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Looking at Indian Railways and its cultural impact

The Hindu
By Professor  

From horse-drawn carriages, palanquins and boats, over time man has moved to faster methods of travel—first the railways and finally air. Space travel too fires the imagination of the wander-lust soul and may one day become a reality.

Arup K. Chatterjee in his The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography Of The Indian Railways traces the 156-year-history of the Indian Railways from an unusual angle—how the railways influenced the cultural milieu of India through not only literature, films and songs, but also catalysed revolutionary changes in the country’s political and social canvas. It was the beginning of a new India after the first passenger train ran in Bombay on August 15, 1853. Railways are yet to reach all nooks and corners of India. The changes therefore are continuing.

Today, it is impossible to think of life without railways and India rightly boasts of having one of the world’s largest network. Yet, when the first railway was being planned, there were contrarian views—couldn’t the funds spent on railways be better spent on digging canals, to ensure better irrigation and save poor Indians from famines, quizzed no less a personality than Florence Nightingale, notes the book.

However, others judged the advent of railways from other angles.

Some thought, rail travel would compromise India’s (notorious) caste-divide. There were doubts if a Brahmin would sit in a railway compartment beside passengers of a lower caste. But, the compulsion of the situation saw all Indians sitting together.

Some hold the view that the tea industry owes its growth to the railways. Railway travel and tea have become integral to each other. This book ferrets out the fact that after World War I, petty contractors were provided with tea packets and kettles to serve at main railway junctions of Bengal, Punjab and North West provinces. Later, a recipe for tea-making was on display through posters in various languages in many stations.

When India became independent, just as there were hundreds of princely states to be integrated, there were 28 state railways. Subsequently, they got integrated with Indian Railways.

But, Partition soon saw exchange of not only people mostly between two parts of Punjab, but, also trainloads of dead bodies which came to be known as ghost-trains (in which the guard and the driver were the only ones alive).

Personally, I would have loved to read the history of railway whistles, how they changed from the original shrill sound to various other forms that hail the arrival or movement of a train.

The changing look of engines is another fascinating subject which was not dealt with. The progress of railway engineering, tunnel digging, bridge-construction are all subjects that deserve well-researched books.

The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways; Arup K. Chatterjee, Bloomsbury, 599.