A Dream Unfulfilled

By Ravindra Bhalerao, 2016.

Nagpur is at the intersection of the Madras-Delhi and Bombay-Calcutta line. The line is on Central Railway, but the branch going towards Calcutta via Bilaspur comes within the area of S E Railway (actually now the SECR). For this reason, there were two locosheds here: the Central railway locoshed, and the S E Railway shed. The S E Railway shed was in Motibagh. This was later refurbished and now houses the S E C Railway Narrow gauge museum. The Central railway shed is in Ajni, and this is the place I would frequent. No, I didn't go there every week. In summers it is terrible here and you don't feel like walking all the way to the shed. But in winters, it can be a pleasant walk from my home to the locoshed in Ajni. You can also reach the place using a two wheeler but this means you have to cross the Ajni overbridge taking a roundabout path.

So every winter I would visit the Ajni shed, once or twice. There would be steam engines idling around, mostly WG, a few WPs. One day a long time ago, I asked a driver named Mr Sant Singh about the WPs. I was around 21 years old at that time, while Sant Singh was about 55. "Uncle, these days we don't see WP engines often," I said. And Sant Singh nodded his head in a kindly way and said that the WPs in Ajni shed were used on the Bhusaval Passenger train. Yes, the Bhusaval Passenger was taken along by a WP. On some days I would drop into Ajni station early in the morning at around 7 o'clock in the morning. Just for fun. And it was so nice watching the morning Passenger arrive from Nagpur Junction, halt for about five minutes before whistling and pulling out, all done in great style.

The years passed, and each visit to Ajni shed was the same. There would be locos idling, both within the shed and outside. And by the side there would be a travelling steam crane shoveling coal into the tenders of these engines. Quite rough work for the operator. You have coal dust all around the place, the air is hot, you can almost feel the fire in it!!

Then one day when I had been to Ajni, I found there were just 2 or 3 locos around. I at once knew what had happened. All these steam engines were being thrown out, sold, and the process had been going on for several years. I asked the men there and what they said only confirmed my fears. These engines in the shed were not there for repair, they were condemned for scrap. And in the yard there was a WG with men actually working on it, using large hammers to knock out the bolts and rivets and take the engine apart.

So then, this was the last time I ever saw a steam engine in Ajni shed. From then onwards, I knew it was useless to go there. And so for several years to come, I never went to the shed. And this went on for quite a long time. Then one day many years later, I again longed to visit the shed. This time I had a camera, and I felt an irresistible longing that I must have with me pictures of this revered place.

Sadly, you can't take pics in a shed without permission. Even snapshots taken on a station require official approval, although there are many people who snap up their friends beside a train waiting at the platform. For the Indian Railways, a locoshed is a top security area. I took my two-wheeler and rode down to Ajni. You take a turn from the road overbridge that spans the yard, and the road begins to go down, passing by the side of the Railway Institute. After that the road sharply dips down while you pass the Railway School building. You feel as if you are going downhill till you are finally on level with the goods yard. The line next to the roadway is the goods line, and a branch takes off in the direction of the locoshed where it further branches off into 6 or 8 lines.

So this is Ajni locoshed, but without any locos. There were other things there, like wagons, coaches come in for slight repairs, a diesel engine shunting, and a huge steam crane which I was told was occasionally steamed up for lifting heavy loads in and around the shed. The crane was manufactured by Hansome and Rapier of England, but I can't remember the date. Wish I had taken notes.

I walked into the Foreman's office. Actually, as there are no engines in the shed, there was no foreman, and the shed now houses other officials. I found two men seated at the table. Both were polite, both were perfect gentlemen, and spoke good English. One was Mr Deshpande, Senior Section Engineer in charge of Breakdown. A locoshed is a place where you will almost always find Breakdown and Accident Relief Trains stabled. In earlier days this arrangement was a wise one -- for as soon as an accident happened, a loco from the shed could be quickly attached to the ART, and it would be soon on its way to the site of the accident. So we had Mr. Deshpande, in charge of Breakdown. The other man was Mr. Sharma, Senior Section Engineer in charge of the Diesel Loco Trip Shed. In place of steam engines, I found that the Ajni shed now housed a "Trip Shed" for diesels where minor repairs are carried out, and Sharma, a fair looking handsome engineer was in charge of this unit.

