The Master Locomotive Craftsman of India


There is in Iqbal Ahmed's creations a flavour that is reminiscent of applied mechanics in the the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bringing to mind the names of Watt, Cugnot, Henry Ford, Trevithick and others of that time, men whose spirit of adventure and experiment brought about the revolution in industry and transport. We associate that age with clocks and escapements, Hargreaves' spinning jenny, Daguerreotype photographs, and Faraday's discoveries in the science of electricity and magnetism. Iqbal's creations, though sparkling new, hark back to those times. He uses his skills in fine mechanical engineering to create wonders from an age long past, the age when steel was beginning to come into use for ships, when the steam engine was coming into its own, providing the impetus for progress in nearly every other field of endeavour.

That pioneering age of discovery and invention is brought alive when we take a peek into Mr Ahmed's living room. If you wish to relive the age of steam road rollers, beam engines, and early motor cars, a visit to Iqbal's home is recommended. He lives at one end of Residency Road in Nagpur where he has remained busy crafting an amazing variety of mechanical gadgets dating back to the days when the industrial revolution had begun to sweep across the world. And he is willing to let anyone with an interest in vintage machines visit his place and inspect his collection.


There are two things that strike one as being remarkable when we think of Iqbal's creations. To begin with, his workshop is equipped only with a lathe which means that each of his mechanical gadgets has been hand-crafted with the aid of only a single machine tool. Secondly, he has no fascination for static models; he does not believe in creating models only for display. Each of his models is a working piece. Each is capable of performing with effortless ease the task intended for it.

Iqbal has been into constructing steam engines since a long time: stationary steam engines, beam engines, locomotives, road rollers. It is a passion for him and he believes in turning out each piece with perfection. He had his first experience in model building when he constructed a Swiss electric HO gauge train in 1962. This was followed by a palm-sized stationary steam engine a few years later. Knowing about his fascination for working models, friends often give him books on model engine making and loco construction. "Often the dimensions listed in the book would lead to a model too large, so I generally scale down the parts proportionately," he tells us.


While the steam road roller pictured above is large and heavy, his passion for miniaturization led him to build a stationary steam engine so small it could fit onto a thumbnail. When fed with steam from a separate boiler, this engine worked splendidly, and being the smallest engine of its kind in the world, it soon became a celebrity. It earned Iqbal a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the maker of the world's smallest stationary steam engine.


There are other honours he has received. Although his engine which earned him a place in the Guinness Records is too small to be pictured here in detail, we may inspect his miniature lathe below. He has been regularly entering his miniatures in the Sherline Machinist's Challenge Contest held in the United States, and has been honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 conferred by the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. His models of a Sherline lathe and milling machines won first and second prizes, a gold medal, citation, as well as a cash award in these contests, and he has been declared as one among the six top craftsmen of the world.


Despite the honors he has received, Iqbal remains a quiet and unassuming person calmly going about his daily pursuits, spending the larger part of the day in his workshop on Residency Road. Amongst his recent creations is a 1:4 size model of a Ford Quadricycle dating back to 1896 complete with carburetor and petrol engine and running on solid rubber tyres ; and an equally fascinating model of a Benz Motor Wagen of 1886, again equipped with both propulsion and steering. Parked in a corner of his living room, one would think these quaint looking automobiles of a bygone age were made to order for a customer, such is the degree of realism and detail he has succeeded in achieving.

The Ford Quadricycle of 1896 is a scaled down version
of the original.

This charming lamp of the Ford Quadricycle was
crafted by Iqbal himself.

Carl Benz Motor Wagen. Iqbal constructed the full engine
for both these motor cars complete with ignition,
carburetor and steering.

Another noteworthy mechanical contrivance crafted by Mr Ahmed in his workshop is the "Mary Beam Engine" we see here, representing an early form of steam engine that was developed and put into use in the 18th century. When Thomas Newcomen devised his beam engine in 1712, it was not his object to arrange for steam powered transport—this would have to wait for another 90 years when Richard Trevithick introduced high pressure steam in a cylinder to propel a road vehicle carrying passengers. Newcomen's engine was large and unwieldy: steam at atmospheric pressure was admitted into a cylinder and allowed to condense. The resulting vacuum caused the piston to move down under the action of atmospheric pressure acting on its top. The slow to-and-fro movement of the piston caused a transverse walking beam to oscillate, imparting its motion to a pump used to empty out water from a coal mine.

The Mary Beam Engine is one of Iqbal's
most charming creations. 
The "Mary Beam Engine", although resembling Newcomen's invention, is not an identical copy, but is based on the modern principle of using steam at pressure in a cylinder, causing the beam to oscillate thereby setting a flywheel into rotation.

