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The train is a small world moving through a larger world - Niraj Kumar

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Blog Entry# 4654222
Posted: Jun 20 (18:37)

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Last Response: Jun 21 (15:58)
Rail News
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Jun 20 (18:37)   When trains thundered into India’s forests in the 1800s, they set behemoth and beast on a collision course

MAREECH_HA1NKS~   328 news posts
Entry# 4654222   News Entry# 411872         Tags   Past Edits
Sometime in the late 1800s, a British-Indian Railway Company headquarters received a curious telegram: ‘Tiger jumping about platform, men will not work; please arrange’, it said. Then in 1892, an artist turned this little note into a sketch and published it in The Graphic, a popular British weekly illustrated newspaper. It was captioned, ‘An Awkward Visitor at an Upcountry Railway Station in India’. The cartoon immediately catapulted this incident into popular imagination and it became a Victorian pop-culture legend. Dozens of authors have since speculated on the precise location of this ‘upcountry’ railway station: one strong candidate was ‘Khundwa’ railway station (Khandwa, now in Madhya Pradesh). According to Val C. Prinsep’s book Imperial India, 1879: An Artist’s Journals, the said tiger was shot the next day, proving that the telegram was not a bluff.
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Somewhere in Bengal, also in the late 19th century, a similar incident was reported, albeit probably with some embellishments. ‘The native station master of an out-of-the-way Indian railway station was suddenly pounced upon by a man-eating tiger. The startled assistant, remembering the orders given in the cases of an attack being made by robbers, or the like, immediately rushed to the telegraph office, and wired to the European official at the next place on the line — ‘Tiger on platform eating our respected stationmaster; please wire instructions’.’ The report says that by the time help could be sent, the tiger had not only ‘wolfed the master,’ but also ‘got away with ‘our respected assistant’.

A few years earlier, this time near Jaipur, a Bengali station master working in a lonely wayside railway station surrounded by forests had been waylaid by a wandering tiger. The rude interruption forced him to telegraph an urgent missive to his British superior at Jaipur: ‘Tiger in charge, I on roof, please arrange’. The story goes that the British officer immediately went to the station, shot the tiger, and the station master descended from his perch and resumed ‘charge’ of the station.
All the many variations of this story hark back to a time in India when two great forces crossed paths for the first time — the modernising force of the Great Indian Railways and the ancient ways of great Indian jungles. The first railway lines ploughed through forests and hills, rivers and swamps. The natural world pushed back. Disease and accidents killed hundreds of labourers and engineers, and so did wild animals. The creatures of the forests, especially tigers, fought against this strange intrusion into their turf. Attacks on railway labourers and staff during the construction of the lines and immediately after were very common. In 1889, a tigress that inhabited the area around the railway tunnel close to the newly constructed Darekasa railway station, now in Gondia district of Maharashtra, was reported to have killed around 40 railway employees.
Artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries often interpreted such incidents of conflict as a clash between two opposing worlds: the ‘wild’ and the ‘modern’, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’; the Indian ‘wild’ pushing back against British ‘civilising’. This produced an array of very interesting artworks. There are sketches of a tiger chasing a pointsman up the semaphore signal at the end of a platform as he comes to signal an oncoming train; two fleet-footed sub-adult tigers are running off a railway line, somewhere between ‘Sutna’ (Satna, Madhya Pradesh) and Manikpur, startled by a train; an engineer inspecting a line on a trolley is spooked out of his wits as he nearly bumps into a family of four tigers including two cubs.
There were encounters with other wildlife too. A sketch published in a French journal in 1907 depicted a herd of blackbuck running helter-skelter off a line with an approaching train engine in the background. It was titled ‘Un défi à la Civilisation’ (A challenge to civilisation). Was the artist referring to the ‘civilisation’ of humans depicted by railways or was he alluding to the ‘civilisation’ of the wild animals being challenged by human enterprise? Artists also used the imagery of wildlife and railways for satire, to mostly reinforce imperial positions and stereotypes.
However, the most enduring imagery of this brewing conflict between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ was that of the forest’s behemoth, the Indian elephant, gallantly facing off against the mechanical behemoth. In January 1869, a little more than 15 years after the inauguration of the first passenger train in India, the first elephant collision was reported in The Penny Illustrated Newspaper. ‘A… very serious accident… perhaps unheard of since the establishment of railways, not only in India, but throughout the world, happened.... between Sahebgunge and Mirzapore, about two miles from the latter station. At that time the No. 5 down goods’ train was approaching a mangoe tope [grove], in which some seventy elephants [evidently these were domesticated elephants] were stationed. The red lights glaring in the distance, and the noise and smoke of the engine, would seem to have caused an awful consternation among the poor brutes… One large male, however, the strongest and most courageous of the lot, became so infuriated that he broke his chain and rushed forward to intercept and encounter the supposed enemy… He encountered it [train] with head and tusks; but animal strength proved no match for steam and machinery — the poor brute was knocked down and killed on the spot, and the engine, rebounding, ran off the line, and it and eleven carriages were capsized into a ditch. The fireman luckily managed to jump off in time, and the guard did the same; but the poor driver, named Smith, remained in his place, and received injuries from which it is not expected he will recover’.
Such incidents were not limited to India. Near the little town of Tapah in Malaysia, an old tusker defended his herd by charging at an oncoming train and died in the process. So moved were railway officials by this elephant’s bravery that a memorial sign, which still survives, was erected at the spot he fell with the inscription “There is buried here a wild elephant who in defence of his herd charged and derailed a train on the 17th day of September, 1894”.
As the railways penetrated further into the forests and hinterlands, they also brought with them a new breed of British men and women to these ‘upcountry stations’, in the form of railway employees and travellers. This gave birth to a new genre of literature — stories, poems and non-fiction writings set at the intersection of railway lines and the forest and its denizens. These writers ranged from big names like Rudyard Kipling to lesser-known ones such as J.W. Best, an Indian Forest Service officer. Railway magazines of the time (each railway company in British India usually had its own illustrated monthly magazine) were also replete with accounts of shikar along railway lines or fiction set in some quaint ‘jungli’ station. A little known book of 1934, The Wheels of Ind by John W. Mitchell, a senior officer of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway Company (which would become South-Eastern Railway zone after Independence), was about his adventures along the ‘jungli’ railway stations and lines around Bilaspur. Writers such as Ruskin Bond have expertly carried forward this genre, often drawing upon the imagery of quaint railway stations set amidst jungles and wildlife.
Today, more than a century later, the railways of the Raj, which were an amalgamation of more than half a dozen British railway companies, have become the monolithic Indian Railways. Most of those old forests that once posed such a formidable challenge to the fledgling railways have now bowed out, and with them have been edged out those thousands of tigers and leopards and elephants that once protested the intrusion of men, iron and machines into their world. There are more lines, more trains. The huffing and puffing steam engines of yore have been replaced with electrified beasts. The ‘war of civilisation’ has been decidedly won by men and their machines.

