Indian Railways are a marvel. They criss-cross across our vast country and take you to nooks and crannies you never thought existed. They have been transporting people from one point to another ever since 1853, even though the start was a modest run from Bombay to Thane.
I remember traveling with my family from Jamnagar to Delhi during the 60s. We used to travel unreserved. Being a large crowd, we would spread durries on the wooden benches and bag a compartment. Our bogie would travel from Jamnagar to Mehsana. At Mehsana we had a longish break and our bogie would go for a shunting and get attached to a train that was traveling to Delhi. We would embark on the train from Jamnagar at around 5 PM, spend two nights in the train and in the morning of the 3rd day, we would be at New Delhi Station.
The steam engine would pump soot into the air and my hair would be coated with it. There was no chance of a bath, which would come only after we reached my cousin's house in Delhi. There were high points of the travel we looked forward to. Dahi Bade at Abu Road, Rabri at some other station. We carried water in a small earthenware surahi. There were no bottles of Bisleri, and we filled up the Surahi at any Railway Station that was handy.
Those days are gone. Now I turn up my nose at stinky poo Railway bathroom, don't drink anything but Bisleri and avoid local food. If the travel is likely to be more than a day's worth, I look for flights. Yet, on my way to Delhi on the Shatabdi, the train often stops at a small station in Haryana called Diwana, waiting for a signal. It is not a scheduled stop and I never see a soul there. It is a single brick building built smack in middle of a farm. It always brings back memories of sleepy stations that seem almost ghost-like from my childhood train travel.
Being Indians, I am sure almost all of us have traveled by railway, over long distances or short. There are many among us who love the slow chug chug of train travel.
In this collection of Railway stories curated and edited by Ruskin Bond, he brings us the best of the lot. The first story is culled from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1875 Phileas Fogg passes through India in his quest to cross the world in eighty days. He is let down badly by the Railways in India, but manages to hire elephants to continue his journey. There are two stories by Rudyard Kipling, one by Flora Annie Steel and some stories by anonymous authors, and one by J.W, Best. These stories are listed under Part I which are stories from the Pre-Independence era.
In the Post-Independence section, we have stories by Jim Corbett, Khuswant Singh, Ruskin Bond himself, Manoj Das, Intizar Husain, Satyajit Ray, Bill Aitkin, R.K. Laxman, Victor Banerjee and Manojit Mitra.
When I completed the Pre-Independence section, I thought, "There goes the best of it. Surely the Post Independence stories will not be as good." Happily, I was proved wrong. All the stories, start to finish are delightful. I had no idea Victor Banerjee wrote such lovely short stories as well. Bill Aitken's description of the POW (Palace on Wheels) is hilarious. Khushwant Singh's story, Mano Majra Station is taken from his chilling novel, Train to Pakistan.
Ruskin Bond's preface to the book called Soot Gets in Your Eyes is alone worth the price of the book. At Rs.250/- so much goodness is a steal.