A Raj Affair

by Ravindra Bhalerao, 2009

Unidentified train; photo from IR exhibition at Indore, 2005, provided by S R Venkatesh.

The great institution known as the Indian Railways had its beginnings in a humble stretch of track 21 miles long on which the first train, carrying mainly dignitaries, chugged from Bombay to Thane on April 16, 1853.

In the years that followed the network of lines spread rapidly, so that by the early twentieth century over 25,000 miles of track had been laid. The "Railways of the Raj" as they came to be known had a charm that is easily felt but difficult to define. They were a giant colossus founded on the power of steam, they were a mighty uniting force, and were listed among the "blessings of the British Raj" upon which Indian school children were examined. They evoke such long forgotten names as Imperial Indian Mail, Frontier Mail, and Cawnpore; they inspired John Masters to produce a literary work that centred around a fictional railway town called Bhowani set in the final tumultous years of the British Raj.

What was it like to travel by train during Raj days? The novice may be tempted to dig into railway records in search of an answer. The serious amateur would do something more, knowing that those worn out files can at the most furnish particulars showing how the railway was built and run. To get a whiff of what it was like to be down by the station he'll have to dig deeper; he must turn to letters, diaries and accounts left behind by those who have been through it and seen it all.

Station Scenes

The average railway station of the time shares many of the features of a small bus terminus today with people squatting on a squalid floor strewn with left-over bits and ends of food and the clerk behind the booking window having his afternoon siesta when no bus is in sight. Charles Allen, in his "Plain Tales from the Raj", goes to great lengths to elaborate the station scene: "The Indian railway station was part of the social fabric of India. At night every platform was a mass of sleeping forms wrapped in cloth, always heads covered with the feet sticking out, over which passengers changing trains had to pick their way. By day you'll find beggars curled up in the shade, you'll find the odd pi-dog wandering around looking for food, the station master would be having his afternoon snooze and the whole place is dead. But the people are there just the same, all curled up, waiting."

Then the train comes in and the station is all agog with life: "A terrible gabble in either Hindustani or Tamil or Telugu, probably all of them, men with dhotis running along with things on their heads, men with broken-down umbrellas trying to get into the train. You'd see people clinging on the carriages, even on the roof, and the station master trying to pull off..."

That's a dismal, forbidding account. It wouldn't do, however, justice to dwell on the hardships alone, and we may take cheer from the knowledge that there was a pleasant side to the picture too. A big junction was a place buzzing with frenzied activity, with "passengers dashing hither and thither," to use John Mitchell's words, all presided over by the rumble of wheels, mighty blasts of steam, the smell of smoke, and the clank of buffers.

In an essay called "Partition", Esther Mary Lyons documents the romance of a big junction at a time when electric lighting had made its appearance at only a few select stations: "My father was the station master at Allahabad," begins Mary Lyons. "Allahabad being a junction, the Toofan Mail, Howrah Mail, Punjab Mail, Bombay Express and many other trains came from all over the north, south, east and west of India. The platform was always crowded with people, and coolies [porters] dressed in uniforms of red shirts, white dhotis and white turbans. A young coolie, about fifteen years of age sat pulling the ropes of the huge cloth fan or pankha in my father's office. He took turns with another coolie throughout the summer months. Pankhawalas also pulled the fan ropes in the gents and ladies waiting room. There was no electricity. Oil lamps, candles and oil lanterns were used for lighting everywhere...

"Dad and other guards wore smart uniforms and caps, white in summer and black in winter. The railway guards and officers were Anglo-Indians or Europeans, all sahibs who spoke fluent English. They had sufficient knowledge of the regional language to understand and communicate with the locals. The coolies and locals always said salaam to them. Every command of the sahibs was followed with "ji hazoor, hukam kijiye"..."

The Railway Institute

With the encouragement of the British an ever increasing number of Anglo-Indians had begun to opt for service with the result that the railways (and to some extent the Posts and Telegraphs as well as the Customs and Excise) had come to be almost wholly manned by the Anglo-Indians or Domiciled Europeans as they were known. As K R Vaidyanathan put it, "There was a time when domiciled Europeans or Anglo-Indians occupied the posts of firemen and drivers on most Company managed railways. They were admitted despite an elementary education. But they learnt the job the hard way under senior drivers."

The connection between the Anglo-Indian community and the railways was unmistakable, a universally acknowledged phenomenon, so much so that being a domiciled European almost assured one of securing employment with the railways.

The focal meeting place of these railway workers, both Europeans and Anglos was the "Railway Institute" which over the years had become something of an institution in itself. Here you could pass the evening playing a game of whist, or sip iced beer served in fancy glasses, while the more adventuresome would pick out a partner and whisk her away to the rhythmic beat of a waltz. Many of these institutes have survived to this day; those in the larger railway towns may be found to be structures of great architectural beauty, graceful in appearance and pleasing to the eye.

