My childhood days were marked by an overriding ambition, and that was to man a steam locomotive on the Indian Railways. A close acquaintance, Uncle George, was well acquainted with my predisposition, and gently tried to wean me away from this unworthy object by pointing out that this was the age of electronics, and that the steam engine was on the way to extinction. But my desire to be at the helm of affairs of a steam train persisted, although in an uncertain, dreamy kind of way.
At about the same time a young boy staying in Allahabad, some ten years my senior, had grown up with a similar ambition. Like me, this young boy loved to watch trains in the yard. The railways were a passion for this lad and he secretly nurtured an ambition to be a Guard.
The two of us grew up. Each of us went his way, each unaware of the other, until nearly four decades later our paths crossed. Neither of us had realized his ambition. We had outgrown our childhood fantasy, our dream of manning a steam train. But in its place there was something else, something more enduring, something that would bring us together in a bond of friendship. Each of us had developed a fascination for the heritage and history of the railways. Oh, the fascination of exploring railwayland as the steam age dawned in colonial India! But despite our converging interests, there was one point on which we differed fundamentally from each other. The lad from Allahabad grew up and trained to be a railwayman. I, on the other hand, remained, and still remain, far, far away from permanent way land, maybe as far as the east is from the west.
My first acquaintance with Shri A. K. Jhingron was through an email he sent me. I was busy looking for material for Railways of the Raj when one day I found a new name flickering in my email inbox. Anoop Krishna Jhingron. The gentleman introduced himself and went on to say that he was working on a book, Life in Railway Colonies, providing a broad outline of the contents of the book. He would be glad to receive suggestions for his proposed book, and could I send in any material telling about railway life, he wanted to know.
Jhingron was not an altogether new name for me. I had known of the gentleman from his writings in Indian Railways journal. He was an Indian Railway Traffic Service official, I knew. He was an official with a vast range of experience, and he had retired from service a few years back as General Manager of Western Railway. Readers who are familiar with rail history will know that General Managers of company managed railways were known as 'Agents' during British times. So here I was with a letter from the 'Agent' of the erstwhile BB&CI Railway asking me for a contribution for his work. It was an exciting proposal! I set myself to the task of recording my reminiscences of my school days when I spent nearly seven years exploring the railway colony of Gorakhpur where I studied in the North Eastern Railway High School.
Over the next several months, we kept up a lively correspondence. I would send him about 4 pages of memoirs at a time. Shri Jhingron was always full of appreciation for these letters. Some of these memoirs he would decide to include in his upcoming book, while others would undoubtedly prove not so useful. He lived in Indirapuram in Ghaziabad, and it was to Indirapuram I mailed my letters. And I would often begin these epistles asking him to pick up a glass of lemonade as he sat down to read my reminiscences!
Then one day I opened the door of my home to find a surprise awaiting me. It was a large parcel containing a book. Jhingron had authored a book called Western Railway: Heritage, Traditions and Legend, and here he was treating me to a copy. What a pleasant surprise! It was a dream book on railways; it told about the engines, the trains, the museum exhibits, the clocks and bells, and yes, even the sportsmen who had been a part of the BB&CI Railway since its earliest days. It was a book that would entrance and capture the heart of any rail enthusiast.
Deep within my heart, I could feel a twitch of conscience. Did I really deserve a gift from an Agent of the railways? Hadn't the gentleman taken a good deal of trouble in mailing his book to me?
I wrote a letter to Indirapuram thanking the gentleman for his book. I expressed my appreciation for his work and voiced my doubts. It was a few days before a reply came. "Dear Shri Bhalerao," wrote Jhingron, "Let me first of all apologize for not communicating to you for some time. I was out to Bangalore to visit our elder son and daughter-in-law, and later there were guests at our place. Hence the delay. I am happy to learn that you liked my book on Western Railway's heritage. You, with your vast interest in railway history, certainly deserve the book. Your website is a virtual storehouse of information about the railways during British Raj. Besides, you are a friend, and so you must get a copy of my book. Please let me know if you find any shortcomings in the book. Looking forward to your nice letters. With regards ...."
Jhingron was a man who liked to treat his friends to surprises; gifts that would please and enthrall. And what could be more enthralling for a railfan than a book telling about the engines and trains of old?
In his later days, Shri Jhingron was occupied with two projects on his mind, both of which were left unfinished. One was his research into railway life in colonies we have spoken about. He had written to a large number of people hoping to receive suggestions and contributions, but it soon became apparent that he was not getting anywhere with this approach, that nothing could quite equal first-hand research by visiting various railway towns and gathering material for oneself. And it was becoming equally clear that this was an assignment that would involve extensive travel and would require several years to complete.
His second project about which he spoke to me was to bring out an updated version of J. N. Sahni's Indian Railways: One Hundred Years (1853 - 1953). It appears he never got working on this idea. Had this project been carried out, rail enthusiasts in India would have had a truly remarkable railway treatise to spend an evening with, a book that many long to get, but few in fact are able to lay their hands on.
Anoop Jhingron was a man with several achievements to his credit, but this is no place to delve into this subject; we do so in a separate article which is an interview in fact, elsewhere on this website. He would often ring me up expressing a desire to come down to Nagpur to see the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum here. But it was not to be. This man with a keen sense of heritage, one who had set up a railway heritage gallery in Churchgate in Bombay, and one who had undoubtedly made countless visits to the rail museum in Delhi, was denied the pleasure of seeing for himself the last remnants of the Satpura Lines preserved in the museum in Nagpur. How he would have loved to study the age old locomotive, signalling and permanent way artefacts you find here! And how he would have liked to stroll amidst the four acres of open landscape, amid heritage carriages and wagons set out in the vast open spaces, with towering trees as their only companions, trees nodding gently in the breeze whispering their approval !
Shri Jhingron often travelled south to Bangalore to meet up with his son, and I had the honour to meet him every now and again at the station as he journeyed by train. Tall, and with a commanding appearance, he seemed to exude strength and vitality. His presence inspired confidence; each time I met him, he seemed to be saying : "Never mind the difficulties; go out and explore the heritage of our railways as fully as you can..."
To the railway enthusiast, he was more than a friend. He was a mentor, an inspiration, a guiding force to anyone who knew him and cared enough for the heritage of Indian Railways.