The Night Mail Train in India

It was seven o’clock on the night of the 10th December, 1855, we found ourselves, fresh from England, in one of the large barrack-like rooms of a Calcutta hotel, thinking partly of the coming Christmas-tide and the home which we had left behind; partly of our Indian prospects and the journey which lay before us to the far north-west. Although it was December, we sat with all the windows open, oppressed by heat and mosquitoes; and we contrasted, as so many had done before, India with England. This room, we thought, looking at four staring white walls, one brown square table, and three wooden arm-chairs—voilà tout,—this room is not so comfortable as the coffee-room at the club; we had rather be hearing the occasional rumble of a cab outside that window, or even those mendacious rascals who hawk the evening papers, than the dismal buzzing of mosquitoes and other insects, varied only by the occasional discordant grunting of some palki-bearers jogging on under the burden of a shilling fare. Well, never mind—so we philosophically concluded—even India improves. It is a bore having to travel twelve hundred miles; but to-night, at least, we shall not be boxed up in a palki. It is, after all, something like civilization to be leaving Calcutta by the mail-train. These reflections naturally induced us to look at the watch; it was eight o’clock; the train started at nine; and Indian habits still prevail to such an extent, notwithstanding railways, that we required not less than an hour to go from the hotel to the station, though not two miles distant. So we paid our bill, sent for the best substitute procurable for a cab—viz., a palki gharee; that is to say, a palanquin on four wheels, drawn by a horse—and started at a sober trot for the Howrah terminus. Now then, coachman, why do you stop? Ah! he has cause; we have reached the river side, and we must bid adieu to the poor substitute for a cab, and take a boat. Ah, how quickly are we transported back to Asia! England dies away in the far, far West, and Western civilization with it. It cannot be that rails are laid, and engines are steaming, and booking-clerks are stamping tickets, within a mile of us; we say, it cannot be. Look at this Eastern scene. Through the clear, cool, but not chilly atmosphere, we look into the brilliant, cloudless, starlit sky; the growing moon, already sloping to the west, strikes right up the silvered waters of the Hooghly, splinters the wake of our boat, and casts deep shadows under the lee of the black ships which lie everywhere quiet, graceful, motionless, and, like all anchored ships at night, phantom-like; the natives going on their ordinary course wind noiselessly hither and thither, while the natives plying for hire at the strand fill the air with their discordant cries; Eastern are the sounds—Eastern is the sky—Eastern is the slowly moving sacred river; it cannot be that on yonder bank, where nothing is seen as yet but a few Eastern palm-trees, we shall find a night mail-train!

But the boat approaches the northern shore of the Hooghly. The cries which we had left on the other bank revive again; amidst screams, entreaties, and most admired disorder, which two or three half-caste policemen are powerless to repress, we land, and have no more need to ask, Where is the railway? There, right before us, is the unmistakeable shed. Unmistakeable, indeed! Let architects dispute about their Grecian and their Gothic, their old English and Byzantine, their Tudoresque and their anythingesque, we will undertake to pronounce at once upon that style which may be characterised as the ‘early Iron.’ That pent, long, narrow roof—those girders, those pillars—there can be nothing but a railway there. Quietly and slowly, with none of the dash of a Hansom galloping up just in time to save the train, but on foot, with four hired porters—that is to say, poor half-naked Coolies—carrying our baggage, we approach the booking-office. This office is a strange combination of England and India. Indian is the large, high, spacious, verandahed room; Indian are the open doors and the green venetians; Indian is that native clerk in a white cotton jacket;—but English is the wooden screen perforated by ticket windows, that bars the office from the outer world; English is the application we now make, ‘One first-class to Raneegunge;’ English the art with which the oblong card-ticket is thrust into the stamping machine; English the like heavy fare, equivalent to twenty-three shillings, which is demanded for our one hundred and twenty miles’ journey.