Esther Mary Lyons recounts with great gusto her reminiscences of the railway club in Allahabad: "My mother enjoyed parties, clubs and shopping. She and dad frequently visited the Coral Club, established for the railway people. Housie and card games were held every evening at the club. The bar was always open for members. Sahibs and Memsahibs called in for dinner practically every evening. The band played English music of the 1930s and 1940s in the background. Young Indian waiters in white uniforms and turbans served while the young Anglo-Indians and Europeans displayed their talents singing, playing the piano, or joining in with the band. The waltz, the fox-trot and the tango were the favourite dances. Chandeliers with candles lighted the halls, creating an atmosphere of romance. The railway officers on duty spent their free time at the club while waiting for connecting trains. Families enjoyed watching Charlie Chaplin silent movies displayed on the white walls of the big hall..."

Travel and Luxury

The Englishman, used to London's frost and cold, could hardly ever be expected to find the Indian rail journey a memorable experience, and the railway management, conscious of this, had done everything possible to alleviate the discomfort arising from the heat and grime. The Punjab Royal Mail which covered the 2486 kilometres from Bombay to Peshawar was advertised in a timetable thus: "Luxuriously equipped carriages fitted with Electric Lights and Fans, Restaurant Car Service. Conveys I and II class passengers and their servants only."

What was the need for carrying servants along, one may wonder. The English elite travelled mostly by first class which had "compartmentalized" carriages. Each compartment accommodated usually four sleeping passengers, and had an attached lavatory, wash basin, bath, and a small room for a servant who served meals and drinks and looked after the general comforts of the sahib and his family. Besides he also had to look after the pile of luggage carried along, and as John Masters describes in his Bhowani Junction, this pile would easily include, "...two dazed, whining children and a fat old ayah and all the paraphernalia that Europeans travel with in India -- bedding rolls, ice boxes, chilumchis, thermos flasks, suitcases, servants' tin boxes, Kia Ora bottles, two bull terriers on one leash, soda water bottles, hurricane lanterns, pressure lamps in wooden cases, and half a hundred shapeless bundles rolled in grey dhurries and tied with frayed rope."

The British travelled in great pomp and style, and demanded a level of comfort comparable to a luxurious hotel suite. On the B.B.& C.I. Railway, the Frontier Mail had come close to achieving this ideal, and over the years acquired a legendary status as Imperial India's most prestigious train. Running between Bombay and Peshawar, this elite service carried mostly British servicemen and military personnel who had arrived by P. & O. steamer, to their respective stations in the northern and north-west province, and, on the return, brought homeward bound Englishmen who would disembark in Bombay and proceed to board the steamship to Southampton.

A BBCI brochure issued around this time assured Mail passengers that the comforts included a free supply of the daily news bulletin, "telegraphed along the line direct from Reuters."

The train was widely known for its famed chicken curry and the imported iced-beer available on call. Known for its sheer luxury and punctuality, it is said you could even set your watch to its time of arrival.

Dining cars on Mail and Express trains appeared as early as 1903, the same year in which 8-wheeled cariages running on bogies were introduced. Prior to this, all important trains were allowed sufficient halts at appointed stations, for breakfast, lunch or dinner to be had at one of the several refreshment rooms available at the platform: Refreshment Room, European; Refreshment Room, Muslim; Refreshment Room, Hindu - Vegetarian, and Refreshment Room, Hindu - Non Vegetarian.

In his book entitled "The Wheels of IND" published in 1934, John Mitchell has recounted a journey he made by the 1 Down Bombay - Calcutta Mail. "The Down Overland Mail to Calcutta via Nagpur left the Victoria Terminus at 15.30," says Mitchell. "My friend and I were aboard. The broad roominess of the carriages was at once apparent, showing that full advantage had been taken of the broad gauge of 5ft 6in.

"We arrived at Igatpuri at 18.32 and here alighted for dinner, served in the restaurant car attached to the rear of the train. Dinner was excellent and we did ample justice to it. For a delightfully cooked and tastefully served meal I was asked to pay three rupees or four shillings and sixpence, but my companion pointed out that he was under the impression that as a Railway Officer I was entitled to half charges. Upon the Manager of the Dining Car seeing my service pass, my bill was forthwith amended accordingly.

"In the dining car a large variety of drinks and smokes was obtainable, also unlimited supplies of ice, replenished at various stations possessing refrigerating plant. All mail and important passenger trains carry a small compartment and an attendant, who dispenses mineral waters and ice at a price, of course..."

Mitchell's account, though interesting, fails to take notice that like the Frontier Mail, the Bombay - Calcutta Overland Mail had come to acquire a personality, a status of prestige. Twenty years later, John Masters was to write the dedication of his Bhowani Junction using the following words: "This book might have been dedicated to the Anglo-Indian communities of India and Pakistan. But so many thousands of Anglo-Indians, over so many years, have dedicated their lives to the service of the railway that I am happy to follow their example. This book, therefore, is inscribed with respect and admiration to NUMBER 1 DOWN MAIL which was to many a prideful train, to them an obstinate ideal of service."

Notwithstanding the dining cars and other conveniences available on board, a train journey across the Indian plains could be a harrowing experience, particularly during the oppressive heat of the summer. From around 1940 onwards, several express and mail trains introduced ice-containers which were open crates, available on payment to first and second class passengers, which when filled with ice and placed under a fan would "cool the atmosphere appreciably and also help to keep down dust."

