The Toy Train Empire and Shimla, 4/6/10

This blog is effortlessly out of synch.  Some other bits from the past will appear, before this, in the future…….

I had been watching the BBC Documentary on the Indian Rail System, I especially liked the episodes on Shimla and Darjeeling stations, the trains and people who work there.  It was fascinating to see these old trains and lines, over 100 years old, so well-maintained and such an integral part of the transport system.  Many of the trains were built in Glasgow, or Manchester and are still plodding on through skilled repairs and will power.  I was looking forward to the 7 hour ‘Toy Train’ experience from Kalka to Shimla, heading up-hill over a 1000 metres, through more than a 100 tunnels and cutting through some steep hill terrain.  A triumph of engineering.  The human mind and endeavour cutting a path through the inhospitable natural landscape.  I am normally not interested in trains,  they’re ugly and noisy things.  This sounded different, a bit special, my first train ride on the massive India Rail system.

Kalka, in the now baking Punjabi plains, was difficult.  Highlights included fried sugar vendors and second-hand gun shops (A man told me, ‘Every gun has a story’.  Double Murder?  Civil War?  Never a positive one).  The pollution was choking, streets a faltering stream of blaring chaos and the open sewers particularly fragrant.  I asked a nice bloke in the hotel what there was to do, he said ‘Nothing’.

It was 45 degrees and not much cooler at night.  I stayed in a glorified cupboard room, over-looking what looked and smelled like a sewage plant.  I ate tomatoes for dinner, washed down with a bottle of warm Fosters I managed to procure from a dark alleyway shop.  I set my alarm for 4am then my fan promptly died.  I retired into my mantra of ‘It doesn’t matter where you lay your head, when you close your eyes, you’re home.’  Its works.  I lay in a bed of sweat for a few hours and then awoke to the sound of street cows mooing.

I scraped myself and my stuff together, had a bucket bath and stumbled into the road, inhabited by only my bovine friends, sitting on piles of rubbish and flicking their ears provocatively, enjoying the relative peace.  A 3/4 moon hung in the metallic grey, pollution clogged sky.

The station floor was strooned with sleeping bodies, families, sadhus and station employees.  I picked my way across the carpet of bodies, for the largest single employer in the world, I couldn’t find anybody to tell me what I was supposed to be doing and where.  All was calm, in fact, most were snoring.  The only guys awake were covered in black oil, carrying crowbars.

Then the Delhi train arrived and things got spicy.  Swarms of shouting people poured towards what did actually look like a large red toy train.  In many places this would be a novelty, tourist type affair, but this is an important transport link.  Smaller than a normal train, with bigger windows and nice white curtains, I became strangely nostalgic about a childhood hobby I never had.

Sikh porters with luminous pink turbans and died henna-red (ginger) beards bashed me out-of-the-way, heavy leather suitcases balanced on the pink.  I found a man with a clipboard and was informed that this was not my train (although my ticket said it was) and I’d have to wait until further notice, indefinitely, possibly for a long time, possibly not.  I sensed he did not know.  The prospect of another night in my Kalka cell filled me with dread.  I drowned my sorrow with chai, biscuit, banana, chai, fruit cake (with no fruit in it or fruity flavour), coffee.

I noticed a blue mini diesel engine, like an estate car on rails, chugging out of the station.  The VIP’s were off, I bet they had a mini bar and probably a toilet.  They looked at me, bleary eyed and dejected, like a particularly pitiful zoo exhibit.  They looked super rich, I looked super scruffy and didn’t care.  Being the only gringo around, I was attracting quite a crowd.  They watched opened mouthed as I dipped my digestive into another chai, obviously impressed with my technique.  Many stooped closer now and watched with intent as I made these entries into my notebook.  It can get a little claustrophobic at times.  One bold lad walked straight up to me and said ‘You hold your pen very well’, then walked off to confer with his mates.  They laughed.  I was not that amused really.  He came back ‘That is my cousin’ pointing out a tiny girl with teeth like an unfinished jigsaw, cutely smiling and waving.

I, with a little persuasion and stern talk, secured a seat on the next train.  The train had a well beaten roof, comfortable seats and carried its age with an air functional dignity, a lot like the entire station and its fixtures and fittings.  I was facing the economy train, the mail car was full of cardboard boxes and the passenger carriages full of eyes and smiles.  It was after 7 and the sweat flowed freely.  I sat down and waited for what I hoped would be worth this.