We passed on to the deserted platform, feebly illuminated by some weak oil lamps—for Calcutta has its railway, but not its gas-lights. There stood the unpainted wooden carriages; one first-class quite empty, two second-class scantily occupied by a mixed population of Europeans, half-castes, and natives, and six or seven third-class, in which the great multitude, on whom the fortune of the Calcutta Railway depends—the great multitude for whose accommodation, as distinguished from the great few, all the secrets of nature are gradually brought to light—were herded together in a manner more profitable to the Company than pleasant to the passenger. The train was being made up into two parts, as our readers may recollect that the trains at Euston-square are made up. ‘Where is the engine?’ we asked of the guard, a young Englishman, who, with his neat uniform and despatch-box, looked fresh transplanted from one of the home lines. ‘It’s with the fore part of the train, sir,’ he answered; ‘we shall shove down to it.’ We observed, as we have just remarked above, that this was like Euston-square. The poor man’s eyes lighted up directly. That remark opened a fellow-feeling between us. We had both looked into railway minutiae with curious, interested eyes; so, we were soon in conversation. He had been on the York, Newcastle, and Berwick line in the days of its independence. Ah! we agreed; the express trains did go on that line! He enjoyed the conversation, we trust; certainly we did. For a few minutes the iron roads, the rich plains of Yorkshire, the coal-seamed, furnace-lighted tracts of Durham were vividly before us; when he was called off to his duty, to see native porters put up some luggage, or rather to scold and push and intimidate them (we will not use any stronger expression, lest he should lose his place), till five men consented, with much groaning, shouting, and quarrelling, to place on the roof of a carriage one box such as an English porter would have tossed up with one hand. Five minutes to nine! Trains are punctual in India, if nothing else is. We talk of education. What education like that of the glorious, much abused, and as yet little understood invention of the railway? We preach all science and all virtue, but Blackey will not believe. We introduce clocks, and insist on the importance of time, but Blackey lingers for his quarter or half hour of dearly loved dawdling, nevertheless. But the railway comes; and with an awful mechanical punctuality—more stern, more silent, more exacting, more unscrupulous than any punctuality which a man can pretend to,—the clock strikes, the bell rings, the dead-alive engine whistles—moves—departs; the inexorable metal trio succeed in teaching the lesson which flesh and blood could not impress, and Blackey is never late at a railway station.

Meanwhile the Honourable Company’s mail has been placed in a parcel van, under the charge of a native guard, and the night mail-train departs. It is characteristic of the railway, and its tendency to reduce all men and countries to a uniform civilization, that it admits of so little variety, either from climate, country, or any other cause. Every nation has its own peculiar vehicle; every sea, every river, has its own peculiar boat; but a train is a train all the world over. That brief whistle, that strong, silent pull, that gradual glide, that monotonous rattle, have nothing in them, here in the plains of Bengal, to distinguish them from the same sounds and sensations so often experienced amid the factories of Lancashire, the red cliffs and blue, sounding waves of South Devon, the vine-bearing plains of France, the rugged passes of Styria, the tropical hills of Havannah, or the wild jungle of Western America. The train travels at a rate varying from fifteen to twenty miles an hour. About every eight miles occurs a station with some uncouth name. We look out as we pass one of these; the long, straight line of iron rail still retains its familiar look of civilization, but all its circumstances have become entirely Oriental. The station is a little white bungalow, with green open doors; its name, ‘Hooghly,’ is written in those three characters which suggest at every turn to the most careless traveller the strange fate of India: the English, plain, business-like capital letters looking as if they were conscious of belonging to the conquering people; the graceful Persian curling from right to left, emblematic of the politeness, the facile dexterity, perhaps too of the intrigue and instability, of Central Asiatics, powerful enough to impress on a susceptible people a manner which makes every peasant of Hindostan more or less a gentleman, but unable to cope with the plain, honest force which is represented by the Roman capitals; and, lastly, the mystical Bengalee, the vernacular of the province, closely allied to every vernacular tongue all over India, which here, at the Hooghly station, is read by thousands; while of the two conquering languages one is read by hundreds, the other by units; the language of the conquered million, yet containing in it the roots of more than half the words spoken by conquering English, close akin to the ancient Sanskrit, that source beyond which the stream of human language has not yet been traced.

