Dead and gone is the British Raj in India, that most glittering jewel
in the diadem of Queen Victoria. But close your eyes and think
of that lost dominion, and what do you see?
Behind the lances, the cummerbunds and the pompous vice consuls,
you see the billowing black smoke of the Punjab Mail, speeding
across the Indian plains with its engineers in their cab as
swanky as Emperors. You see the immense stations, battlemented
like castles or stately as universities. You see the agitated
crowds inside, the legless or faceless beggars, the families
sitting hour after hour on their piles of string-tied baggage,
the hawkers crying, the porters hurrying, the memsahibs
clutching their skirts and parasols as they are hastened through
the mob toward the first-class carriages. You see the armies of
clerks slaving away beneath their twirling fans in the
labyrinthine offices of the railway companies. Perhaps you even
see young Mr. Kipling, gazing distractedly out of his carriage
window as he dreams up another tale for publication in
Wheeler's Indian Railway Library. And everywhere, the steam.
Fundamental to the Raj's often colorful, often savage, often
preposterous, often honorable, often disgraceful mythology (as
ambiguous as the heroic-barbaric epics of the Greeks) stands ...
Part of this vision is no more than the truth. The British
Empire was founded upon the power of steam, and nowhere more
absolutely than in India, where for the first time all the vast
spaces of the subcontinent could be mastered by the agents of a
central power. Steamships brought the imperialists swiftly to
Bombay or Calcutta; steam trains hastened the administrators and
the armies to offices and cantonments from Quetta to Darjeeling.
The Indian railways were the single greatest practical
achievement of the Empire, and in their heyday they were the
biggest network on earth. A railway map of British India in the
middle of the 19th century shows a mesh of black lines, thick
and thin, penetrating almost every last corner of the place—even
reaching, with tough, little narrow-gauge tank engines, the
remotest hill towns of the north. As Murray's Handbook to
India loyally remarked, "the Railway Companies do much for
the comfort of travellers throughout the country." If, for
example, you wanted to book a camel to meet you at Jungshahi
Sstation, you had only to send a telegram to the stationmaster.
Part of the myth, though, is allegorical—and always was. The
Indian railways served tremendous functional purposes, but even
at the time they had symbolic meanings too. They were an
ever-visible token of British supremacy, and of the benefits the
Empire brought to its subjects. When that braided official
waited with the camel to meet your train, he was demonstrating
an imperial discipline over Asia's endemic chaos; and those
multitudes of railway clerks, drawing up timetables, devising
"Instructions for Travellers," were a reflection of the general
order which the British saw themselves as bestowing upon the
huddled Indian masses.
The more important of the railway stations signified the
omnipotence of the Raj as explicitly as any viceroy's mansion.
They proclaimed not only the majesty of steam, but the presence
of good government—even, in an allusive way, the benevolent
omnipotence of the Crown far away. The most monumental of them
all, the headquarters of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in
Bombay, was actually named for the Queen-Empress, and its
overwhelming allegories suggested a full range of imperial
motifs: it was like a cathedral with its gargoyles and stained
glass windows; it was like a palace behind its wrought-iron
gates and railings; it was like a university beneath its
collegiate tower; and above all it was a tribute to the
achievements and aspirations of the Empire and its age—for
crowning the whole building, far above the trains, a figure of
Progress raised one triumphant arm toward the future.
Other stations carried other messages, and since the Indian
railways were arteries of command as well as means of public
transport, they were often warlike structures. Some were
actually designed to be defensible, fortresslike buildings into
which the empire -builders could retreat if their subjects ever
decided to reject them. Stern were the symbolisms of these
militant depots, fierce with castle towers, turrets, gun -slits,
high walls and flagstaffs of defiance. This railway is ours,
such structures seemed to say in their clipped Sandhurst
English—this country, too!
More generally the metaphors of the railways were benign.
Although they were built and run by different private companies,
they were a declaration of unity. They were the greatest private
employers in India. They employed men and women of all castes,
with a large proportion of Eurasians. They had their own
hospitals and educational institutes, and they built whole
workshop towns for the maintenance of track and equipment, with
boarding schools for apprentices and company housing for all.
The most famous of them, the East Indian Railway's Jamalpur, had
its own uniformed militia, brass band, swimming pools, tennis
courts and Masonic lLodge, and its main highway was majestically
called Steam Road.
So there was high prestige to Queen Victoria's Indian railways.
To 19th century Indians they were a marvel, and they were
invariably included in the list of "Blessings of the British
Raj" upon which Indian schoolchildren were examined. They bound
the country together as never before, and made many of its
people realize for the first time the immensity of their
inheritance. They distributed food in time of famine, provided
help during catastrophes. They opened up trade, they gave
employment to entire families—a job on the railways was
generally thought to be second only in status to a job in
government. Rich and poor appreciated the trains. The Maharaja
of Gwalior not only built a mausoleum in his palace garden for a
favorite locomotive, but had a toy train trundling around his
dinner table conveying brandy and cigars.
As for the British themselves, they viewed the railway network
as Romans might. They had brought this colossus into being, and
the tracks, the stations, the tunnels and bridges and workshops
were exhibitions of their own merit. Railway managers were men
of stature, living in palatial company houses. Drivers of
expresses and stationmasters of terminals were proud Britons
every one, and if ever the private train of the company chairman
flashed through Jungshahi, why, it was almost like the passing
of the Raj itself.
So it all slipped into legend, and then into mythology. The
railways of India remain to this day a marvellous memorial of
the Raj—perhaps the grandest of its memorials, as they offer one
of the most persuasive arguments for the practice of
imperialism. Few of us can now accept the fundamental principle
of empire, the right of one people forcibly to rule another. But
few would deny that the railway system of British India, now
split into the systems of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, truly
was, as those schoolboys were taught so long ago, one of the
blessings of the Raj.
It is a wonder and a triumph still, and is now not just part of
the myth of the Empire, but part of the myth of India too.
India'sThe country's population has doubled since the imperial
engineers began to lay their tracks, and the old India has
struggled through partition and factional enmity to become one
of the great political forces of the world, containing within
the historic frontiers of the Raj three major nations. Yet
through the years those very same tracks, those very same
stations, even on occasions the very same locomotives have
faithfully conveyed their millions of passengers, their
countless tons of freight and food, across the vast territories
from the ocean to the Himalayas.
Close your eyes again, and think of the subcontinent today.
Behind Bollywood, behind the parading armies, the politicians on
their TV screens, the powerful industries and the endless
multitudes, we are still likely to see ... the railway trains.
The engines rumble now, rather than hiss—no streaming smoke
plumes trail the Punjab Mail—but still beneath the echoing
vaults of the Victoria Terminus the timeless thousands swarm and
fluster, the hawkers cry, the whistles sound and somewhere out
of sight those myriad clerks sit now before their computers.
Beggars still piteously whine at carriage windows, patient
families with their children still wait among their mounds of
It is the same myth, 150 years on. Only the memsahibs are
missing, and young Mr. Kipling at his window seat.