Patrick's Tales

A very interesting account of Raj travel may be found in "Indian Tales", by Patrick O'Meara (1930-2009) who was born in a British colonial military family in Bangalore: "Our departure (for London) was to be from Karachi which was three days and two nights travel from Quetta. The train journey between Quetta and Karachi was remarkable in that there were so many hills to be climbed and descended. Most of the time there were three locomotives involved -- two pushing from behind and one pulling. If the train was descending, the two engines at the rear were there to applying braking assistance.

"... in order to get from Quetta to Karachi we had had to travel by train for three days and two nights. The Indian rail system -- the design and supervised construction of which is a British legacy -- is quite the largest and most complex in the world. They have three different "gauges", that is, the distance between the tracks. There is the narrow-gauge, the metre-gauge and the broad-gauge. The gauge used is mostly dependent on the kind of terrain over which the track is built. Narrow-gauge is for hilly country and broad-gauge is mainly for travel over plains and deserts. Metre-gauge is used when there is a mixture of terrain which does not demand the use of the other two gauges. Naturally, the different gauges also call for rolling-stock of different specifications and so, since journeys could be over thousands of miles, the chances are that travelling by train could entail several changes.

"Most first- and second-class carriages in the days of the Raj were compartmentalized as opposed to having a corridor connecting them one to the other. Rarely, they would be two-berth compartments, more often they would be four- or even six-berth compartments. As far as possible on overnight journeys, the military MCO (Movement Control Officer) would book a complete compartment for a family.

"There were fold-up upper bunks and these could be let down when required for sleeping purposes. Additionally, the windows of the compartments offered a choice of glass, louvre blind, draw-blind and wire-netting screens, all adaptable to the terrain through which one travelled. There was a wash-room cum toilet and, for those really hot journeys, while there was no such thing as air-conditioning, it was always possible to purchase a two- to three-cubic foot block of ice at a rail station en route. This would be set in an open-top crate for placement into the centre of the carriage floor. The electric fans on the ceilings of the carriages would then be directed onto the ice block and... Presto!, Raj-type 'air-conditioning'.

"Another common experience while travelling over long distances by train, was the 'pot of tea', trick. When the trains stopped at a watering stop to top up their boilers, Dad or Mum often sent me to the engine driver to request a pot of boiling water for a quick brew-up of tea. Watering stops could often be miles from anywhere and so, there being no conventional rail-platform handy, it was necessary to climb down from the door of the compartment which was about six feet above the track. Then it was a quick run along the railway track to talk to the engine-driver and request a pot of hot water to make the tea. Sometimes I would have to run eight or ten carriage-lengths along the track to get to the engine. I never knew if the train would start to move while I was off it, and so it was a helter-skelter, panting run both ways followed by this precarious climb back into the carriage.

"Railway discipline in India is very relaxed to the point of being non-existent. Many poorer people will travel -- free, of course -- sitting on top of the carriages or clinging on to the sides of the compartments. The Railway Police are supposed to stop these practices, but they never bother unless there is a Railway Manager or other VIP aboard. People find their way and walk alongside the track from one town to another only stepping off the track when a train is approaching."

Robbers on the Way

Train journeys in Raj days had all the elements of adventure, romance, hardship and pleasurable anxiety. Was it safe to travel by train those days? Records show that grain robberies from wagons were common enough, and third class carriages and station platforms had their own fair share of professional pickpockets. Robberies in upper class carriages are hard to trace, but in Patrick O'Meara's account, we have a record of at least one such attempt:

"Mum, Dad and another officer were once travelling overnight in a railway compartment. It was hot and so the windows had been left open -- this is a dangerous practice because it is quite common for a passenger to have something snatched by a thief from outside, day or night, as the train pulls out of a station. Dad and the other officer had been having a drinking session and, probably a bit worse for wear, eventually pulled down a couple of bunks and turned in for the night.

"They were all fast asleep when Mum was disturbed and awoken by a peculiar smell. She opened her eyes, looked up and saw a thief, clad only in a loin-cloth and heavily smeared with grease and oil, in the compartment. He was going through the pockets of the clothing which hung in the carriage. She screamed.

"Dad and his colleague jumped up, realised what was happening and tried to catch the thief. But since he was smothered in oil and grease they could not hold onto him. He opened the door and slipped onto one of the foot-steps under the carriage, hoping no doubt, to make a getaway when the train slowed down. Dad, however, was up to the trick and quickly laid himself on the floor of the carriage leaning out of the door and wielding an empty whisky bottle over the thief's head.

"The other officer, pulled the alarm-chain and the train stopped -- it was way out in the middle of nowhere. Dad and he both jumped out of the carriage and further threatened the thief until the guard and some assistants came along and apprehended the unfortunate blighter. They probably then dealt him a measure of their own punishment -- a kick in the **** or a clout around the ear -- and sent him on his way. That would have been about par for the course in those days."


1) "Partition" by Esther Mary Lyons is a piece of fiction and may be found at: http://members.optusnet.com.au/~lyonsfab/index.htm

2) "Indian Tales" by Patrick O'Meara available online at: http://www.indian-tales.com/pages0-9.asp