I had a great view of the diesel engine directly in front of me, the burly Sikh driver wobbled his head at me reassuringly.  Lets get rolling.  People brushing their teeth on the platform waved us off.  We shuddered out of the station and continue apace, or at a pace of around 10 miles an hour.  Slow and steady.  The diesel began to spew out black smoke directly into our carriage.  The railway police waved at us, holding their lathis (sticks) like lethal weapons, not much thinner than themselves.

The man who had appreciated the way I held a biro was in my cabin, with his entire extended family.  At least 20 of them.  They sang, and generally made jokes in Hindi at my expenses.  I tried to laugh along and look out of the window a lot.  ‘What is your mother’s name’ is a perfectly reasonable question from a toddler the first time, but after a while it loses its initial appeal.  They ganged up on me and made me play guitar, we all sung/ hummed ‘Hotel California’ and I played along to Bollywood theme tunes.  Omlette sandwiches were shared and generally, I tried to look out of the window.

I cannot stand the sight of people throwing rubbish out of the window of a moving vehicle, it turns my stomach.  My adopted train family seemed oblivious to the woes of our Mother Earth.  Our train was followed by a cloud of confetti like litter, landing neatly in the poor forest.  I flinched regularly as another plastic carton took flight.  When I pointed to the bin I was greeted by smiles and much laughter.  I must learn Hindi.

The train stopped to let a cow pass and we climbed.  The air became mercifully cleaner and forests appeared where once was piles of rubbish.  Now I was enjoying myself, we rocked through long dark tunnels and some wee ones, a couple of metres in length (call yourself a tunnel!).  Butterflies and birds drifted by and the air smelled of warm pine cones.  We began to pass mansions where helpers swept the leaves from lawns and everything was being watered.  I fell asleep.

I watched the time-honoured rail system in full flow, green flags were waved as we passed through quaint, remote stations with hanging flower baskets.  Small letter packages and bags of crisps were exchanged with men at signal boxes.  Everybody smiled and wore perfect white uniforms, they seemed to enjoy being part of this and took genuine pride in its upkeep.

We cruised into Shimla, a sprawling place.  Like a giant hand print of corrugated iron roofs on top of a ridge.  Porters in red jackets held and jogged beside the train as we pulled into the station, they all look knackered already.  I noticed many sitting around smoking bidis outside the ‘Coolie Rest Area’.  What on earth is a ‘Coolie’?  Great word, surely redundant now.

I shunned the advance of everyone, tired and oblivious, on a one way course for a strong coffee and a masala dosa.  This mentality led me through an assault course of steep twists, turns and flights of steps.  45 minutes I walked, fully laidened with my gear, through the midday sun.  Cursing myself, for everything.  Not for the first time, I sweated profusely.

Shimla is quiet, civilised, still whiffs of elitism and wealth.  Leisure and Subway, replacing spirituality and temples.  Guys dress like Usher, girls like a toned down Beyonce.  It’s that bad.  Theres a strange melange of British architecture (some mock-Tudor!) and etiquette in a far away land.  A faded glory (ahem) and romance (ahem).  I find little glory or romance in the way that these ‘Raj’ types led their imperial lives.  Generally little integration, adopting the higher moral ground, craving isolation from a rich culture that could have taught us so much (maybe balancing our material minds a little in the process).  The British placed signs on the Mall, ‘No Dogs or Indians’.  This stays with me when I hear some wax lyrical about the ‘romance’ of the period.

It rained last night, so at least the ‘Raj’ brough the weather.  There is one upper rich street, one lower poorer street (better food and happier people of course).  You can hire a man to push your child around with you in a buggy, it has a keyboard attached to the front, for the budding Pet Shop Boy in every toddler (‘Go West’ anyone).  Spitting and littering is a fineable offence, 500 rupees per offence.  Generally its conservative place full of strollers and grazers.

One thing I have explained to the Indians who have asked is that I am from a mining village and this elitist brand of colonial living is as alien to me and my ancestors as it is too them.  Not all Brits at the time, or now, enjoy the luxuries of polo and regal 12 course banquets.  My family worked down the pit fuelling the fire of the cancer-like empire building machine. They did know a thing or two about railway building, I’ll give them that.

I’m writing this under a painting of a toothless Gandhi in the bustling India Coffee House.  A sign on the wall reads, ‘If convenient, please speak slowly’, the waiters wear emerald green cummerbunds and matching decorated turbans.  A good coffee ifs around 15p.

There is a golden Gandhi statue outside, his life and wisdom seems strangely juxtaposed against this backdrop.  I therefore feel compelled to think and write ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’ and ‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.’  Im leaving on the morning bus tomorrow for the hills near Tibet, Kinnaur Valley.  It’s an all too familiar situation here.

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