Why I am a steam fan

by R C Dubey

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the FNRM Newsletter No. 1, Spring 1998.

Stepping out ot the warm embrace of home and into a residential school at the age of 10, yet an impressionable child, I found myself going to and from school twice every year in a dedicated train that chugged out of Old Delhi station and Ajmer respectively at the end and beginning of vacations and did not reach its destination till 18 hours later. It averaged less than 20 kilometers an hour over dusty meter gauge trackage behind a heaving, snorting beast of a fire breathing engine. It was a potent moment of pre-teen male freedom, a train full of 'Lords of the Flies' up to unremitting mischief till the dictatorial adult world closed in again at the end of either journey. The Mayo special was a time for ceaseless fun, but it was ultimately our window into the world of adults, of control and freedom, of that unrestrained spirit of adventure that has since time immemorial taken man to the ends of the world and the limit of knowledge. The engines came in to symbolize this eternal quest, and I saw in steam a mirror of my own restless quest for the unknown and unknowable. Ferro-equinologist thus I became.

And as my years as an adult flew by and the limits to freedom experienced as a child gave way to another kind of bondage, of the weight of responsibility and the unforgiving neurosis of insecurity, I clung to nostalgia as we do to hope, epitomized again in that masterly beast -- powerful, autonomous, free...

But intellectual rationalization must capture what childlike sentimentality renders untenable in the world of the adult and so tenuous causal connections to a fragile personal philosophy became inevitable. This game, as personal philosophies often are, found basis for this unremitting fascination and so historical, psychological and aesthetic symbolism sought to explain what requires no explanation.

The steam engine is important because it made rapid mass transportation and communication possible as had never been possible before. It permitted then a radical expansion of commerce and a change in the way the world of men looked at themselves and their possibilities. The steam engine is the architectural equivalent of the Taj Mahal, important because, for better or for worse, in a world where no one has the last word, it is a kind of full stop and civilization would have a different quality but for it. For those who think that 'History' means more than Michael Jackson's double album offering, steam is of enormous significance.

There is also the purely psychological issue of personality which modern man seeks in excess but succeeds only in cloning the zeitgeist. In a world of mass production and conformism, the steam engine as a form of traction is unique. Each engine has its own unquestionable personality, its own unique quirks, its own defined ability, and achieving validation in the very existence of itself as undeniable fact.

Finally, there remains the aesthetic to consider. Transcending platitudes about where beauty lies in relation to beholder, it is a fact that to a large number of people, a Mach 2 jet fighter, an immaculate exponent of the martial arts like Bruce Lee in combat, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Conan the Barbarian represents a kind of beauty. And so it is with steam fans -- the rhythmic beats of the chimney exhaust, the clang of the valves slamming into the cylinder bearings, the poetry of the turning wheels dancing in rhythm with the rods, are all as beautiful as the controlled aggression of a gymnast on Roman Rings.

But to tell the truth at the end, for all the rhetoric and the rationalization, there lies in the mind and in the heart, things that I cannot verbalize. For the love of steam transcends all knowing and for all that I may do or say or endeavour, a ferro-equinologist I will always be.

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