I had carried along K R Vaidyanathan's 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways. I introduced myself to the men, and was offered a seat. I told them of my interest in trains, and also showed them the book I held. This was done mainly to give proof that I was really a train enthusiast, not a terrorist. Deshpande and Sharma were delighted with the book, and we chatted for some time. I love old steam engines, I said, and was a regular visitor to this place when steam was around. When I asked if I could take a few pictures in the shed, Mr. Deshpande readily agreed. He said I could come on the following day, and he would meanwhile instruct his men to avoid being included in the camera's view. Both Deshpande and Sharma seemed pleased with my arrival, and I was offered tea. But I liked Deshpande better for some reason, and I am really grateful to him. He knew that I did not have the DRM's permission to snap pictures and went out of his way to help me.

So the next day I was Ajni again, this time with my Kodak Kroma camera loaded up with colour film. Kodak Kroma is a 35 mm box camera, but these days, 35 mm cameras of this sort are referred to as "compact cameras", or simply 35mm cameras. It is a pity, because they are really no better than box models, but the lenses on these 35mm models are superior to the simple pieces of glass found on older roll film models. So here I was with my Kodak, going around the shed area taking pictures. I took pictures from different angles, I shot the steam crane, the accident relief train, and the turntable. It was a lovely experience moving around within the shed area.

A week later after the film was developed, I was back in Ajni again to show off my pictures to the shed staff. Everyone in the shed including the manual workers took a look, and they were all pleased. In the end, while I was preparing to leave and was thanking Deshpande for his kindness, he remarked very generously, "Well, you are interested in railways, so you go ahead with your pictures!" His tone seemed to say that as I was interested in trains, I almost had the right to take pictures !!

Now as I was moving around the locoshed, a short, pot-bellied man approached me. He was dark in complexion, stubby, quite a bit on the plump side, bald head, the kind of man who will laugh heartily while stroking his tummy. He had come to know that a guy was taking pictures, and he was curious to find out who was this strange creature who had strolled over into his shed with a camera. He walked over to me and asked me who I was. When he saw me with a camera, he at once knew I was the man everyone was talking about. I felt a bit worried, but his manner soon put my mind at rest. His name was Mr Anand, and he worked as an Electrical Fitter in the diesel trip shed. Thus Anand worked under Mr Sharma, his boss at the shed. "Please come this way," said Mr Anand as he led the way to his room where I found a group of mechanics seated on ancient benches were having lunch. I felt immediately at ease with Anand and his men.

Once in his room, Anand opened a cupboard, and carefully took out something that looked weird. It was actually a model of a WDM2 diesel locomotive. It was quite good, an exact replica, and Anand said he had made it with his own hands using scrap material which he picked up in the secondhand market as well as his own backyard at home. It was a lovely model, about 3 feet long, the wheels could turn, and it was complete to the last detail including springs in the 6-wheeled bogies, and a headlamp which lit up, driver's cab, buffers, and wheels with flanges. It only needed a coat of paint on it.

Mr Anand proudly showed his model to me, while others who were having lunch in the room grunted in appreciation. Anand was a fitter, but for the others who were mechanics, lathe operators and helpers, he was a hero, someone who had done the impossible feat of constructing a model that was so lifelike. In a few minutes Anand had become my friend, he knew here was a person who shared his interest and who appreciated his art.

Anand lived in a far off area called Mahal, and said he loved making models. He had constructed models of a doll, a boy sitting on a swing, and others things too. This was his latest model, and it had taken the longest time to build he said.

I was happy that there is at least one person who finds pleasure in such things. I am not a model enthusiast myself, but this man had something in common with me, something in him which at once put us on the same wavelength. His model was great, but it still needed to be painted, and Anand said he was going to ask a painter to do the job under his own supervision.

I returned home feeling great. The Ajni shed staff had given me a warm welcome, no one objected to me wielding a camera. Both Deshpande and Sharma had gone out of their way to be helpful. It is a cheery thing when railwaymen go out of their way to be helpful.