Among Iqbal's many creations, "Mary" stands out as a touching example of one of the earliest attempts made by man to employ steam to perform useful work in the service of humankind.

It is going to gladden the heart of any rail heritage enthusiast to know that Mr Ahmed having dabbled all along with loco construction, has gained a remarkable degree of skill in building miniature working steam locomotives from scratch, and is now in a position to fabricate a model locomotive on order for anyone who is keen on possessing one.

Step into Iqbal's home and you will be pleasantly surprised with the sight of two pretty steam locomotives quietly lying side by side on the floor of his living room. The first of these (seen to the right) is a 0-6-0 tank engine, dubbed "Indian Glory", measuring 34 inches in length, 10 inches wide and 14 inches tall. Standing next is the "Fairy Queen" of similar dimensions, being an exact replica of the legendary Fairy Queen 2-2-2 locomotive of 1855 vintage which has been reconditioned to haul tourist specials from Delhi Cantonment to Alwar during the winter months.

Locomotives ready to steam out

Each weighing about 55 kgs, Iqbal's steam locomotives are heavy, and develop enough tractive force to haul along 5 or more adults seated on specially built open cars running on an oval rail track. "When Indian Glory was first built, I was doubtful if it would haul along even a single person, but this engine has amazed us all by its load carrying capacity," he says.

His engines operate optimally within a steam pressure range of 60 - 70 lb/sq.inch, and a safety valve is provided maintaining steam within a safe limit of 120 lb/sq.inch. Each is equipped with a blower, gauge glass, pressure gauge, and cylinder drain cocks. Iqbal's care and attention to detail can be seen in the design of each small part that contributes to the performance of the machine : he provides the piston with a pair of piston rings with gaps staggered to prevent a straight line of escape of steam from one side to another, and his cylinders are kept steam tight with asbestos gland packings. The locomotives work on superheated steam : one large flue tube among 13 smaller smoke tubes provides ample room for the superheater element within, thereby effecting economy in the use of steam.


Both engines are coal fired, the flue gases rising in the firebox and passing through a set of smoke tubes set in a 3.2 mm thick copper boiler. A special pump delivers motor car engine oil to the cylinders for lubrication, whilst an axle pump brought automatically into operation when the engine is set into motion, forces water held in the tank into the boiler, this latter action being capable of being bypassed with a suitably designed valve when the gauge glass shows a full boiler.

Walschaerts valve gear of the Indian Glory locomotive

Fairy Queen, being a scaled down replica of the full-sized engine, employs Stephenson's link motion to actuate the valves. How did Iqbal design Stephenson's motion for his engine? "While at the National Rail Museum of Delhi, I closely studied the working mechanism of the Fairy Queen, and even took photographs. My model is based on these photos and what I learned while at the museum," he tells us. Indian Glory, on the other hand, works on the more familiar Walschaerts valve gear. Both machines use plain D-slide valves with external admission for steam distribution, and are capable of running in both forward and reverse gear.


Iqbal's locomotives have given entirely satisfactory performance until now, and day-long demonstrations have been held at the National Rail Musuem in Delhi, as well as various other venues. Has he ever had occasion to replace a working part of the locomotive? "Wear is minimum here," explains Iqbal. "The cylinder, piston rings, and connecting rod bushes are made of gun metal which is wear resistant. If a connecting rod bush wears away, I only need to replace it with a new one, but so far there has been no need for this. All external working parts are kept well lubricated manually with an oil can before a run."

Perhaps the only thing lacking is the facility for boiler inspection and washout. "From time to time, I clean out the smoke tubes to rid them of the accumulated soot, but there is no way you can open out the boiler for removing scale. All we can do is fill up the boiler and empty its contents through a blow down valve," he says.

And so Iqbal’s collection stands, a poignant reminder of the industrial revolution and of those adventurous times when men were tinkering with mechanical innovations, and physics had begun to unravel the secrets that underlay their successful operation. His hand-crafted miniature models constitute a unique collection that is bound to be of tremendous interest both to steam engine enthusiasts and students of industrial history alike.

Does he have plans to work on any new models? "At the moment, I am preparing a full-size model of the 1886 Benz Motor Wagen," says Iqbal. As for future plans, there are none in sight as yet. "When something interesting presents itself, I will begin to work on it," he says.

Perhaps something interesting will turn up. Having made a great variety of engines both large and small, it is hoped that he will turn his attention in due course to other innovations that made their appearance during the early years of the industrial age. Who knows what lies in store ahead—perhaps one day, Iqbal will surprise us with a model of an early printing press, a spinning jenny, or maybe even Lumiere's kinematograph !

