Chapter V

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Nagpur Narrow Gauge

2. Gondia – Nagbhir - Nagpur

Returning to Gondia overnight, I found that one April dawn is pretty much like another. But there wasn’t much time for meditation; the Chanda Fort Passenger was waiting to snort off into the forest, and soon after I had found a seat it did so with spirit, for the locomotive was a CC and a Pacific.

By 8 a.m. the sunlight had grown so strong that it abolished any sense of a third dimension. Instead, the jungle filed past smoothly, like so many cardboard cutouts, layer upon layer of them. There were cutouts of brilliantly red flame trees and of others with broad green leaves, there were cutouts of trees whose leaves had turned yellow and brown in the heat of the summer and cutouts of trees reduced to bunches of dried sticks. Even the undergrowth seemed to group itself into cardboard cutout clumps. This cartoon forest was growing on uneven country which rose and fell, yet had no great valleys and no great hills, so the track rose and fell and turned a little when required. Occasionally it came out into the open, into a patch that was cleared and farmed, and perhaps paused at a station with logs and timber piled high in its yard beside a stockpile of bamboos. Bundle upon weathered grey bundle, the bamboo would slope up to a stippled cliff. Occasionally, also, the line encountered culverts that were being replaced, so that we crept round the sharp, cinder-ballasted curves of a dry-season deviation. To make up for these the bridge over the Weinganga was both tall and long – the BNR might have built weak culverts but it didn’t skimp on the major engineering.

Nagbhir was a junction in some ways comparable to Nainpur, though smaller. It had three lines: Gondia (north-east), Chanda Fort (south-west) and Nagpur (north west). The services were so arranged that the diesel which came from Nagpur on the morning train took over from the CC and went to Chanda Fort, while the diesel from Chanda became the train engine of the afternoon Nagpur service. So our CC uncoupled at Nagbhir and went to the large, empty iron loco shed for servicing, while a diesel, already arrived from Nagpur, coupled up and hauled our train on into the forest, into country so sparsely inhabited that stations were up to 17 miles apart.

But I waited at Nagbhir. A tiny railway town on the edge of a grey plain, it resisted neither the vertical sun nor the hot north wind which raised the dust in the yard and blew it along the platform, stirring the fans in the third class waiting hall and dessicating the people lying on the benches there. Passengers for Nagpur, waiting in their carriages, put up the windows against the wind – better to wait in still hot air than in those scorching gusts. This Nagpur train couldn’t leave till its diesel had come from Chanda. By the time it arrived the CC had been turned and was ready to drop onto the head of the train. So, as the diesel was trundling towards the head end of the Nagpur carriage set, the Gondia train left. One couldn’t help but admire the finesse of its departure – a whistle, a few sharp puffs to accelerate to walking pace, then a long glide down the platform while the tardy and the unprepared ran for it, followed by a second whistle and the second acceleration by which it quit the dehydrated little township.

The run to Nagpur, on the other hand, was peculiarly characterless, with the diesel maintaining an even pace, listlessly crossing open plains or winding round the gentle curves of the rougher patches. At its halts urchins would be selling leaf plates of small black berries which were mostly stone inside. At dusk there was a Major Intermediate Stop, worth a halt of half an hour: a town lying on the last low rise before the lava plain of the Deccan began. We descended to this by a long, straight embankment and crossed it to Nagpur.