeting with a sadhu on the Mhow-Sanawad train that passes through the holy town of Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh. “Usually, passengers don’t accept food or water from a stranger. But I suppose the hermit had nothing to lose. He took a swig of water from my bottle and we got chatting. He allowed me to photograph him and when I asked him where I could find him if I returned, he said this train is his weekly address. He takes the same compartment of the 8 am train every Tuesday,” he says. Stories like these now dominate the narrative of the project, shot in black and white on film. These will later be handpainted using oil colours for an antiquated look.

The photographs focus on the integral role the metre gauge trains play in the lives of the people who travel on them. Like the children in Kalakund who take the train to school 25 km away in Mhow. Or a tea vendor who takes the 4.22 am train from Palia Kalan to Dudhwa, to set up a tea stall, and returns by the 7.27 pm train.

There are people who have witnessed the railway system transform, like the owner of a samosa stall in Kalakund, who has spent 80 years of his life working at the station. “He started selling tea at the age of five. Today, he is older than independent India and will fondly recount stealing coal from locomotives of yore, the two years he spent in Mumbai and the peanuts at Chowpatty that he thoroughly enjoyed,” says Narsimhan.

The sadhu who travels every Tuesday on the Mhow-Sanawad train.

Some pictures capture the quaint villages and towns that remain untouched by technology. During his recent trip in November, Narsimhan discovered Kansiya Nes. On the Talala-Visavadar segment of the network in Gujarat, this little town sits in the middle of the Gir National Park. It is home to the Maldhari community members who take the train to either Talala or Junagadh station to purchase their provisions.

Most of these trains pass through remote villages and scenic routes. This, Narsimhan reasons, owes to the fact that metre gauge trains are able to navigate treacherous, steep and winding routes, which broad gauge trains cannot. Once a major junction on the North Eastern Railway between Lucknow Charbagh and Gonda, Dudhwa was where trains to Gouriphanta and Chandan Chowki on the border with Nepal would branch out from. “Today, it stands isolated with no mobile network and only a few trains passing through each day. The only phone line available is in the station master’s office and it can either dial the station after and before Dudhwa, or connect to the Lucknow railways headquarters,” says Narsimhan, who spent a few nights at the station.

He fears that most of these routes and stations will be closed down forever. The broad gauge trains won’t be able to ply the tricky routes and the number of passengers they carry won’t be significant enough to consider an alternative. “It makes practical sense for the railways to homogenise the entire network but the move will impact the lives and livelihood of the people who take these trains every day. A tea vendor who sets up his stall at Patalpani waterfall has already had to switch to the longer, cumbersome road route for his purchases at Mhow after the 9.05am train was cancelled,” he says.

The project is a work-in-progress and Narsimhan is undecided as to how he will publish it. For now, it is a race against time for the photographer as he hopes to finish it before either his funds run dry or the entire metre gauge network is closed down. “Patalpani and Kalakund were originally on a 292km line from Akola to Mhow and I took one of the last sleeper trains to ply on it. Since January, only 65km of it is now functional, from Mhow to Sanawad.”

Window Seat
* In the late 19th century, Lord Mayo, then Viceroy of India, introduced the metre gauge. He picked the metre-width for the track gauge as a compromise between the narrow gauges of less than three feet and the broad gauge. This was to chiefly serve areas with less commuter traffic.

* The first line was built in 1870 and connected Delhi with Farukhnagar in present-day Haryana.

* The Kacheguda-Akola-Mhow-Indore-Ajmer route was built in the 1960s. Today, however, it runs only 65km of the stretch, from Mhow to Sanawad.

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