The master craftsman is at work currently on an elecrically
driven locomotive model.

....................................
Ravindra Bhalerao

Speed Consistent with Safety


“Speed Consistent With Safety is the Motto of Every Railwayman” was the catchphrase you found on early railway timetables. It was heard so often that it sounded like a cliché, yet it was an all important rule every railwayman had to, and still has to follow.

Another catchphrase was Speed is the Cry of the Day, but Safety First Must be the Paramount Consideration.  The message was blared out on the very first opening page of the Working Timetable of a long time back. And there followed instructions for drivers, guards, station masters, controllers, signal inspectors and other operating staff detailing important procedures which if followed conscientiously would go a long way in ensuring safety.

Here are excerpts from this precious old time table. They give us an idea of what was involved in running trains with speed consistent with safety, which was expected to be the motto of every railwayman.

DRIVERS

Here are a few questions based on the most important prevalent causes of accidents. Compliance with the ideas contained in these questions may develop your safety habits.

1.  Do you test the engine automatic vacuum-brake apparatus before leaving the shed and also check the brake-power of your train at the first down gradient to ensure that you have got adequate brake power ?

2.  Do you check before starting that you have got the correct authority to proceed and that correct signals are shown and that the line before you is clear of all visible obstructions ?

3.  Do you exchange signals with the Guard when ---
       a) Starting from a station,
       b) Starting after stopping outside station limits, and,
       c) Running through a station ?

4.  Do you ensure that your train has stopped clear of all fouling marks while stopping at a station ?

5.  Do you anticipate signals presuming they are lowered for you, or keep a sharp look out for signals and remain always vigilant and cautious ?

6.  Do you observe speed restrictions between stations and while entering or passing stations—particularly over loop lines and non-interlocked facing  points ?

7.  Do you make reverse movement over burst points and spring points without the points properly set and secured ?

8.  Do you perform shunting at a station making sure you are in possession of the correct shunting authority, badge, or a written permission of the Station Master on duty, and supervised by an authorized person ?

9.  Do you book repairs of your engine correctly at the end of your run ?

10.  Do you take adequate rest when off duty to be watchful and worthy on duty ?


GUARDS

Here are a few questions based on the most important prevalent causes of accidents. Compliance with the ideas contained in these questions may develop your safety habits

1.  While taking over a train do you ensure that the –

     --Train is properly marshaled and coupled
     --Train the provided with the prescribed brake power
     --Doors of all carriages and wagons are in proper working order and closed and fastened.
     --Train carries all the necessary last-vehicle indicators and brakevan lamps, and that such lamps are lighted and kept burning brightly during the prescribed hours.
     --Train communication between you and Driver is in proper working order, and
     --Generally, as far as you can ascertain, the train is in a state of efficiency for travelling ?

2.  Do you remain vigilant while on the run and exchange signals with your Driver and the Station Master as prescribed by the rules ?

3.  Do you ensure that on arrival at a station the last vehicle of your train clears the fouling marks of all points, crossings and lockbars ? If not, is the Station Master informed at once ?

4.  Do you personally conduct shunting at roadside stations ?

5.  Do you follow the procedure of protecting the train in the block section rigidly when required ?

6.  Do you take adequate rest when off duty to be watchful and worthy on duty ?


STATION MASTERS

1.  Your primary duty is to get trains away with the least possible delay.

2.  Tokens should be sent to the Drivers without delay and shunting to be done should be attended to promptly.

3.  Shunting staff should be kept ready at the point where shunting has to be done, before the arrival of the train.

4.  Particular attention should be paid to signal lamps to see that they are kept burning brightly.

5.  Trains which are arranged to run through stations without stopping should always do so on the straight line. When the straight line is blocked, a train may be passed on the loop at a speed not exceeding 15 km per hour.

6.  Check your clocks daily to ensure that they exhibit the right time.

7.  Packages must be ready in the correct place and loading and unloading done expeditiously.

TRAIN EXAMINING STAFF 

1.  Stop boards must be kept on for the minimum possible time.

2.  Vacuum test must be carefully and quickly done.

3.  Vacuum brakes must be released whenever an engine is detached from a train.


Amla Junction



Clunk-thud went the ticket dating machine behind the counter. The coins were passed through the window and the man at the head of the queue emerged with a look of relief with two tickets to Itarsi. Next it was the turn of an old lady who wanted a ticket to Maramjhiri. The booking clerk yelled, "Amma, this train won't halt at Maramjhiri. You had better board the Passenger in the evening!"​ The old woman had misjudged the train; she withdrew her coins and turned back looking crestfallen. When my turn came, I found Shivshankar the booking clerk was amused. "How many tickets?" he asked. He knew we rarely bought tickets for any station other than Betul. In Amla, railwaymen and their families were a closely knit community. No one can remain aloof here for long, everyone knows each other. As I counted out the coins, the booking clerk drew out four card tickets. Four times the machine went clunk-thud before the tickets were passed on through the window.