But the train moves on, and, so far as it is concerned, the conquering English has it all its own way. The ancient Sanskrit is still represented by every one of the dull objects which meet the traveller’s eye. The ungraceful palm, so strangely associated in European minds with Oriental beauty; the green, melancholy plain; the occasional glimpses of the yellow, sluggish, corpse-bearing river,—these are the witnesses to the fact—so strange, yet so forgotten—that where the English steam-engine now travels, there, just one century ago, the Nawab of Bengal was marching down on Calcutta to perpetrate the Black Hole massacre—that tragedy from which the Anglo-Indian Empire took its birth. Here, centuries ago, the Hindoo walked and sat and smoked, worshipping his god Permanence, even as he walks and sits and smokes and worships the same god to-day.

It is past midnight when we reach Burdwan. This is more than fifty miles from Calcutta, and is the meeting-place for the trains from the north-west and the south-east. We are sorry that we cannot, without misleading the English reader, use the familiar terms ‘up’ and ‘down.’ The East Indian Railway Company have thought it necessary to reverse the existing English usage, and have preferred a phraseology in accordance with geographical fact and Old Indian association, to the settled technicalities of the rail. The train which leaves Calcutta is called the ‘up,’ because it proceeds up the Gangetic valley, or more probably because, in the language of Anglo-Indians, it goes ‘up country;’ whereas the traveller fresh from England is scandalized to find that, when approaching the metropolis of India, he is nevertheless in the down-train. The geographical argument does not merit consideration. The Great Western express runs up the valley of the Thames in going from Reading to London, but Mr. Brunel’s hair would stand on end were it to be called a down-train. And even their favourite expression, ‘up country,’ should not have induced the Anglo-Indian community to treat with such disrespect their metropolitan city, or to depart from that technical phraseology the sole convenience of which consists in its being universally adopted. At present the anomaly is of little practical consequence; but when the railway system of India is developed, it will be found impossible to let the up and down phraseology of every branch vary with the real or fancied geographical features of the country; and it will be found desirable, though after a long contrary practice perhaps not possible, to adopt the time-honoured English custom, and affix the general designation of ‘up’ to all those lines which lead to, and not from, the metropolis.

Burdwan is, as we have said, the Wolverton, the Swindon, the Peterborough, of the existing portion of the East Indian Railway. The line from Calcutta to Raneegunge consists of only a single rail: single rail traffic has to be managed, of course, with peculiar care. Considering, however, that the whole distance is but one hundred and twenty miles, and that there are two through-trains only either way in the twenty-four hours, we think that this necessary caution is a little more than amply represented by a halt at Burdwan of three hours’ duration. It gives us time, however, to contemplate the first Indian effort at a railway refreshment-room. Well, we must not be hypercritical. If we think of Birmingham in its palmy days—before the Trent Valley was open; of that iron-roofed station lying so dark and deserted, nothing seen but the dim glimmer of the almost extinguished lamps, and the ghostly outlines of some spare carriages, which look as if they were glad to have a night’s sleep in the shed; nothing heard but the footfall of a solitary policeman, when suddenly a long whistle proclaims the approach of the train from the Grand Junction: in a moment the station blazes with light brighter than that of day, and the deserted scene is forthwith thronged by a population of porters, cab-drivers, passengers, and hotel waiters;—if we recall the old refreshment-room, where four long tables groaned under such joints as the pastures of rich Warwickshire alone could produce, then see, in twenty minutes, the supper over, the train stealing off, the darkness descending as suddenly as it had been dispelled, the platform again silent and deserted:—if we think of all that magic, or of the more ordinary work-a-day neatness of an English refreshment counter, with English women standing behind it, we shall certainly be disappointed by the straggling, open-doored, white-washed, ill-lighted Burdwan refreshment-room; by the slovenly attendance of the sleepy Khidmatgars, half-admiring, half-cursing the unaccountable taste of the English Sahibs, which induces them to run about at night, when they might be in bed, or, if they must travel, might lie at length undisturbed in a soporific palanquin; nor is the culinary treatment of the Bengal beef such as to make him pity the Hindu for being bound to abstain from the flesh of oxen.

