Chapter III

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969


1. The Calcutta Tramways

Calcutta, capital of the British Indian Empire in the days of its vigour, and now a city of political processions, seems from afar to be a city in extremis. People are grimly fascinated by it. They come and their spines tingle; perhaps, the railway enthusiast should likewise come, form a quick estimate of Howrah station (once the terminus of the East Indian Railway, which bore the very name of John Company; now distinguishable from the mouldering jute mills of Hooghlyside mainly by the crowds) and turn his heels. But this shows scant respect for the Calcutta Tramways, the last in India and an institution in themselves.

The recent history of the Calcutta Tramway Company, inc. in England, is one of turmoil. Like other British Indian companies, the CTC appointed an agent in Calcutta, an officer legally separate from the Company itself, responsible for the management of its assets. Even in the British days the Company’s Agent was often on poor terms with the civic authorities, but matters finally came to a head in 1967, when, owing to the low fares that the city and the passengers insisted upon, the Company found itself without the cash to pay wages. The Government of West Bengal therefore nationalized the agent, so gaining management of the tramways without having to buy the assets. Whatever its business morality, this neat ruse combined those two Bengali talents, the one for law and the other for disorder. But while all this drama was going on, the trams operated regardless.

The name of the central terminus of the Calcutta Tramways – Esplanade – perhaps carries an aura of nostalgia for the times when people walked slowly. But absorbed into Bengali, the word has lost its old connotations; it means the Tramways’ own Acre on the corner of the Maidan (the old parade-cum-polo-ground) closest to the commercial heart of the city. Here, at a layout of three circles and various interconnections and crossovers, some trams terminate and others work through. The eddy of trams and the slow eddy of people have a dreamlike quality; things would seem too automatic to need signals or more than listless supervision from the double storeyed tramway cabin that is in the middle of it all …. But, then, no one sees how it works, depending on peons to convey messages, pointsmen to jab four-foot bars into the blades of points, and public agility to keep out of the way of trams looping it in the first notch of series.

The first trams run about dawn, which comes early in Calcutta, and make their circles while the Esplanade is still in the bluish, misty shade of the city buildings to the east. At midday, when the water vapour in the air absorbs sound like an invisible fog, there comes a second quiet interval – too hot to travel. And in the night custom falls way, for Indian cities sleep early. But in the mid-morning and around sunset there are peak periods, and then one does not ride the trams for pleasure. Rather, these are good times for watching and classifying.

Among Calcutta’s 300 trams there are two main classes: the six-axle articulated cars and the four-wheelers permanently coupled to matching trailers. In addition, there are some bogie trams which haul trailers, some works cars, and a few double-ended four-wheelers used only on a route in Howrah, and never seen in Calcutta proper. These trams together form a distinctive family, what with each double car having first class in the lead and second behind, protecting its motorman with coarse, square mesh, and carrying its electrical equipment high on the roof, away from the slush of monsoon streets. Apart from some cars converted to passenger flow and dressed in cream with a blue stripe, as in Sheffield, the trams are grey with a narrow green stripe under the windows, and cream about them, carrying their destination on a metal plate which often obscures the vestigial headlight. Because of the tight clearances, the offside windows are barred, but not the nearside.

Having watched cars one evening peak, I decided to go to Kidderpore. There were various places where I could catch my tram. I could squeeze aboard a departing car before it sailed away across the Maidan or I could board one that was just arriving and so bag a seat. (This got in the way of alighting passengers and disobeyed the notices, but was a well-established local custom.) And there were various intermediate loop points, and there was always the hope of catching a half-empty through car from Dalhousie Square cruising up the straight between the loops. After some indecision I found myself aboard one of the few plain bogie trams. It was second class only and so the fare right through would be only ten paise.