While at the shed, I also made friends with some of the "helpers", as they are known. A helper is the lowest grade of manual worker, something like a labourer. Two of them, a man called Chaman, and another, an elderly man named called Raja, showed particular interest in my visit to the place. When these men saw Vaidyanathan's book I had carried along, they were excited. "You won't ever get to see such a book !" Raja kept saying, looking at the pictures within the book. Both he and Chaman wanted photocopies of the book which they would preserve so that their children could read the history of our railways when they were old enough to read. I had of course nothing against providing each of them a photocopy. I was eager to help these men, but you have to use a bit of tact with such people. One sympathasizes with them, but one has to exercise caution. So from the start I was very careful. I promised the men a photocopy each, but I laid it down that each of them would have to accompany me to the photocopy shop, pay the shopkeeper the charge, and get their copies.

I returned home feeling great. This was a real adventure, we may even call it the "Adventure in Ajni". For some days after this, I kept thinking about my heroes. Sharma, Deshpande, Anand. . . . those magnificent men at the Ajni shed. . . . how lucky these men were to be working for the railways. Would they also remember me in the days to come ? I wondered.

The years rolled on, and the Ajni adventure was forgotten. Then one day, I remembered Anand and his diesel engine model. He had said he was yet to have his model painted. It would look so grand in life-like colours. So that day in the evening, I again went down to the shed. I zoomed over the roadbridge, then past the Institute, the railway school, and then down the bank, all in the dark. It is exciting to go into a shed in the dark. As I rode along, the "Lucas" ART stood silently on a siding. It was there when I had first come here for pictures, it was still there this evening.

I met Anand in the foreman's office. In the evening, a shunting engine had come in for slight repairs, and Anand's assistant showed me the inside. We walked on the narrow platform facing the driver's cab, till we reached the front of the engine. The assistant even opened the headlamp cover. I asked him if the light bulb inside was an ordinary 100 watt domestic lamp. It was not. The man took the bulb out and showed it to me. It was a lamp specially manufactured for Indian Railways, and it was extra tough, the filament too is extra tough to withstand the vibrations of a moving engine. An ordinary household bulb will fuse in no time if used in a loco.

Back in the office, I asked Anand about his model. I was eager to see the painted version I said. But the model was no longer in the shed. Anand had the thing painted long ago and it looked great he said, but he had carried it back with him to his home. How disappointing !! Now if I ever wanted to see the thing, I would have to go all the way to Mahal where the man lived.

While I was preparing to leave the shed, Anand and his assistants came with me to where my TVS was parked. We were having a good time chatting over various matters. Close by was a carriage, and pointing to the springs in the bogies, Anand said these 4-wheeled bogies are the most difficult to model. I took out a pouch of tobacco, had a bit of it myself, and offered it to the boys. Later as the fellows began to return to their posts, Anand and I were left alone. Seeing that I had come all the way specially to see his model, he began to open up, became more free with me. Mr Deshpande had been quite helpful all along, he said. Deshpande was a kindly sort of man, who even assured him that his model would be sent for display in the Central Railway DRM's office here. He was a good man in every sense of the word, the kind of man who would understand a man's fascination with a hobby. But Mr Sharma, his boss, was different, and Anand seemed to be disappointed with him. "This man -- this foreman -- he never helped me," Anand kept saying. "...This foreman... he never gave me any encouragement...."

I was calmly listening all along, and wondering why the man was referring to his boss as a "foreman". "Mr. Anand, your boss Mr. Sharma is not a foreman," I said. "He is a Senior Section Engineer."

Anand nodded his head in mock seriousness. "Yes, yes, he is a Senior Section Engineer, of course," he said. He went on to tell me that Sharma held a post which in earlier times was known as "Foreman". So a Senior Section Engineer is just a fancy new name for what was earlier known as a Foreman. Many of these Senior Section Engineers are barely 11 or 12 standard pass, he said, while some may have a diploma in engineering. Many of them began as ordinary mechanics in the loco shed and other railway installations.

The old steam locomotive shed of Ajni still stands. But my friends there have moved on. Both Messrs. Deshpande and Sharma retired from service and settled in different parts of the city. The last time I visited the shed, I received the sad news of Mr Anand's sad demise. Here was a fine old man with who was more than a friend for me. Each time I visit Ajni, I remember him, remember the model he had made. I love to stroll along the road leading by the side of the Railway Institute going down to the locoshed. It still houses the Breakdown train and diesel trip shed. Each time I go to the shed I find new faces, for no one works there forever. People come and go. But Anand will always hold a special place in my heart. A visit to Ajni brings back pictures of a tubby little man with a balding head who had hoped his engine model would be put up on display in the Divisional Railway Manager's office here. His wish remained only a dream never to be fulfilled.