The letter ‘C’ has been very important in my life. I am a self-confessed addict of Carnatic music, Cryptic crosswords and Computers. The sport that I watch most is Cricket. My most favourite food is Curd-rice and favourite snack is salted Cashew-nut. I graduated from CEG (College of Engineering, Guindy). Among the railways that I worked, my fondest memories are for CR (Central Railway). I was born, brought up and settled down in (before being briefly fed up with) Chennai.
My first two books were on Carnatic music and most of my free time is spent in pursuing the three Cs mentioned earlier. So when Harsh and Mayank (Harsh Kumar, ED, Railway Board and Mayank Tewart, Director, National Rail Museum) asked me to write about Indian Railways I was hesitant since there was no C in IR. Of course it is a familiar subject and I had also taught the history and organization of Indian Railways to the officers during my stint in Railway Staff College. I thought I would try for a few days and if the topic interested me sufficiently I would write the book.
Just a day surfing the Net was sufficient to get me interested and three days saw me getting addicted. It was then that I realized that Career continues to be another important C in my life. You may take a railwayman out of the system by retiring him, but you can never take the railways out of a railwayman.
From the windows of a train on Indian Railways one is served a varied platter of changing topography to changing crops, vegetation, people and their ways of life. It is like the lilting but ever-changing rhythm of a Ragamalika, a type of composition in Carnatic music in which the tune changes for every stanza.
Gandhiji was told that the only way to know India was to travel on Indian Railways in Third (now second) class. Well, I have traveled on IR extensively from Kanyakumari in the South to Rishikesh in the north and Dwaraka in the west to Lekhapani in the east. There is something cozy about being on a train and looking out at the world. And when you travel by a train, you see a tiny slice of the lives of people who are waiting in the stations or near the track or at a level-crossing gate. Only a tiny slice, but enough to wonder about them. Many also complain about not being able to sleep in trains. Not me. The swaying movement of the train is the soothing rocking of the cradle when I go to sleep in train. And I can spend hours watching the countryside from the windows of a train or watching the whirl of activity on the platform of a railway station (what Paul Theroux calls that perennially ravishing show)
No revolutions in technology have as visibly affected the human condition as those in transport. Moving goods and people, they have opened up continents, transformed living standards, introduced new cultures and spread fashions and folks around the world. It was the railways and steamships that first allowed speedy and widespread dissemination of news and ideas over long distances. The railways have especially been the huge openers of communications in the 19th century. It is said that 19th century belonged to the Railways: 20th century to the Automobiles and the 21st century to Telecommunications and computers. But in India, Railways were, are and will continue to be an important and integral part of our lives. We Indians have taken the train to our hearts. For us long-distance railway journeys are just another part of our lives’ rich tapestry.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, railways propelled industry, education, media – indeed every aspect of daily life from the three basic needs – food, clothing and housing to other aspects like time, entertainment etc. While the life of the people evolved due to railways, the railways themselves evolved systems and procedures in their various activities. Technology also evolved changing the functioning of the railways. You can read about the various aspects of these evolutions with particular reference to India in Chapter 1 - Evolution.
In many of my journeys, I found some interesting tidbits about the railways. When I was in Assam, one of my officers told me how American and Canadian locos worked there during World War II. When I was in Howrah, someone asked me,’ Do you know that Gandhiji’s first travel by third class was from here?’ When I was in Clapham in London, I was told by a British Rail employee with pride that a train passes through that junction every 20 seconds. Even before seeing Kharagpur, I knew it has the longest platform in the world. When I went to U.K., I made it a point to visit Fenchurch Street, Marylebone, Liverpool Street and King's Cross railway stations as I knew them from my childhood from the game of Monopoly. So I thought I should collect all these interesting facts about railways which are inspiring, funny, sad, bizarre or even macabre. You can read about these facts in Chapter 2 - Fascinating Facts.
Why should we bother about history? What does the history of railways offer to you or me? We are told that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is too glib an explanation to accept. In that case we ought to have accumulated so much knowledge that things like war, poverty, injustice and immorality ought not to exist. By studying the railway history I can understand how we got to where we are now. By studying the railway history, I try to understand people who thought and acted differently than we do in our own time. By studying the railway history, I can make sense of a time radically different from our own time which helps me in placing our own time in perspective. In short I study history to improve my knowledge and myself. Chapter 3 - Good Old Days which is about the history of railways in the world and in India has been written with these objectives. And since history is about people, Chapter 4 - People is just a continuation of the previous chapter and talks about British pioneers, pioneers in India, famous people and raiways and some known and unknown persons of Indian Railways.
After a rather heavy four chapters, it is time for a diversion. The next two chapters are lighter stuff. Indian Railways has the second largest network in the world and the film industry in India makes the highest number of films in the world. Like Indian Railways, films transcend state borders and both reflect every single aspect of human life in the country. Therefore right from the advent of the silent films and later talkies, there have been very few films in India, barring mythological, in which a train has not figured, even if for a few seconds. Chapter 5 - Train songs is about the songs in many Hindi and a few Tamil films where the railways play an important role.
Chapter 6 - This and That is about a variety of things ranging from art, literature, poetry, western music, museums, stamps, quotations and humour - all focusing on railways. In both my previous books, cryptic crosswords which is my passion was part of them But in this book, I have placed ‘Cryptic Crosswords and Railways’ in the CD-ROM.
Epilogue is autobiographical. Whenever I travel by train I cannot help reminiscing about all the memorable journeys I had made over the years. I like the saying that the journey is more important than reaching the destination. I see life in all journeys, especially when the journey is on a train. In this chapter, I have recalled some interesting incidents from my own travels in train. I have also written briefly about the persons who made this book and CD-ROM possible.
When I researched the internet about books on railways, I found that there are over 100000 books on railways. But all of them can be classified under the following types.
Elaboration of any one aspect of railways
Biographies and autobiographies
Coffee-table books with a lot of photographs
This book cannot be classified under any of them. So you may well ask me what my book is about. Is it an introduction to Indian railways? Is it a trivia book? Is it a fun book? Is it a personal memoir? Is it a text book? Is it a travel book? Frankly I cannot say. But I can say it is similar to my books on carnatic music which are for laymen and which have a lot of anecdotes and information to get people interested in the subject. All I can say is that this book is also for laymen and seeks to convey my feelings of romance and nostalgia for the railways.
Writing the book was easier than making the CD-ROM. This is since the CD-ROM is not a mere graphic version of the book. Though the screens have been arranged similar to the chapters of the book, the CD-ROM has much more to offer – over 200 images, 25 songs and a few other audio files. It is interactive and has puzzles, riddles, quiz and quite a bit of content which has not been covered in the book.
I am proud to be a railwayman and railways are not only a source of livelihood but are also a source of romance and nostalgia for me. I have tried to convey some of those feelings to you in this book and the CD-ROM that accompanies it. I would be happy even if I succeed marginally. The book and the CD-ROM are only third class when it comes to experiencing the romance of the railways. Second class is visiting the National Rail Museum. First class is, of course, travelling by train. Other modes of transport take you on a journey, but the railways move you and transport you.
2nd January 2008