There was a wait, but nothing serious; one must expect such things if the company does not have enough cash to maintain its trams properly. It was a time to stand, strap-hanging, and look about the side of this tram – its centre entrance and two embayments of passengers, straining their eyes if trying to read a newspaper by the yellow light that came from just three incandescent globes, but mostly not trying. They had their eyes open, but were not seeing – not seeing the distempered nicotinish inside of the tram with its loose beading; not seeing their tired fellow-passengers all dressed in clothes that had once been white. It was sufficient if the tram crossed the Maidan, its trolley wheel hissing on the wire above, its motors growling below and its trucks dancing on track that was at once soft with grass and rough with dropped joints.

The note of the bogie changed as the car moved out of its reservation, and yet again as there came the hollowness of a bridge, whose silver frosted girders rose above road level, excellent places for sleeping. The track to Behala diverged; the Kidderpore car held straight, running close to the gutter for a while and finally over a section of single track. Something had collapsed under the up line and its foundations had not been rebuilt. At Kidderpore the turning circle was behind the grey wall of a depot, so that trams dropped their passengers at the in gate and later emerged to pick up at the out – and then, seeing the single track empty, trundled off again, lurching on the points.

I returned to the junction for Behala and joined the crowd that was waiting there, partly standing in the shallow puddles of the road and partly in the solid but rubbish-littered footpath. There were busses going by – big, government double-deckers with a permanent five degree list; small private busses with carved and varnished window-posts. When a tram rounded the curve clanging its gong the crowd surged forward, then along, when it seemed likely that the car would pull up short. But soon I found myself bound for Behala, standing just inside the first class doorway of one of the older articulated trams, and rather uncomfortable, because someone had dumped a large sack of junk on the floor and I couldn’t find a proper footing to resist the pressure of my fellow-passengers.

A shower of rain came inconsequentially down, visible as it passed the occasional street lamps; the tram’s windows were closed and a fog developed, warm, moist, airless and lurching. What a time to encounter a gradient – a climb up and over some port railway sidings – for the rails were greasy; the spinning of the wheels and the crescendo of the motors sounded above the talk of the passengers. What if we skid like this going down the other side? But the car remained under control, continuing into the slum suburbs, losing passengers till all were seated. I looked around myself, back at the second portion, visible through the windows of the back wall; forwards at the driver’s door, and sideways at the windows, some of which were closed with temporary masonite, some with the now standard aluminium sheets having a tiny central peephole, and some with old-fashioned glass. My fellow passengers were eyeing the raindrops that glistened and trickled on the outside of these panes; when no more came they opened the windows, and once again warm air flowed past us. What if it did contain a few stray drops of water, for is there much difference between the dampness of clothes that comes of drizzle, and the dampness that comes from still air and humidity?

On this wet night the road to Behala accumulated puddles, which reflected the lights of the stalls that crowded the verge; electric lights, both neon and incandescent, and pressure lamps and oil flares too, blowing and smoking even in reflection. And the tram ran in series, the driver jerking his controller through its notches and back in an effort both to control slipping and to find a way peacefully through a crowd that seemed oblivious to the drizzle – till the track continued ahead no more. Then the car abruptly reversed into a side street to emerge by a triangle, bound back to Esplanade.

There is cross-country connection between the Behala line and the Tollygunge, which is the next radial service to the east. This connection has a through service from Esplanade and leaves the Behala line at a point where it runs on semi-reservation alongside a blank concrete wall. I waited flattened against the wall, standing on earth trodden down with the oil and sand of fifty years of trams, till my car came; one of the passenger flow rebuilds so common on this route. I boarded at the front door and filed past the conductor who was sitting in a impregnable box office, with a microphone for announcements, with tubes of change set rakishly on his desk – and the same green and pink punch tickets in his hands. I had to stand, for the conversion had more than halved the number of seats, but it did not matter; the route was not very interesting apart from a hundred yards of track gauntleted between the coathanger girders of a narrow bridge. After this we joined the Tollygunge route, then swung into Kalighat depot to terminate. I pushed through the sprung flywire exit door, glanced at the depot (typical of Calcutta – small with a fan backing off the loop line) and went to catch a tram for Tollygunge.

