Book Review: Halt Station India: The Dramatic Tale of the Nation’s First Rail Lines by Rajendra B. Aklekar, Rupa Books, Delhi, 2014.
Sometimes when we travel in the trains, we usually think of how the railway made its ways in India? What was the story of the first rail line of the country? How the project was made and it progressed? What were the challenges before the mission of laying lines? What were the reactions of local people towards this strange happening? How this network of track spread all around the country. The answers of some of these various questions is ‘Halt Station India: The Dramatic Tale of the Nation’s First Rail Lines’ by Rajendra B. Aklekar. As railways enthuse, he narrated the story of advent and development of rail lines particularly in Bombay in this book. Sir Mark Tully rightly appreciated the book in the forewords that
Rajendra B. Aklekar’s meticulous research- and his scholarship which enables him to interpret his finding- throws new light on the way those railways were built- the laying of the lines, why they were laid where they were laid, how the demands on them changed and how they met those demands.
He collected facts from various sources and created this wonderful book by putting them together. The first Chapter ‘The Story of an Experimental line’ of the book is an account of emergence and materialization of the idea of first rail line (not only) in India (but also in Asia). Though the activities related to the steam engines were taking place in India even before 1850 when architect of the first line of India James John Berkley landed in Bombay but the first formal passenger train service was flagged off on 16th April 1853 from Bori Bandar (known as VT) to Thana hauled by Falkland (the locomotive named after Bombay governor of the time Lucius Bentinck Cary, the tenth Lord Viscount of Falkland). Some other engineers also joined Berkley’s team at the site but couldn’t acclimatize with the weather condition and even succumbed to the death. The construction of the line was really a big challenge in a difficult terrain. Aklekar noted down all the activities related to the construction of the first line, such as survey of the line, arrangement of construction materials, planning of line, arrival of locomotive and coaches, trial run, enthusiasm of locals and railway workers and finally the description of the first run. Apart from these details, Akelkar also noted socio-economic aspect of this development. There was not a very good relationship between English and local workers. Local workers were also on strikes with their demands. When trains were started running there were many reservations among the people of upper social strata. Rich and people belongs to the upper castes (both Hindus and Muslims) were not happy to share their space with the common people. Next Three chapters of the book ‘Walking down the first Railway Line’, ‘The Romance of the Harbour line’ and ‘The Wonders of BB&CI Railway line’ are interesting reportage of tracking along the lines. Akelkar described the specifications of the station one by one and also traced the remains of the day. He thoroughly enjoyed the art of narration while telling the stories of the lines and stations. Line and Stations between Victoria Terminus and Thana have been gone through the winds of change but remains of Great Indian Peninsula Railways (now central line) are still there. Similarly he also journeyed the lines of Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway (Now Western Line) and Harbour line.
The fifth chapter of the book ‘Nostalgia Along the Lines’ is an collection of the memoirs by the people of the early days of railways in Bombay. Next chapter, ‘Forgotten Lines and Lost Journeys’ is focused on the important lines and stations which don’t exist now. Bori Bunder, from where the first train of India originated is more or less existing in the name of UNESCO world heritage site Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus and known as Victoria Terminus but Colaba, Bombay Backbay, Ballard Pier Mole, Mazgaon and Bhor Ghat Reversing stations are now became chapters of the History. Similarly Trams Services and some Industrial lines disappeared in the crowd of the cities. Author of the book devoted one separate chapter on the tram services in Mumbai. In the last part of the book he covered all the recent developments related to the railways in Mumbai, introduction of trains with new technology, mono rail and metro. Railway is a passion for Rajendra Aklekar and the same is reflected in this book. He narrated the story in a floury language. He is a well informed writer, he has every possible facts related to the particular person, event or item. For example he shows how the root of Musjid Bunder station connected with Tipu Sultan, the ballot boxes of first General Election of the India carried by railway from Mumbai to all over India and how the hall was cooled during annual session of Indian National Congress. Author also uncovered reason behind the naming of station as ‘road’. During the epidemic Britishers didn’t want to come in touch with local people so the rail lines were kept outside of the town and nearby station was named after the same town as road. Aklekar also provided old photographs of the various stations and lines. The book is a combination of a scholarship and fiction. On the one hand, he used various references from books, newspaper archives and journals; on the other side he has mastered the art of storytelling. Also at Bombay Railway History