No other mode of transport evokes so much excitement in kids, as much as railways. I was no different. As a kid, I was fascinated by trains- so much so that I had the whole timetable of trains arriving and departing from Pune junction completely memorized. I knew the platform number from which the train departed and the platform on which it arrives. Infact, I used to be so engrossed with this subject that even the stations on the way to Mumbai VT as it was then called could be told in their correct order at any instant. The fascination with trains, with locomotives, with the engine drivers, with the way in which the tracks were laid out in Pune station, Mumbai VT station was unending. No wonder, I tried to go, and once successfully managed to get into the locomotive every single time.
Indian railways, along with the postal system are the only things for which I extend my gratitude towards the Brits. Had they not been here, atleast Indian railways as we know it would not have existed, for it was them, who laid the foundations for one of the largest rail networks in the world. My love for the Brits ends at the establishment of these two government organizations, but extends a little bit for the establishment of Mumbai.
Coming back to the main point- Railways was always a fascination. Especially the train ride from Pune Jn to Dadar. Every summer vacation and every December, me, my sister, my mother, my aunt (moms sister) and my cousins used to go to Mumbai for a week or two to spend time with my grandparents. The most awaited part of the journey used to be the train ride from Pune to Dadar, and back. Forget living in Mumbai for a few days- those 4 hours in the train was the reason why we actually travelled. In Mumbai, my grandparents used to stay very near to the Andheri Station. So every evening, after finishing cricket at 7, me and my cousins used to go to the footbridge over the Andheri station- just to look at trains- no, not ordinary trains- but the Flying Ranee and the Rajdhani express, which usually zoomed out of the station at full speeds.
Fast forward 15 years- my fascination and love affair with the Indian railways continues. I remember, as a kid, I used to go out at Lonavla station, and Karjat station to get chikki and Vada Paav respectively, and not enter the train till the locomotive blasted its warning horn. Six months ago, on my one day trip to Mumbai with my cousins- we did the same thing. Forget getting down at Karjat- we even went to see the engine being attached to the train-our very old habit- and watched it with the enthusiasm of a six year old. Numerous trip to Mumbai over the last few years- some for work, some with my ajoba, and a few with my cousin Rohan- just because we were bored sitting in Pune are vivid. Vivid for the memories it provided. Vivid-because a road journey though quicker by 1 hour or so, costs 3 times more money (money which we eventually spent on eating on the train anyway). Vivid because of the journey done standing in the door of the railway bogey, catching fresh air, letting the wind run through your hair as the train speeds through the Ghats- and watch unprecedented beauty of the Sahyadris.
(Traveling in the Deccan Queen-Photo taken near Palasdari-Karjat stretch.)
As a kid, other than railways, I grew up fascinated by many things around me- the history of the Marathas, history of inventions in science, the geography of India. Somehow, of all the things I studied in school, the most interesting were History and Geography. History, for obvious reasons, and geography- for it taught me the sheer audacity of my country- in terms of area, resources, distribution of resources just to name a few. The history, geography and economy of India, I realized, was all interlinked by its railways. If I read about an interesting historical place, I could locate it on the map, thanks to geography, and draw imaginary plans to travel from Pune to the nearest possible station to that location. Other times, if the newspaper said that there was shortage of a resource, or a new industrial plant was being built at some location, immediately, I would draw the maps of how the resource could be transported and distributed, thanks to the railways.
Now when I look back, I do realize that indeed, Indian Railways is the lifeline of the country. It covers the entire nation – even reaching parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura etc., which are extremely hilly. With a few permutations and interchanges, you can travel from any part of the country to any other. Goods from extreme south can be transported to as far as Punjab in a matter of a few days, which would otherwise take weeks to transport through roads. Indian Railways bring millions of Indians- belonging to various regions, customs and habits in contact with one another. It is truly a melting pot for ideological exchange. Other than this countrywide linkage, Railways employs more people- directly or indirectly, than any other organization in India. These are reasons enough to keep me fascinated in the super giant that is the Indian railways.
Yes- there are a few more things that keep it interesting. The names our Railway gives to its trains. Indian railways have express trains which have some of the most beautiful names- related to the destination of the train, the route on which the train runs, the history of the train etc. Shatabdi Express, Rajdhani Express are the crown jewels – and it still gives a sense of pride and privilege to travel in one of them. Others such as Goa Express, Jhelum express, Pragati express, Suvarnajayanti express, Indaryani express, Dhauli Express hold a special place in my heart. But a large section of my heart is devoted in its entirety to the Deccan Queen. It’s not called the Queen of the Deccan for no reason. It is a special train. I don’t know what it that makes it so special, but nevertheless it is special. Pune Mumbai travel if not in Deccan Queen, is not worthwhile or enjoyable. Oh Deccan Queen-the train we used to stop to gaze at when it went from the overhead bridge near Shivajinagar, the train which halts everyone in their tracks, just so that they have a glimpse of this beauty, my heart shall always be yours.
As India marches on its path of progress, better roads have led to fewer commuters on the trains, as they prefer roads which are much quicker. Too bad the average Indian kid now cannot with the same fascination hold the high regard for railways. I must say I was blessed to be born in a generation, which for sure is the last one, to know the legacy of the Indian railways, and possibly have a love affair with it. The real beauty of India can only be viewed traveling in the second class compartments of the Indian railways- her diversity and cultured can all be found in one place – the railways. For me, Railways is India, and India is its Railway.