Chapter II

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The East Coast

2. The Parlamakhidi Light Railway

It is perhaps unfair to let the Parlakimedi Light Railway to introduce the Indian narrow gauge, for it is one of the most forgotten of the country’s 2’6” lines. Yet in basic statistics it is typical enough: 56 miles, five engines (all 0-6-4 tanks, which is not typical), a dozen or so passenger carriages and assorted goods stock, the greater part of which can usually be found at Naupada Junction. Invited by a small tank engine sizzling unobstrusively in the narrow gauge yard there, and by the light track wandering off towards the pale, pointed and chiselled Eastern Ghats, I left No. 90 Express one afternoon to travel out to Gunupur.

Though not due to leave till sunset, the train was ready at its platform – four carriages, two pressed steel vans, mostly for parcels, and a battered four wheel brake. The carriages were of the standard BNR design, each with two compartments having a tiny lavatory in a corner over the bogie, supplied with water from a central roof tank by a pipe sloping above the windows; and one longitudinal seat and the rest across, 20 or so places with low level backs that cut into one’s backbone about the fourth large vertebra from the bottom. I selected my seat and waited while the sun, in reddening with evening, accentuated the colour of the dry grass that covered the bunded, compartmented fields nearby, and at the same time softened the grey of the Eastern Ghats. These hills were mysterious, their train excessively prosaic; how would they match?

Sunset comes early when one is east of one’s time meridian, and so it came to Naupada at about six, at which time an old black BNR goods engine was waiting at the second broad gauge platform while people filled buckets and brass pots from the spare tender it was towing, for the water in Naupada is bad. The sun crossed out of view, and the new moon made to follow it, yet there were not many passengers in the carriages – they stood round on the platform, talking. The tank engine backed on and hissed, but not till the train was moving did the crowd board. A boy, trying out his English, explained that they were all going to ‘not a station’, so why risk ticket examination?

By the time it had traversed its brief yard and was diverging from the broad gauge, the train was travelling at a little more than walking pace. ‘This is speed’ said the boy, and indeed it was, the speed – just a little faster on downgrades, though never enough to risk a runaway (there were no through brakes) and a little slower when climbing at 1/100. These climbs were contrived in short bursts, even when still on the coastal plain. The engine was chattering mightily, with sparks falling all along the train, while through a grate in the carriage floor, one could see them glowing between the rails.

‘My village is here – I descend’ said the boy, proudly using the new word I had taught him as the opposite of ‘climb’. (He learnt by opposites, which led him into some confusion, as in his use of ‘poorich’ as one word to describe India – unknowingly, it is quite apt.) And he and others left the train while the engine was slogging up one of its bits of grade – while some figures waiting at the trackside skirted up their dhotis and boarded. Truly the train and its people were on friendly terms.

Once in the hills the loco had to work quite hard most of the time, but never did it look like stalling – the load was right, and the driver knew the line. Slowly, resolutely the train passed between black solid hills, with Jupiter behind and the Milky Way bright above. A rough cart road ran alongside, while at times there were stations. And then there was that water stop – something definitely makes nift, and doubtless due to partial failure of the regular stand pipes. The engine pulled up beside a square tank set on the ground next to the track, and adjusted its position. Two coolies appeared, each with an empty kerosene tin with a wooden handle. One man stood on the tank and dipped the cans full; the other stood on the running board of the loco and emptied them into the side tank. This went on rhythmically for a long time; now the man on the square tank was leaning on it and dipping at an arm’s length; finally he was standing in the tank and passing the tinfulls up. Thus the contents of the tank were transferred to the engine, which steamed away, leaving the keeper of the tank to his little thatch shelter and oil flare, and to the duty of refilling the square tank by hand drawing from the well alongside.

After this the wait at the next station, with the engine leaking steam into the cool, humid air while the train for Naupada eased by bunker first, tame and normal. There were two such crossings a day in the Parlakimedi Light, to match the services of two trains each way daily. And then followed the rest of the journey, with the carriages half-empty but still full of the aromatic smoke of the local black cigars, which were smoked by the women as much as the men. The engine ahead was working, easing, working – and if it had ever aimed at the Gunupur arrival time of exactly a minute past midnight (pace the timetable) it failed to make it by two hours. This didn’t seem to matter to anybody, least of all did it worry me – I took note and went back to sleep on my carriage seat.

For a while, as the dawn came to Gunupur, I did not know whether the shapes piled on the horizon were hills or clouds, but they solidified into the former, and quite close and rough too. But by six the loco was making its own cloud – shooting white steam vertically into the air, preparing for the return trip that started out by running down-valley between yellow, green-dotted hills, with a sandy river bed closeby. Below Parlakimedi, however, and once over the silver bridge that was the major engineering work on the line, the hills became rougher, with low thorny scrub that failed to conceal the granite boulders. Here the line followed no valley, but wandered along through a series of gaps. Scarcely a dip of the undulating roadbed was without a notice recording on red on white that water had been over the line at that point by so many metres during the 1964 floods.

And one last point to note. Though the line had BNR surveyor’s markings, its inspiration came from the Rajah of Parlakimedi, besides whose palace walls the track still ran. Looking over the parapet one saw the towers and gables of a mansion that would have been at home in the most gargolyesome terracotta suburb of the Victorian nouveau-riche; this, with bullock carts at the gate, a straggly bazaar and a railway of its own.