Brave little card tickets! As children we collected these bits of pasteboard, played games with them, built pyramids reaching to the skies only to be toppled over by the slightest breeze that came in through the window. I have several of these pretty railway tickets lying around the home to this day :

Amla Junction - Betul
Itarsi - Amla Jn
Itarsi Junction – Khandwa


Back in those days the ticket machine behind the window was a mystery for me. I could only look upon it as a printing press in miniature which printed out the names of the starting station and destination. I was dismally wrong. The mystery was cleared when we boys trooped into the booking office one day. Shivshankar knew the gang collected card tickets, and he was careful not to let us have access to his ticket tube. This was a small wooden cupboard with pigeon-hole partitions carrying stacks of tickets for various destinations. We discovered the tickets already had the names of the stations printed together with the fare. Shivshankar's ticket machine merely served to emboss the date of issue on the piece of card.

So here we were at Amla station on a lazy summer’s day, Abhay and I, with cousin Nidhi and mother alongside, with tickets to Betul. Despite mother's stern warnings, we walked over to the edge of the platform and craned our necks. The tracks gleamed in the sun, and some distance away, a row of carriages could be seen stabled on a line. At any moment we could expect to see a smoke billowing engine pulling into the station bringing the train along with it. I can still remember these trips to Betul as a regular feature during our stay in Amla. Mother had a sister staying in Betul, and she would pack up a few things and take us along to spend a day with Supriya aunty. Sometimes we would watch a movie while in Betul, or indulge in a bit of shopping. For lower middle and poor class folks, the district place of Betul provided all the trimmings anyone could dream of.

Forty minutes later, we had alighted from the train at Betul, and boarded a rickshaw that would take us to aunt Supriya's home deep within the town. These family gatherings were a great event; mother and her sister would take to a charpoy spending hours reminiscing over the month's events, and exchanging the latest family news. While the elders were deep in conversation, we kids were left to our own devices. Bholu, Abhay and I, and Nidhi and little Sonam took to the outdoors. Next to the home was an old tree with gnarled branches, and Abhay and I took turns to the climb up the tree while little Sonam , full of delight, cheered from below. At other times we played with a ball. Then came lunchtime. Aunt Supriya made us sit in a row, and served dal, chawal, aloo subzi and achar. The Sunday lunch was always followed by bundi-ke-laddoo, so tempting, and so very sweet to the taste.

There were things to be bought and we would make our way to the bazaar to buy a hurricane lantern, a new baba-suit for Abhay, or a box of colour pencils. The afternoon went by dreamily with more gossip of the elders, and more games for the kids till it was time for us to prepare to leave. A day well spent brings a glow of satisfaction, and mother would pack up her bags for the return journey. Travelling back by rail would have meant a long wait at the station late in the evening, so we often took a bus instead. A two-hourly bus service run by a private operator provided reliable transport between the two towns, and for most residents of Amla this was the preferred mode of transport.

As boys our days were spent in pleasant, idyllic surroundings with the railway an ever present influence permeating our lives. Amla was a not-too-important junction ​20 kilometers from Betul, and midway between Itarsi and Nagpur. Here father worked in the Parcel Booking Office. The actual parcel traffic for Amla town was small, but there were a sizeable number coming from various places and bound for Chhindwara. Father and his men would unload these parcels from incoming trains and after duly entering records, would load them into parcel vans of passenger trains for nearby Parasia. The little goods office at Amla station did brisk business most of the time. 


Amla had a goods yard and locomotive shed ; it was the seat of an Air Force unit, and a branch line took off from the station leading to Parasia close to the district town of Chhindwara. All this meant that every train, no matter how important, would halt at this little junction. The Grand Trunk Express halted here as did the Dakshin Express. And so did the Jammu Tawi - Madras Janata Express.

The station ​consisted of two island platforms, one of which carried the main station building, with access to the rickshaw stand by a foot overbridge. On this platform could be found the station master's office, the parcel booking office, a canteen, waiting room, and the train examiner's room and train lighting section. Next to the station master's office was a row of fire-buckets, a necessity at every railway station, the bright red adding a cheerful dash of colour to the station. Sawarkar's refreshment stall did brisk business when a train arrived; he would serve aloo-bondas, coffee, and idli-sambar to hungry passengers eager for a quick bite. Close by hung a huge clock which always had a solemn air about it as it looked down from its lofty perch. Posters could be seen hung at intervals brightening up the station with their pictures : This is your railway—help to keep it clean, said one, while another exhorted, Avoid haste at level crossings...

