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Crisscrossing India On a Network of Rails

`ROMANCE brought up the nine-fifteen,'' wrote Rudyard Kipling, whose first stories were published in small collections by the Indian Railway Library. Anyone who has read his novel ``Kim'' will not forget the description of the long train journey undertaken by Kim and the Lama which took them from Lahore to Benares. `` the 3.25 south bound roared in, the sleepers sprang to life, and the station filled with clamour and shoutings, cries of water and sweetmeat vendors, shouts of policemen and shrill yells of women gathering up their baskets, their families, and their husbands.''

The scene on a busy Indian railway platform is much the same today, only more intensified: The traveling population has increased a hundred-fold, and so has the number of trains. I am reliably informed that there are now over 7,500 trains operating in a single day - a far cry from that historic occasion in 1853, when India's first train steamed off in an atmosphere of great excitement from Bombay to Thana, a distance of 34 miles. Crowds cheered, 21 guns boomed a salute, and the band played rousing tunes as the small steam engine with its 14 carriages chugged slowly into the distance.

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Fifty years later, not long after ``Kim'' was published, India was criss-crossed by an extensive network of railway lines, bringing north to south and east to west, enabling the mass of Indian people to discover the length, breadth, and diversity of their country for the first time. Then, as now, they loved to travel, and today every station, large or small, provides a wonderful cross-section of people: South Indians on their way to the great pilgrim centers of the north; north Indians traveling to the beautiful temples of the south; VIPs smothered in garlands; gurus surrounded by followers and admirers; marriage parties taking up every inch of available space.

I have to confess to a certain weakness for railway platforms. Sometimes I buy a platform ticket simply in order to spend an hour or two on a bench, watching trains come and go, people arriving and departing, vendors plying their trade, while all the while guards blow their whistles, porters argue with passengers, and station masters lose their tempers. I seem to have a perfect empathy with stations and station masters. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my maternal grandfather was a station master on the Central Indian Railway back in the 1920s. No doubt there is a little soot in my blood.

As a short story writer, I have often found the genesis of a story while idling about on a railway platform. Mark Twain, in ``A Tramp Abroad,'' called it the ``perennially ravishing show of Indian railway stations.'' India has been described as a melting-pot of races and religions. But ``melting-pot'' is the wrong word. It is really a mosaic of humanity, a mosaic best observed from the trains that pull the glittering pieces together.

What else do I love about railway stations?

Those railway bookstalls, of course. Great places to browse while waiting for trains. And I always buy something from them.

There are some travelers, like my old friend Bill Aitken, a Scotsman in exile, who likes traveling back-pack, second-class, because in that way he gets to see more of his fellow-travelers. Bill, a true railway buff, has traveled the length and breadth of India the hard way, sharing his berth with hookah-smoking farmers or saffron-robed mendicants. He was last heard of at a place called Dindigal in the south, determined to work his way through India's 7,000 railway stations.

One of my own favorite journeys is the Kangra Valley Railway in the lower Himalayas. This particular journey is proof that the railway engineer can create a work which is in complete harmony with the beauty of the surroundings.

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Without interfering with the grandeur of mountain and valley, the construction engineers on this line managed to reveal to the traveler a land of great enchantment. The graceful curves of the rails, the neatness of the culverts, the symmetrical design of the bridges, the directness of the cuttings - all help to throw into bold relief the ruggedness of the terrain through which this line plays hide and seek.

By contrast, if you take the train to Simla, you will spend half your time burrowing through the bowels of the earth by means of more than a hundred tunnels. The scenic grandeur of the Himalayas is blotted out, and the hillsides resemble rabbit warrens.

Instead of boring his way through the mountains, the Kangra railway engineer in the '20s skillfully avoided running headlong into the hillside. Instead of following dizzy curves, he cleverly chose to avoid the awkward corners. He must have been a Taoist at heart, taking nature's way instead of opposing it.

Not that I am averse to traveling to Simla. Throughout my schooldays in that hill station, I was taken up and down the mountain through those 103 soot-filled tunnels. (When I grew up and had the choice, I took the diesel rail-car, which was cleaner, swifter and more comfortable.) On the way up, the train stopped at a little place called Barog, where an excellent breakfast has always been served. In December, on the way down, we would buy bunches of mistletoe at this station, for Barog was famous for its mistletoe. But I must not succumb to nostalgia. True, there is something romantic about a steam engine. But not in a long, dark, ill-ventilated tunnel!

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