In recent years, the most visible casualty of the Railways has been that old adversary of the railways, the elephant. As railway lines continue expanding and intruding into their habitats, more than 60 elephants have been mowed down by trains over the past four years, around 300 in the past three decades. West Bengal, Assam and Odisha are the worst affected. Between 2010 and 2019, as many as 51 elephants were killed on the tracks in West Bengal, 44 in Assam and 24 in Orissa. Many such accidents happen when elephants come to the rescue of a herd member stuck on the lines, and die in vain trying to stop the engine just like their forefathers did more than a century ago.
Besides elephants, in the past four years alone, nearly a dozen tigers, more than half a dozen lions, and scores of leopards have died on the tracks.
The Railways and forest authorities have tried a number of different approaches to mitigate this conflict. Some are fairly straightforward, such as reducing train speeds when passing through wildlife habitats; keeping the sides of the tracks clear of vegetation and food waste that might attract elephants and other wild animals; and sensitisation programmes for railway staff. But there have been some novel efforts as well, such as ‘Plan Bee’, the brainchild of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), the area where a majority of elephant-train collisions occur. This involves installing an audio device with a range of 600 metres, which produces the buzzing sound of a swarm of bees, a sound that spooks elephants and keeps them off the tracks. NFR has also constructed underpasses, overpasses and ramps to facilitate elephant crossings and fenced off vulnerable stretches. But these efforts haven’t put an end to the killings, and stories of train-animal collisions continue to come in.

Yet, despite all these conflicts, a slice of the gentler side of the railways, one that inspired writers and artists, did survive into the new millennium. These are the last remnants of several small gauge lines that once cut across the forests of peninsular and northern India. Many of those lines, such as the Satpura narrow gauge lines, which once served the tribal hinterlands of southern Madhya Pradesh and eastern Maharashtra, have now been decommissioned under Project Unigauge. Some still survive. It is on these lines that you can still spot a pointsman precariously walking towards the edge of the platform to light the oil lamp on the semaphore tower as the evening shadows of the towering sal trees begin to lengthen. And here tigers and leopards still sometimes decide to play the part of the ‘awkward visitor’. The trains move slowly, the lines don’t bulldoze through the landscape but quietly snake through forest and hill, meandering like a forest stream. Deer trust the trains enough to graze beside the lines and the clinking wheels of the train are almost a part of forest sounds. These may be the last remnants of a forgotten world where the railways and the wild are not adversaries. Where the two exist in amity. Where the clash of the behemoth and the beast finally ends.
The writer is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and an avid collector of antiquarian books on natural history.

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