​We lived in the railway colony where gangmen's quarters and those of other Grade D employees were laid out in rows. It was here that we lived and played and grew up. The boys - there were eight in my group - saved up pocket money to spend on roasted peanuts when the mumfali-wala came round pushing his handcart. A fifty gram paper cone held enough peanuts for a boy's evening treat, and we would sometimes stroll into the station, each holding his cone carefully. The shells had to be tossed away over the track, but one day two of my companions decided the platform was as good a place as any to toss away roasted groundnut shells. Amidst a constant stream of idle chatter and laughs we kept munching away until our paper cones were emptied of their contents and a pile of shells lay strewn at our feet. I looked down at the mess we had made; it somehow just didn't look right. It looked disturbing. It was not quite the proper thing to do, and I am sure the boys were debating in their minds on what to do next. Just then a sharp yell was heard coming from down the platform. We turned and found the station jamadar charging at us, letting out a stream of choice words. We had done wrong and were guilty. We took to our heels !

Winter came along and it was freezing cold in Amla, time to get into our sweaters and mufflers. Often an engine would be seen standing in the yard nearby and the good mothers of the colony, with small buckets in hand, would go to fetch garam pani -- waste water which the driver did not need anyway, and which was such a luxury, indeed a blessing for us in the winter months. Womenfolk could also be seen scavenging the track collecting as they went along bits of coal and unburnt cinder which was loaded into a small sack to be brought home as a prized find. I had accompanied mother on several such expeditions. I soon made the discovery that with some patience and a willingness to explore, it was possible to recover a good amount of cinder -- cinder that was destined for the sigri at home where it would give up the last remnants of its heating value and help ease the burden of the monthly fuel bill.

Diwali brought along with it school holidays, and was always a time of great fun and merriment. There would be firecrackers and sparklers, and homes everywhere were lighted up with diyas, tiny clay bowls with a lighted wick dipping in oil. A Durga Pooja had been organized by a resident of the colony and the boys volunteered to help. It was exciting to be a part of the organizing team. The very first task assigned to us was a manual job containing an element of risk. A two feet high murti weighing several kilos had arrived by rickshaw at a place across the railway and we were asked to fetch the murti and install it in Somnath's home. 

The boys-- there were eight of us--heaved and panted and amidst cries of “Are, samhal ke...” the murti was unloaded from the rickshaw. It was a prettily made idol. The colours were breathtaking, so bright and eye-catching, with sunlight glinting off the corners. As the rickshaw moved away, we stood admiring this work of art. The men who had crafted this object of beauty must have been truly skilled artists, we thought.

But there was work to do ahead. As we stood by the tracks, Dakshin Express steamed out of the station with a great clatter and din. On the loop stood a goods train, the long line of 4-wheeled wagons stretching away in each direction to infinity. The obstruction was immovable; it was static and would not move out for ages, we knew. Carrying the murti to the lineside quarters across the yard would involve an arduous trek along the tracks, make a U turn around the stationary train, and carry the fragile load the same distance back. We shuddered at the thought of performing this herculean feat.

If railwaymen are known to extend a courtesy to a soul in need, they are also known to be ingenious in working out a solution to a problem. As we stood with the murti, looking around in dismay, an engine was seen about fifty meters away letting out steam idly as it stood awaiting orders for shunting. Three of us strode up to the locomotive. There was no one in the cab but we found the fireman and driver standing next to a coupled brake van with pointsman Malwe standing beside. We walked up to the men and explained the matter, hoping that they would agree to shunt the train out of the way. After a bit of deliberation amongst themselves, the matter was finally settled. Without a shunting order, the goods train could not be touched; but there was nothing to stop them from arranging transport using engine power. True, it was against the rules, but a certain amount of ‘amicable working’ or cooperation would do no harm. It was an accepted part of railway working.

And so it was that goddess Durga seated atop a striped tiger found a place on the goods brake behind an engine on that day. We clambered onto the brake and with a merry whistle, and amidst clouds of steam heralding this singular event, we set off. The engine steamed on steadily till we were past the stationary goods train and beyond the trailing points. Here we slowed down and halted. Malwe got off the brake, the points were reversed, and we began our journey back, this time taking the line that ran next to the gangmen's quarters, bypassing the stubborn line of wagons that had refused to budge.

Word quickly spread in the colony : goddess Durga has arrived by train, they said. It left behind a lasting impression on me. To a little boy's mind it was a day of victory. It was a day which saw the most unusual consignment being transported in the most innovative way.