It being 9 p.m., altogether too many cars were turning into the depot, so that those for Tollygunge and Ballygunge (which turned left after half a mile) were rather full. However, I found a seat in the last car of a convoy, and travelled down a wide road through respectable suburbs to a terminus with a depot in the middle of its distended turning circle. A line of trams was waiting to return citywards – this was the company’s reserve against the hold-ups of Calcutta traffic. I picked one with neon lights in its saloons and three lazy fans circulating in wire mesh guards under its first class ceiling. It swayed through the dark streets, its bogies jangling underneath, its passengers few and silent: and, shutting my eyes, I remembered late night rides in Sydney, long ago.

For a favourable impression of Calcutta one could take the tram to Ballygunge, for the route passed some of the old palaces and was mostly on reserved track, which, despite the occasional lurch, was in better condition than that in the more congested parts of the city. Not that the trams were fast – the cars and busses on the adjacent roads sped past, at the cost of some fearful driving: it was certainly safer to sway gently on steel wheels on track founded - well, sometimes on faith, but here on concrete, and giving a most satisfactory rumble. The last couple of miles to the terminus, along a narrow reservation with just a little grass on either side of the tramway, could have been a speedway, but not with this track or these cars. Instead, it turned out a pleasant dawdle past buildings that could be in the middle of some French provincial town – uninspired, blank-fronted buildings, with scraps of paper blowing in the wind, but no severe dilapidation. And the alternative way back from Ballygunge did one better, running on its reservation past impressive mansions in luxuriant, walled grounds.

So much for the routes running south from Esplanade; now for that going east along Dhurrumtollah street, a thoroughfare not particularly wide nor prepossessing, but one with lots of tram routes; where a red traffic light, at peak period, could accumulate several furlongs of grey tram cars in an uneven line, for the springs of different cars had settled differently. But eastbound in the early morning the street presented no delays, and gave a good view of the procession of up trams on the other track, each with its gauze windscreen like the veil of a woman in purdah. Maybe this was the reason for the disapproving frown of the Anglo-Indian woman surveying the trams from her high, stuccoed balcony.

After a mile the cars turned left to run beside the far gutter of a street going north to Sealdah, a most congested place in front of Calcutta’s second main railway station. Here the tram track was cobbled, while the footpaths were mud, and this in the area with the heaviest pedestrian traffic in Calcutta; who can blame a man if he doesn’t shift ever into such a footpath till the tram is only just a couple of feet from his behind? But the tramway also had a refuge – a loop concealed among hoardings of the triangle of land between the station and the road. Here, among mud and in front of a tramway office of rotting brick, one could catch route 14, which ran cross-city a few blocks north of Dhurrumtollah street.

In the evening, the favourite hour for storms and drizzle, the crowd round Sealdah was as dense as ever, but these route 14 cars were half-empty: they went to Dalhousie Square and the law courts, places that throb with activity by day but sleep as soon as the office hours are over. So the tram would nose cautiously out of its dark muddy haven, force a way through the people and traffic and then echo down a dark and slippery street to Dalhousie Square, where it would trail through the crossovers used by many peak-period-only services. In the middle of the Square a deep walled pond of black water was surrounded by a loopy iron fence; around it were the complicated Victorian facades of buildings that were once the center of an Empire. At two corners of it there were tramway junctions, each with a pointsman huddled against the drizzle, his shelter a rickety awning of thatch suspended from the iron fence. As the trams came by, he would venture out to change the points with his bar, and back to set the overhead frog by pulling a wire that dangled by his awning.

North of Esplanade and Dalhousie Square, Calcutta is congested, this being the former Indian city. Its narrow streets are penetrated by several tram lines, some with the track so worn that the groove has broken off the rails and the joints come with inch gaps, crossed with a clunk and a squelch of dirty water. The line to Belgatchia was typical enough of the routes in this area. It started north from Esplanade in a wide commercial thoroughfare which gradually narrowed till the trams were starting and stopping and ringing their gongs in a narrow street congested with busses and trucks and handcarts and people – yet, passing by at 8 a.m., one could see men still sleeping soundly on the ledges in front of shops whose shutters had not yet been taken down. The road being wide enough for three lanes of traffic all told, the trams ran with one track in the center of the road and one in the gutter, the overhead being held out by bracket arms. Because of the swiveling trolley wheels, it did not have to be centred over each track – the car ahead, close in distance, but more than a minute away in time, seemed to be dragging its pole very loosely.

