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Salaam, Bombay locals!

Shreekant Sambrani 

The Dramatic Tale of the Nation's First Rail Lines
Rajendra B Aklekar

Rupa; xvi+206 pages; Rs 395

Confession time. Most boys imagine themselves to be engine drivers. Much to my family's bemusement, I imagined myself to be an engine. So how can I not love a book that has Mark Tully saying "the steam engine is surely the most human of all the machines mankind has ever invented" in its foreword?

One quibble before dealing with this little gricer's delight of a book. Its title is misleading: the book is all about railways in and around Bombay (in keeping with historical accuracy and the author's usage, I will stick to the bygone name) and their evolution, which, though interesting, is not exactly dramatic. That said, no die-hard fan of railways or Bombay should miss this collection of golden nuggets.

Although the book is about railways, Paul Theroux's it is not. No classic lines such as the Trans-Siberian Railway or epic journeys such as the here, only the mundane daily commutes in hot, sweaty overcrowded trains. But as The Lunchbox (2013) showed, romance blooms even in these everyday surroundings and is as enchanting as in grand passion plays.

Rajendra Aklekar, the blurb claims, has had the railways and Bombay as his ruling passions for over 20 years. It shows, in his painstaking yet unobtrusive research, attention to details lovingly rendered and crisply written. The book grew out of articles he wrote for various papers, and for once, the transition from newsprint to folio is nowhere near as rattling as that in the subject of the book, the Bombay trains; it is instead smooth and satisfying as a ride in a bullet train.

Mr Aklekar walked along all the railway lines in Bombay, noting details, large and small, important and trivial (why did he have to favour the stodgy old Great Indian Peninsula - now Central - Railway, over the much more happening Bombay Baroda and Central India - now Western - Railway?). This book is a record of them, comprising short pithy pieces. That functional style suits entirely the short stop-go commuter trips made in strictly utilitarian coaches. We come across 150-year-old rails serving as roof supports of station, dargahs carefully preserved amid busy railway sidings still in use, ornate ticket windows from a bygone era, and recollections of those who watched with awe the first trains in the 1850s.

The book tells the reader as much about Bombay the city as it grew as it does about its lifeline, the railway system. We learn of the growth of cotton markets during the American Civil War in the 1860s and their collapse, the reclamation in south Bombay, the famed gardens of central Bombay, and the marshes and salt pans to the north - all linked by the permanent way. It brings alive the contributions of numerous public-spirited citizens and colonial officials. The overzealous efforts of the last few generations of city fathers may have succeeded in renaming some of the places associated with the last group, but their role is still remembered by a population that refuses to forget the old names. It is still Crawford Market and Jacob Circle, Arthur Road and Hornby Vellard.

The best treatment is reserved for the centrepiece of the Bombay rail system, the old Bori Bunder-Victoria (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj) Terminus complex. The construction of this Unesco World Heritage station edifice is brought to life, with old photographs and sketches, including those of a few surviving stained-glass window panels. I could once again visualise the 1974 classic, 27 Down. It was the first assignment for A K Bir, then only 27, now considered a master cinematographer. He captured the spirit of the bustling station through black-and-white overhead gantry shots of trains arriving at overcrowded platforms. A film review (I cannot now recall by whom, much to my regret) likened it to little trains coming to pray in a cavernous cathedral.

Mr Aklekar has his own similar image of worshipfulness, possibly without intent: "Close to signals S-54 and S-48...trains, fast and slow, halt before entering the mega terminus...metaphorically, as a mark of respect for the original Bori Bunder Station."

The epilogue pointedly refers to Bombay trains continuing through cataclysmic events - the July 2005 cloudburst, the July 2006 train bombings and the terror strike of November 2008 - with the briefest of pauses. That is especially appropriate and noteworthy.

It is now very fashionable to talk of decaying, dysfunctional Bombay. Most recently, The Guardian ran a series of mournful articles on the theme, led off by one who was expected to be the true-blue cheerleader of Bombay, Bachi J Karkaria ("Mumbai is on the verge of imploding", November 23, 2014). I have been disenchanted with Bombay (where I grew up) often enough, but I still think this urbs prima is the only Indian city that works and despite its squalor and lumpenisation is still very much a city in the true sense of the term. I also believe, like Rahul Bose does, that after every one of its calamities, Bombay picks itself up and trudges along, not so much out of valour or heroism, but simply because it has no choice. This stoicism is what keeps it alive, and not the life-support system of the government that does it to Delhi.

Bombay has two true symbols of its never-say-die spirit: its local trains and the dabbawallas umbilically linked to them. The latter have found many admirers at home and abroad. The much-maligned local trains chug on night and day, taken for granted (and occasionally burnt). In and his nostalgic little book, they have at last found a champion.

So salaam, Mumbai locals!

First Published: Thu, January 22 2015. 21:25 IST