Although a junction of medium size, Amla doubled as a train examining station. Other than the customary checks, one of the most important tasks of the Train Examiner here was to check the brakes on the train. The procedure was crucial ; no train was allowed to leave Amla unless the TXR had satisfied himself that it possessed enough brake power. The reason for this is not hard to find : close to Amla lay Betul, and a bare 9 kilometers ahead was the awesome Maramjhiri - Dharakoh ghat with the line winding its way through wooded hills in a steep downward gradient. Allowed to roll down on its own, a train would acquire a dangerously high speed, so brake power was all important--even more important here than engine hauling power.

If travelling down the Maramjhiri grade was fun, a train ride up through the ghat was even more fun; it was exciting to have a extra engine pushing the train from the back. Here we were at Ghoradongri station one day, some 15 kilometers short of the ghat with the slow Passenger train showing no signs of wanting to move on. A tiny country station, Ghoradongri was provided with a small yard with space enough to hold two or more full length goods trains and sundry wagons besides. The first sight that met my eye when we pulled into Ghoradongri was a steam engine standing in readiness in the yard. I was to discover later that no train could make the grade that lied ahead with a single locomotive, so a banking engine was stationed here for good, to assist trains up the ghat.

The Nagpur Passenger halted long enough for my father to alight and have a leisurely chat with the station staff. Finally after an unbearable delay, the loco stabled in the yard gave a hoot, and moving from its line, came over and took charge at the rear of our train. And thus began the most pleasurable train ride I have ever had. Huffing and puffing all along the way, the two engines laboured, one pulling, the other pushing ; together they had might enough to carry the train up the slope, a 12 kilometer stretch of track winding its way through a delightful panorama of low lying hills, valleys, viaducts, and tunnels.

The pleasure of having an engine at the rear pushing us up the gradient was short lived though, for in about an hour's time, Maramjhiri was reached and here the banking engine was detached from the train. With assistance no longer needed as the track henceforth was level, it would be sent down to Ghoradongri where it would be kept in steam awaiting the next train it had to push up the incline.

--------------------------
Ravindra Bhalerao
Fiction based on real life incidents
narrated by railwaymen.

Dileep's Steam Trains


I HAVE RECEIVED some days back a most charming gift from a friend in Delhi. Shri Abhimanyu Shaunik was here in Nagpur on business work and when I went to see him in his hotel room, and we sat down to talk of our mutual fascination for the railways, Mani stunned me by producing an article that was so charming, so pretty, I could only exclaim "Wow !!"

It was a tiny pocket book. A book with pictures of trains in it. Yes, they were pictures of steam trains. And all shot on a film camera by veteran photographer Shri Dileep Prakash.

Dileep is a master photographer who needs no introduction. He is married to June Davy, an Anglo Indian, and besides his interest in steam trains, he has also created a charming portfolio of pictures of Anglo Indian families in India. Now why should this be charming ? Those who love the railways of the raj need no explanation why Dileep’s portfolio is so pleasing. They know the answer.

So here I am with a copy of Dileep’s pocket book on steam railways. It is called "Whistling Steam—Romance of Indian Rails". And it is truly a masterpiece in miniature, a lovely portfolio of pictures. I would go so far as to say that it is a collector's item.

To appreciate Dileep’s skill with a camera, you need to actually see the pictures for yourself. Like me, he has a keen fascination for steam railways, and like me, he arrived on the scene with his camera a bit late, at a time when steam trains were becoming a fast disappearing species. So then, whatever was left of those rusting old birds, he captured on film. He knew he was running a race against time, so he had to hurry, for he knew his beloved engines would not be around forever. And so, when we turn through the pages of this book, we will meet Jama Jiva, the loco fitter at the Wankaner shed. We are introduced to Nal Bahadur, the Loco Foreman on the Darjeeling Hill Railway standing against a B class locomotive. We are taken on a tour of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and its quaint engines. And we can step into the Nilgiri workshop to take a close up peek at those double-toothed cog wheels that help propel trains up the hills of Ooty. There are pictures of broad gauge locos being readied in sheds, a lone engine owned by the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board carrying along a load of wagons on a bridge. And you have a grand collection of pictures showcasing the Darjeeling Hill railway too.  

Here is a book you can't put down easily. When I got my copy, I went through the text as well as the pictures several times. There is something about these pictures that marks them as different from the rest. I think it is a kind of "atmosphere" surrounding each picture. I was in Darjeeling only once, in 1985. Although I never did ride the toy train, I did spend time at the station in Darjeeling. I saw school children walking the road as the train chugged alongside, I would stand watching the train taking a curve next to a pretty little cottage. Those images are forever etched in my mind. Now three decades later, when I flip through the pages of this book, it brings back fond memories. And I exclaim to myself , "Ah, that's Darjeeling !" 