Some way up the line, with stuccoed buildings above and a slum of wood and half-baked brick and bits of corrugated iron ahead, the Belgatchia cars turned right and continued along a street with some quite large buildings and some very dilapidated – the meaningless mixture of Calcutta; the failure of its urban processes to sort the tall from the low or the sleek from the decrepit. Then Shambazaar, with its turning circle for short workings, and a couple of the sidings that make each Calcutta turning circle a minor depot. When I came by, tram No. 5 was waiting in the siding but soon a crew, khaki-clad with the company’s big pewter buttons, came out of the crib-room, manned it and jerked it into circulation.

About a hundred yards beyond Shambazaar, there was a five-way junction, four ways having trams. The junction was wide and had lots of motor traffic, being even negotiable some ways by monster semi-trailer double-decker busses that looked about as manoeuvrable as super-tankers. The extension to Belgatchia comprised a mile of track a little on the ricketty side in the middle of a wide road filled with traffic, not to mention the occasional mooching cow. It climbed over a railway marshalling yard and then terminated in the forecourt of Belgatchia depot. To illustrate the condition of some of the trams, the one I was in stopped at the foot of the over-pass. To start again, the driver released the brake and moved the controller into first notch – no result. Several times he repeated this, with other cars banking up behind, till at last she responded, and remained in service. But this was not as worrying as the tram whose front motor caught fire – real, red-flaming fire – at Esplanade one evening peak. Within ten minutes, the trolley pole being lowered, they had the fire doused with sand and had driven the car away under its own power.

If the Calcutta Tramways had a main line it was perhaps that between Esplanade and Howrah – the line that passed through the center of the city, dawdled on the southern margin of Dalhousie Square and bounced along the Strand. (A sarcastic name if ever there was, what with the backs of business houses on one side and fronts of warehouses on the other.) And then a brief climb and a right angle, and the trams were under the grey, curved and riveted girders of the tallest structure in their city: this Howrah bridge that was surely too great for the still dirty ditch it crossed. But it gave the trams the best track of their system, with the firmess of rails which are steel bolted on steel and filled in with concrete. The trams had contact with this bridge, and became part of it in a way no pneumatic tyred bus could.

At the end of the bridge the trams slipped aside out of the traffic and turned on a circle adjacent to Howrah station. There was little layover room, meager concrete shelters and much crowd. Alongside, as though arranged for movement by induction, was a second, quieter circle, with an inspector sitting in his little box looking calm, as though his trams worked without hurry or delay. Maybe this was illusory, for the cars on his Howrah local routes were the most decrepit on the system and encountered their fair share of traffic angst – but not to worry.

Of the three Howrah routes, that to Sibpore alone among Calcutta Tramways used four wheel trams, double-ended and without trailers, thus preserving parts of the original fleet roughly as they once were. So at the inner Howrah loop I boarded a four-wheeler with dark varnished, longitudinal seats. Only the back platform was used; sliding doors cut the motorman and his brass handles off from the passengers. With a ding of its gong the tram set out and almost immediately diverged left from the other Howrah lines, saluted by a pointsman standing on a mound of dust and oil at the base of a center-of-the-road span pole. After crossing over the outer end of the platforms of Howrah station, the tram passed Howrah Maidan – a dirty triangle of open space encroached upon by temporary barracks and the like – and then bucketed and bounced down a road that was neither very wide nor very straight, past mills and slums whose rotting eaves closed in on its windows. But soon this eight paise ride was finished; the driver took out his brass key and went to the back of the car, the doors were shut behind him and away he drove again, the trolley pole following by the arcs of a reverser. And so the near continuous service of bouncing little trams continued.

If there is anything more to be said about the Calcutta Tramways, it is that they reflect their city – its greyness (the new cream cars are unfortunate), its decay and yet the fact that it keeps going, and is all the more magnificent place for that.