Closet Admirer of the DHR

This article originally appeared in the 2D Passenger, the newsletter of the Darjeeling Himlayan Railway Supporters Association, No. 15, May 2002. (Web page: www.dhrsa.org.au). It is reproduced here by generous permission of the author Mohan Bhuyan and the editor Dr K J Walker.

Foreword to original article: 2D Passenger has been lamentably short of two kinds of article: "Travellers Tales" and reminiscences. Our contributor Mohan Bhuyan, now resident in Delhi, is a member of the Indian Railway Fan Club Assoiciation (IRFCA) and has kindly contributed his memories of school and railway in Darjeeling.

Closet Admirer of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

By Mohan Bhuyan

I spent 11 years as a schoolboy at St. Paul's School in Darjeeling from the mid 70's to the mid 80's and in all that time I rode the DHR just once -- from Darjeeling to Ghoom, one way. Of course I regret that now, but in those days I held the DHR in contempt, at least publicly. I mean a train that took 7 hours to struggle up 80 kilometres could hardly be held up as an example of railway superiority to car crazy schoolmates.

My real railway heroes in those early days were the metre gauge Mails that the Assam party would catch from bustling Siliguri Jn at the beginning of our annual 3 month long winter vacation. I remember explaining rather disdainfully to a Bhutanese friend (whose knowledge of trains did not extend beyond the DHR) that the toy train did not take us home. Our trains were much bigger and faster and were pulled by diesel engines. Those were the days when IR had already embarked on its massive dieselisation drive and the notion that diesel and electric locos were "modern" and the way forward while steam was ancient and therefore something of an embarrassment had become ingrained in me.

So the DHR became the unwitting scapegoat for all my public anguish about the continued presence of steam in our railways. People who knew me then must have wondered why I professed not to care about DHR, after all I was so mad about trains that I would sometimes lie in bed after lights out and simulate the clickety clack of a train with my toothbrush on the wooden bedpost. But what no one could have guessed was that in reality I was a closet admirer of that magnificent railway -- after all a train is a train, and the DHR with its tom thumb engines was all I'd get to see for 9 months of the year.

The only problem was that the station and the line were way out of bounds. So I had to find vantage points in our sprawling campus from where I'd get a brief glimpse of blue carriages and swirling smoke. Ditto when we were allowed to head for the town on the occasional Sunday. More train spotting chances would come when we went to Jorebunglow (Ghoom's twin) and beyond on walks and treks. Who can forget the sight of the train whistling its way through crowded Jorebunglow, with kids and dogs chasing it, the tourists from the plains waving out and the locals pausing momentarily from their chores to watch their favourite son go by?

Alas, close sightings were too few and far between, so I had to enjoy the DHR via another of my senses. So, even as school rules kept the DHR at a distance, nothing could prevent its sounds from enlivening me on my faraway hilltop. And what magical music it was! I can still hear the huffing and puffing of the B class locos as they strained upwards to Batasia, the piercing whistle to warn errant buses and Land Rovers, and the relieved hissing of the last train from Kurseong coasting downhill from Ghoom in the gathering gloom of an autumn evening. I have seen and heard many more steam railways since then, but none have been able to match the magic of that whistle or that sturdy puffing. Closet Admirer (Contd.)

Besides providing me with trains 7000 feet up in the sky, the DHR did me another great service. Two or three times a year we were bussed up and down -- 3-hour journeys that were sheer hell right through my 11 years in Darjeeling. Going downhill on a bus makes me giddy even now, and the winding Hill Cart Road ensured that I was sick several times, every time. About the only things that would cheer me up as I hung my head out of the window, were the trains. Especially in the early days, when their frequency was higher, you could track the progress of two trains on different sides of the valleys between Tindharia and Kurseong. Another delight was the tiny and grubby loco shed at Kurseong right next to where the buses would break journey. While my mates would stuff themselves, I'd go over and take a look -- it was always occupied by at least one loco and if I was lucky there would be two or three with mechanics working on them.

The only stretch of the Hill Cart Road that was agreeable to me was the straight and flat bit between Sukna and Siliguri. That was when I would recover from the rigours of the wriggling Hill Cart Road with its diesel fumes and of course, that was when the "toy trains" could also show what they were capable of. There would be none of that "getting off and catching up later" that the tourists delighted in, back in the hill section. And I am sure the engine drivers took a special pleasure in pushing their charges to the maximum on that gentle gradient to Siliguri. I say this because of that one memorable day when despite the driver's best efforts our bus just couldn't overtake a train thundering along right beside us. The sweetest victory of all for a bus sick rail nut!

As I grew older I learnt to appreciate the DHR more and more. I read about its history and its glory days. And I began to notice how each year things were getting worse. The stations were getting crummier, the coaches more dilapidated, landslide damaged track would take weeks to repair, the Tindharia workshop didn't look as if much was happening inside and the goods wagons slowly disappeared. There was much talk of how the DHR had served its purpose and why it was time to move on.

So I turned public defender for the DHR, arguing with all the naysayers (including my father). To buttress my case, I made a list of all the useful services that the DHR provided -- tourist revenue, inter village transport, goods to market, kids to school, stunning photographs, pleasant memories, et al. I mean who would want to stop something that benefitted so many? I don't think anyone listened too long or even if they did, they weren't the types to be easily swayed. Widening the Hill Cart Road was all they could think about! Luckily, there have been many more fans of DHR than I ever dreamt existed, and your efforts have saved us a priceless heritage. Thank you.

Still, of all the good services that DHR provided to people from all over the world in their thousands, none could be better than the one it offered to a runaway from another Darjeeling school. He stole out of his dorm early one morning knowing only one thing -- "to reach home, I have to follow the railway line." Well, frantic school authorities finally caught up with him near Sonada, determinedly marching downhill in pajamas and dressing gown!

So Viva DHR, may you live another 100 years!

Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan. This article originally appeared in 2D Passenger, May 2002. Copyright © 2002, Mohan Bhuyan and 2D Passenger.
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