Dileep's pictures have been skillfully crafted, and he has undoubtedly used burning-in or dodging to achieve his spectacular effects. This together with his composition (sometimes tight, sometimes all inclusive) results in a startling 'atmospheric' effect ; his pictures arouse emotion. I liked the dark, sombre tone that is so reminiscent of India's steam age, now a thing of the past. Atmosphere is evident everywhere in the book. It is there in the coal train at Korba, and in the Mettupalayam shed and workshop, in the Darjeeling train winding its way past a dream cottage, and in the group of schoolgirls descending the wooded hillside fascinated by a B class engine shunting nearby.

Richly textured and with superb detail, these pictures are a pleasure to watch.



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Ravindra Bhalerao

Reminiscences of St. Andrew's Church


EUGENE IS AN AMAZING person ;  he knows just about everything there is to know about life in railway colonies in pre-partition India. And his knowledge has not been gained secondhand through research. Eugene has lived all through his boyhood in railway colonies here in Central India where his father worked for the Bengal Nagpur Railway. And he has great tales to tell about life in these colonies. He has explored the backyard of nearly every home in his neighbourhood while he was a boy. And the fragrance of these homes still lingers on him, as fresh as ever. His work in Britain’s RAF has not dulled his longing for a whiff of the good old times back home in India.

Eugene’s knowledge is phenomenal ; he has enlightened me with many a fascinating tale from his boyhood days. And he tells me that since earliest times, every railway colony in the country had a church in it, most often Church of England, but sometimes Roman Catholic. This was a startling revelation for me. Back in the early seventies, my father was posted in Gorakhpur where we attended St Andrew’s Church, a magnificent brick edifice, set amidst the sprawling railway colony. I was but a lad of twelve then ; winding my way through the streets of the colony my mind often wondered how a church came to be in the midst of these brick red homes. The answer was to come only several years later. The topmost cadres in the railway administration in those times were occupied by Britishers, while routine jobs and operating posts were held by Anglo Indians, fiercely proud of their association with the railways of India. To ensure all-round growth and a well-balanced personality among its workforce, the railways provided each of its colonies with an institute for recreation, an English medium school for the children staying in the colony, parks, officers’ clubs, and a church. The colony was thus self sufficient in itself, a small township whose inhabitants were well-provided for in all respects, not needing to look elsewhere for any of their needs, not even for a place of worship.

And so here I was, a boy of twelve, whistling a tune to myself as I trudged along to attend the railway school, sachel slung around shoulder. Built in true railway style, the school was an architectural marvel in brickwork with a large playground at the back, and a large lunch hall furnished with benches and water taps where we tiny-tots gathered in the afternoon with our tiffin boxes. Next to the school building was the railway institute, tall and graceful, standing amidst majestic silence, the wind playing on its twin towers in a soft caress, while an occasional hoot of an engine followed by a rattle of wheels reminded me that a train was making its way out of the railway yard nearby. Oh, for a taste of those days again!

The railway primary school I attended was staffed by ladies many of whom lived in the railway colony itself. And quite a few of these dear aunties were Christians who attended church. There was Mrs Newbolt the Headmistress, fair, tall and aloof. Then there was Miss Clifford who taught us Social Studies, Mrs Joseph, Mrs Cecil, and others, many of them familiar to us as members of St Andrew’s Church. Each Sunday the crisp morning air of the colony echoed with the toll of the bell high up on the steeple. Jangle-jangle chimed the bell, while families dressed in Sunday best would be seen walking up the driveway for morning worship. Many a young lad like me stood watching spellbound as Musa, the sexton, tugged at the cable that hung down, causing the huge bell atop the church to swing giving out a rhythmic musical peal.

The bell atop St Andrew’s tolled twice each week, one for morning service, the other for evensong. Morning service was always more formal and was attended by the cream of the congregation. There were the Browns and Benjamins and their sons, the Josephs, Cecils, and Amarnaths. After-church gatherings in the church premises were tinged with a butterfly touch when the men gathered in small groups lost in profound conversation, while the womenfolk flitted about speaking in low whispers, letting out occasional giggles. Some folks like the Chandis kept out of the general talk; they preferred to keep aloof, standing quietly beside their car.

