Chapter II

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The East Coast

3. Rupsa - Bangriposi

No. 90 Down, leaving Naupada in the mid afternoon, travelled all night to bring me to Rupsa in the early morning, in time to travel on the other East Coast narrow gauge line, the Rupsa – Bangriposi. Statistically, this line was not much different – 57 miles, five locomotives and two trains daily – but it was divided into two sections, with the operating headquarters at Baripada, a little more than half-way.

A mere village, Rupsa had an earthen street with some eating places of unpainted wood and thatch, where mongrels brushed the feet of tired men dining off rice produced from a pot lolling in a dusty corner, and flavoured with a meat mixture scraped out of a second and rapidly heated on a charcoal brazier. But in the morning these same restaurants produced good, strong tea and spoonfuls of thick porridge ready sweetened for those who had to face the day – the railway workers and the occasional traveller. Having alighted from 90 Down, and, at the station master’s suggestion, washed at the tap on the open platform, I fortified myself with these viands and returned to find the narrow gauge train already made up, a full hour before departure time.

The four gondolas and five coaches were standing at their platform behind the broad gauge goods siding, bent round the points of the loop, with a CC Pacific at their head. This businesslike machine was one of a class designed with large driving wheels to be the Bengal-Nagpur’s standard narrow gauge passenger engine, and if allowed they still are the speedsters of their gauge. Having admired the engine, I fell to watching the women of a tribal family that had been camping on the platform as, unashamed, they combed their hair. Such rough people, their kids naked, their women dark and high-breasted in saris without blouse, formed most of the passengers in the narrow gauge train, though one well-dressed family did come across from the connecting broad gauge passenger.

A small man with stick legs sticking out of his threadbare blue shorts hit the station gong twice, and the CC responded with its hoarse whistle and a column of live smoke; a slow getaway till, halfway round the first curve, the driver acknowledged a signal from the guard by pulling out the throttle. Soon the train was cruising at twenty miles an hour, not bad for a 2’ 6” gauge without through brakes, crossing country colourless with grey fallow and trees whose sparse light green leaves flapped, matt-surfaced, lusterless. At the halts the laterite station buildings seemed to merge with the ground; likewise the mud huts of the villages, with their tall, thickly thatched roofs.

We waited at Betnoti, for the telegraph had ordered a cross with a works train – a CC tender first (the line was without turntables), hauling four bogie flats of rotten sleepers decorated with peasants coming to market. We lost many of our passengers to this market; they alighted, rearranged their bundles, sometimes with the aid of a split bamboo pole, and set off round the corner by the rice mill. Meanwhile the works train snuggled into a dead-end siding and started to unload.

Now came dark red and light green country, sal forest growing on ironstone; and through it the villagers were marching, bring produce in sacks, or sometimes grass tied into a neat cone. This was for papermaking. Soon we came upon the Bengal Paper Mills plantation of it – grass planted in tufts and these in rows, interrupted by anthills and a few trees. Though a little nibbled at the edges, the grass grew rank, such as I had not seen since leaving Australia, an impression compounded by the Queensland-type bungalow on stilts at the plantation center. Here a few upper caste lived to superintend the place, isolated in largely tribal country. One of their women was watching the train go past, leaning against a post with her well-dressed pair of children beside her; how her loose-jointed form and lackluster eyes contrasted with the unrepentant and well-developed physique of the tribals!

The railway swung from left to right, through forest eaten from below by wandering cows, its green trees like a memorial avenue on either side of the red gravelly railway reserve running into Baripada. At this, the headquarters of the line, there were more sidings than at all the other stations put together. As the carriages were swept and watered, our CC drew forward with the flats and two of the carriages, and the line’s one and only 0-6-4 tank, of the same design as the Parlakimedi engines, backed on to the three carriages remaining. With its straight-sided smoke box, it looked older and more inadequate than it probably was.

It was now the heat of a humid and oppressive day, with the sun due overhead, shining down between accumulating clouds and making the rivets on the goods vans cast vertical shadows down the van sides. And the train was crowded, and seemed unable to crawl up a 1/100 grade at more than walking pace, so all of us inside it were sweating, and there was no breeze to evaporate the stickiness. Yet the line was well fitted to these undulating downs with their occasional stony patches; its dips and rises and gentle curves were at one with its land, but the tank engine wasn’t – it fussed greatly while climbing, and when going downhill clacked and clinked enough for two or three of its kind, and those badly adjusted. And after 15 miles it needed water, jerking back and forth to adjust to the spout of a small tank supplied by a decrepit hand-pump loosely bolted to the top of a well nearby. We were given a lot of time to contemplate the station building here – a small, low structure of deeply-pitted dark red stone with a tripod of old rails at its door, for suspending a beam-balance.

After considerable effort the train reached Bangriposi half an hour late. This was the passenger terminus. Since the line continued a bit further before finally petering out within sight of the Eastern Ghats, there were two signals affixed to the single post on the gravel platform, making an unlikely combination of the British home and American train-order signal. When the loco ran round and took water, there was time to see Bangriposi – the little rise behind the station with one tree-sheltered general store and one tea bunk. But the stationmaster said the place had its compensations; he regularly went hunting in the hills not far away to the west.

When the train was made up, with its engine simmering ready to go, it was hit by a squall of wind, blowing dry, crackly leaves into the carriages as the thunder rolled above. The promise of rain was met as we left the station. Fortunately the wind was head-on, and did not threaten the stability of the carriages, so our disinclination to obey the notice instructing passengers to ‘leave doors and windows open at the time of the storm and high wind’ was not likely to bring ‘mishap to the train.’ But the loco was put to much effort, shouting above the blowing of the wind and the sharp hitting of the rain – indeed, it was blown to a halt at one stage – but it battled on till the storm cleared, leaving branches blown off trees and unseasonable water in the paddy fields. Then, continuing to Baripada, we were left to breathe air that was cooler but still humid, and to listen to the 0-6-4 chinking away when at ease and roaring and hissing when at work.

Baripada in the evening: the tank engine left our train and a CC replaced it, giving us three extra carriages to make the total six. After due waiting we left, the CC seeming not unduly cramped by having a six-wheel rigid tender leading. As it grew dark the train took time at the various sidings, waiting long enough for me to take tea at the bunks outside the railway boundary, and then wheeled eastwards, the warm air passing by smoothly and lightning playing round the whole black rim of the horizon ahead. I remembered the anti-photography notice at Baripada, which, threatening punishment under the Defence of India Rules, was headed ‘A Vital Installation.’ I couldn’t help wish that this part of it were true: that this narrow gauge really was vital, rather than a financial dead loss. But there was no sense of doom about Baripada – it was operating its railway as the British had taught it, and why should there be a change? I felt so well-disposed towards its spirit that I did not complain when it abandoned me at Rupsa without a connection till the morning, and with nowhere to stay but the station. After all, the grey stone flagging under the damp-absorbing brick arches of the verandah was fairly clean, so I set down my bedroll, covered myself with a light cotton cloth and slept. And only then did the rain come down; inch an hour rains that splashed in under the arches. The light of the station office reflected against water streaming from the roof while the diesels coming by had to reduce speed to exchange the token with a bedraggled peon, who could hardly be seen as he stood on the edge of the platform.

But next morning 90 Down arrived on time, a little full, and carried me past the railway town of Kharagpur, which is still the BNR sporting headquarters, and on to Howrah.