Writing the light-hearted column Delhiberations in the Hindustan Times Evening News in New Delhi week after week from 1973 to '78 -- and then again for several years from 1983 -- was a great adventure. The Editor had defined no boundaries for the topics either in geographic, historic or artistic terms, and I was free to talk about anything or anywhere or any time, as long as I could find even a remote connection with Delhi.
Thus, discussing a local event involving some ancient steam locomotives which were still hauling trains on important routes across India, I was lost in a nostalgic day-dream about some famous British railway engines and trains I had discovered with great fascination in my schooldays, thanks to a very precious pre-war British book (the same one I had mentioned in Articulations Online, Sept. 21, 2010).
Evening News, New Delhi
12 February 1977
I don't know what has happened to small boys these days.... they no longer seem to be interested in railway engines!
Things were very different when I was a small boy myself, more than 30 years ago.
Although anonymous streamlined diesel trains had already become a prominent feature of the railways in the USA, elsewhere in the world steam engines were still in extensive use around the time of the second world war, even in such an advanced country like Great Britain.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world had railway engines acquired such romantic color as in Great Britain, their parent country.
Naturally a vintage image surrounded famous old British locomotives like the Lion (1837) with its high chimney stack, or the original Coronation (1911) with its flat front. But books published around 1940 used to talk fondly even of such recently-built engines like the Silver Link (1935), the first locomotive to draw the 'Silver Jubilee', the fastest British train those days.
And the engine driver was a romantic figure too, and had his share of glory those days. Thus, a picture of Mr. W.H. Sparrow, driver of the Cheltenham Flyer (the fastest British train before Silver Jubilee), showing him clambering up the foot-board of his engine, stands immortalized in a book my father bough in 1939 and which has influenced my outlook more than the scriptures have done.
We in India were so thrilled in the 1950s when the first streamlined steam engines arrived from Canada and were put on the trunk routes. The mere sight of them told us that India too was making progress at last.
Since then we have come a very long way indeed! With Air India's Boeing-747s flying over our heads every day, the sight of modern streamlined railway engines made in India hasn't any great thrill for us, and it makes no impression at all on our young children!
Yet these steam locomotives on display are not yet obsolete in our country ... far from it! They are all still in active use, and some of them haul our express trains.
But that is good, in a way. This beauty contest might have been motivated by the Railway Administration's desire to encourage railway crews to take more interest in engine maintenance, but it serves another great purpose -- it brings the railwayman's image more forcefully before the public.
Thus, today we know the names of some of our dedicated engine drivers. Mr. Godrej Rustomji or Mr. Deep Narain may never become as famous as Mr. W.H. Sparrow, but back in the loco sheds and railway colonies of the Central and Western Railways they will no doubt be heroes for some time to come, as the drivers of 'Jhansi-ki-Rani' and 'Paschim Pratap', the prize-winning locomotives.
Our sons dream of becoming spacemen, just as we used to dream of becoming engine drivers when we were small kids. Neil Armstrong's name will perhaps make more sense in my children's life than Mr. W.H. Sparrow's name has made in mine. But I am grateful to the Railway Administration for providing me with a brief fling down memory lane, while offering a tangible incentive to its crews to keep their engines in good trim.