The seven years we lived in this town in eastern U.P. saw a succession of parsons who held charge over St Andrew’s, beginning with the quiet Pastor Lall, followed by Rev Baldeo, Pitamber and others. Week after week these men watched over their flock, expounding the Word for all, exhorting men to turn back from the world and its ways and follow the path of honesty and godliness. Occasionally, a guest speaker would be called in to preach. I can still remember the clear tones of the Reverend William Paul, an English missionary, speaking out from the pulpit on one occasion. Lean, tall and fair, Reverend Paul was a much loved figure in Gorakhpur. He lived in an old style bungalow in Basaratpur, and we had the pleasure of having him in our home a few times accompanied by his Canadian wife.

Having stayed in India for years, Paul finally had to prepare to return to England. We went to see him in Basaratpur and found his wife had laid out several articles on a table to be given away to friends for a small price. Mother bought some cutlery, and several cut glass bowls. Then there was an old Viewmaster with several reels that we took home with us.

There was hardly a crowd beside the Ist class carriage at the station when we went to see off the gentleman and his wife. My hand was in a cast after a fall, and I was subdued, though inwardly excited to be at the station. The whistle blew, but Paul was unperturbed. He nimbly walked up to me, and holding the cast in his hand , signed his name on it.  W. M. Paul.  This was his parting gift to me. It was something anyone would treasure. Then as the night express to Allahabad jerked forward, Paul smartly moved and with one bound he was aboard, waving us goodbye as the train slowly pulled out.

But it was Evensong at St Andrew’s we liked to attend, for it was held in the cool of the day, and was more a relaxed affair free from the formalism of the morning service. Thus each Sunday evening found us preparing for a ride through the railway colony. For a fare of only Re 1, the rickety old rickshaw would take us past the railway sports stadium, go right over the level crossing of Mohaddipur, and then into the depths of the colony lined with tamarind trees. It was incredibly calm here. As the rickshaw creaked on, all you could hear was the rustle of the branches overhead, the distant cries of children playing, the occasional rumble of a train. We ride on going past railwaymen’s bungalows, neat and clean, set amidst an overgrowth of neem and mango trees. We ride on through Private Road, bypass the turning that leads to my school, and cross a square. The rickshaw grinds to a halt beside a gate and we alight. St Andrew’s is now in full view, thrusting its spire into the crimson sky, and bathed in the soft light of the setting sun. The place is aglow with life in the evenings: bees and insects swarm through the air, settling on hedges of pansies and snapdragons, while birds of all descriptions congregate on trees chirping excitedly, preparing for the night’s rest ahead. St Andrew’s church was truly set in paradise.

Evensong was held by the Reverend Caleb Bellah, a short, stout, cheery old man, as cheerful and vivacious as the birds now settling in the trees around. Bellah was in fact a pastor employed with a Christian girls’ orphanage, but as a sideline to his work he often volunteered to undertake the evening service at St Andrew’s. He was a man given to brevity ; he believed that a church service should be short enough to be effective, and to this end he would order the evening’s proceedings so as never to last for more than an hour. His sermons were always a pleasure to sit through; they were well-planned and thought out, and although he read his text aloud from a typed sheet he would give away cyclostyled copies which we were allowed to carry home. With never more than about a dozen persons in attendance, Evensong was a truly enriching experience quite alike an informal prayer gathering in the home.

The final hymn sung and benediction said, we emerged from church. It was dark by now as the little group stood chatting beside the magnificent edifice built in brick. It was a quiet little group; often there would be none besides my father, mom, my sister, the parson and his daughter and son-in-law. Then under the dim street lamps of Private Road we would begin our trek home with Pastor Bellah by our side, his vigour undiminished by the labours of the evening. And on we walked, sharing our tales of joy and sorrow with the old man, while the bungalows on either side, now alight, seemed to peek at us through rows of hedges and foliage. We walk on under the canopy of trees until we reach the railway. Here we slacken our pace, for we have often to wait till a shunting train has moved out of the way and backed into the yard from whence it came. Beyond the yard is a busy thoroughfare, and here we come to a halt waiting for a rickshaw to appear which will carry us back home before bidding goodnight to the cheery old parson.

The church of St Andrew still stands, a lone sentinel pointing the way to heaven amidst the jungle of trees and shrubs of Gorakhpur’s railway colony. Today a new group of worshippers may be seen in the pews on Sunday. New faces have appeared, new voices, a different gathering. The old congregation we had known is not to be seen anymore. After a space of four decades, many of its veteran leaders and elders have gone on to be with the Lord ; the children who graced the flowering gardens with their colourful attire and cries of play are now grown-ups who have moved away to distant lands in search of greener pastures. But the church itself remains unchanged, as of old. The bell atop the steeple still rings the same chime calling forth souls to praise and worship. And the story it has to tell is the same old story, a tale of glad tidings for all.
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Ravindra Bhalerao