But if he is a reasonable man, and compares, not with the past of England, but that of India, he owns that he has fallen upon pleasanter lines than were the portion of his Indian forefathers. The Burdwan station and refreshment-room are, it is freely allowed, capable of much improvement; but it is better to come here and find at least some one expecting us, at least a few lamps burning, at least a bottle of beer in the locker, than to be driven in the middle of the night to the inhospitable shelter of a dàk bungalow, and having at last succeeded in waking its disgusted Khidmatgar, to be shown into a desolate, unfurnished room, and reconciled to finding himself foodless, candleless, bedless, only because it is precisely what he had made up his mind for, and therefore he is not disappointed.

So, again, should murmurs arise concerning the very sober pace of the mail train when in transit, and the very Oriental indifference with which mails and passengers are allowed to sleep away three hours of the night at Burdwan; should some energetic passenger from the Punjab, full of statistics and selections from Government Records, observe that the post is conveyed at a greater average speed by mail-cart in the North-west than it is by railway in Bengal; although it may be impossible to contradict him, yet the more patient-minded man recollects that a few years ago he would have been going to Raneegunge in a palanquin; that, after a long night’s journey, he would have been only forty miles from Calcutta, whereas now, at midnight, he has accomplished nearly sixty, and will be as far off again in the morning. Again, is it a rainy night—a rainy night in July—in Bengal? He steps with confidence into his first-class carriage and lets it rain. He can go to sleep without any philanthropic cares for the poor bearers, with no selfish anxiety lest the roof of his vehicle should leak, with no misgivings as to how soon he shall be deposited with a crash on the soaked and slippery ground.

The East Indian Railway is very slow, but it keeps time. We found ourselves at Raneegunge punctually at six in the morning: one hundred and twenty miles in ten hours—not very fast—twelve miles an hour; let us hope a good paying pace to the proprietors. There is nothing to describe at Raneegunge—there is nothing to see. The little white station-house, the sheds full of wheeled carriages, belonging to the companies which will convey us over the Grand Trunk Road, are the only signs to mark the present terminus of the East Indian Railway. Civilization, as regards locomotion, here abruptly terminates. The mail bags are taken out of their dignified van, and pitched into a very dingy, but very strong, mail-cart, to which a country-bred horse is harnessed, partly by rope, partly by bad leather. A native in indescribable costume mounts in front of the cart, takes a loose hold of the reins—which are never used by a native for the purpose of guiding the horse—sounds a few discordant notes on a cracked bugle, and after a few attempts to lie down on the part of the horse, a few turnings round, a few plunges, the Honourable Company’s mail gallops off into the jungle at a tremendous rate, as if barbarism were determined to show civilization what it could do. And indeed the performances of barbarism in mail-carts are so remarkable, that civilization will have a tough task to beat them. Meanwhile, in his onward journey the most discontented railway passenger soon learns to regret the railway. He asks eagerly when the next section will be opened. He is informed that the line from Burdwan to Raneegunge is not the real railway at all, but only a branch running to some important collieries, temporarily used by passengers till the main line is completed from Burdwan to Rajmahal. When this will be opened it is difficult to ascertain with any precision. The Sonthal insurrection of 1855 interfered greatly with the works in progress; but we believe it is hoped to see the railway finished to Benares in 1858. The part then to be completed will comprehend far the most difficult ground between Calcutta and the North-western to Allahabad is already in progress. Good hopers will tell us that we shall take a ticket from Calcutta to Delhi in 1860.

We cannot tell how this may be, but of this we are as sure as we can be of any future event, that the existing generation of Anglo-Indians will travel by rail from Calcutta to Lahore. The oldest inhabitant of England cannot appreciate the blessing contained in this anticipation. The worst he can recollect is a post-chaise; in India they are travelling in doolies still. Seven miles an hour is the worst relic which he can recall of a barbarous golden maximum of palanquin possibilities.

Discomfort is hydra-headed, and will live for ever; but our children’s children, when they look at a decayed palanquin in a modern museum, may congratulate themselves that one of discomfort’s most odious avatars expired when that detestable conveyance was superseded; he will bestow a thought of filial compassion on the sorrows of his ancestors as he glides in a first-class carriage from government to government, lazily looking out of window at the quickly succeeding stations which marked the weekly stages of their slow progress to his benighted forefathers.

W. D. A.