Of all the vehicles conveying people and goods, especially over long distances, none have had the evocative resonance and versatility of the train-whether powered by steam, diesel, or electric locomotives. Intrinsically, there is an indefinable, indescribable appeal about trains, both visual and auditory. This is a quality that has made them eminently suitable for children’s ditties, and songs and poems-over a vast range of media down the decades: print, records, radio, TV, spool tapes, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and film.
Trains have featured across all kinds of musical genres-vintage and contemporary pop, big band and swing, blues, folk, country; and are memorably represented in cinema and literature … It is surely the steam locomotive-powered trains that have had the greatest auditory and visual appeal: the loud hissing, and the moist vapour emanating from the locomotive as it draws the energy to move forward; the choo-chooing to an American, or chhuk-chhuking to an Indian, ear as it gets under way, and the toot-toot or the hoot of the whistle from time to time. But one must not forget the charms of the streamlined form and the honking horn of their diesel or electric successors.
Trains not only ferry passengers and goods (it may be mentioned here that while we wait at a level-crossing the length of the goods train and the time it takes to pass create quite an impression): they are both tremendous immediate spectacles and ‘hermeneutic haulers’, bearing as they do meanings, tropes and metaphors-of hardships; sorrows; celebrations; festivities; playfulness; diligent, sustained effort; and progress … The departures most often convey the pain of parting; and the arrivals the joy of reunion.
From the light-hearted and fun-filled to the deeply contemplative and thought-provoking-and from praise to protest, despair to hope, trains range across all sorts of narratives and emotions. You have light-hearted songs like Al Jolson’s Toot-Toot-Tootsie in vintage American pop and Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Choo-Choo-A-Boogie in Big Band and Swing. In Country and Western, there’s Johnny Cash’s brooding evocation in Folsom Prison Blues:
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend…..rollin’ on down to San Antone.
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away….
Here’s the same Johnny Cash, awaiting the arrival of his sweetheart, and with the joyous sounds emanating from the train coming into view, happily and excitedly pointing out to us in his song, Orange Blossom Special:
Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back.
And here is Ashok Kumar working his Rail Gaadi along the Harindranath Chattopadhyay- Gulzar “line”:
Aao bachchon khayl dikhaaeyn, Chhuk-chhuk karti rail chalaaeyn, Rail Gaadi, rail Gaadi….Chhuk chhuk, chhuk chhuk, chhak chhak, Bombay say Baroda tak tum kaho jab tak…
Remember the song “Apni to har aah ayk tuufaan haey” from the 1960 film Kala Bazar? Shot on a train, this musical segment not only begins with the whistle of the engine, the whistle is a constant refrain symbolising the “aah”, the hopeful sigh; and Mohd Rafi does his vocal best to help Dev Anand woo Waheeda Rehman who is on the berth directly above his. Here’s how the lyrics waft up to the “uparvaalaa”. You will surely note how craftily Dev Saab is ostensibly referring to the divine power even as his actual addressee is the beautiful uparvaali with whom he is so smitten:
… Apni to har aah ayk tuufaan haey.
Kyaa karayn vo jaan kar anjaan haaey?
Uparvaalaa jaan kar anjaan haey.
Apni to har aah ayk tuufaan haey …
Among the most wistful uses of the train whistle in Bollywood songs none perhaps surpasses that of “Chalte Chalte” in Pakeezah (1972) [Music: Ghulam Mohammad; Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar].
In world literature, we find that Mark Twain travelled on Indian trains in 1896 and came up with interesting and amusing accounts of these as also of railway stations and the people of the country in his travelogue Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, first published in 1897. And it may also be mentioned that in this literary genre of travelogue we count among the very best that we have read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazar (1975) and The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979).
And in fiction how can we forget, in the adventure novel genre, these two intrepid characters from the pen of French writer Jules Verne-Phineas Fogg and his valet Passepartout, who rode Indian trains in 1872 during the course of their breathlessly hectic (by the yardstick of those days) journey Around the World in Eighty Days (Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours;1873)?
We were instantly charmed when we recently came across this poem by W. H. Auden we had not read before and that took us back to our early years when pen, pencil, paper … and the post and the postman and letter writing were an integral part of our lives. Here is Auden’s account of the mail train from England to Scotland:
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order …
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy …
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue …
In Urdu poetry of the progressive-revolutionary variety of the 1930s to the 1950s, trains have served as tropes of protest against political prisoners being relocated to faraway prisons. For instance we have Raat aur Rail by Asrar-ul-Haq “Majaz”:
Phir chali haey rail station say lahraati huee
Neem-shab ki qaamuushi mayn zayr-ay-lab gaati hui …
(Again out of the station the train gracefully slips
In the quiet of the dusk with a song on its lips …)
As the darkness sets in the mood of the poem changes from the delight voiced by the opening lines and it assumes a brooding tone, with telling tropes of political and social oppression:
Ayk mujrim ki taraah sahmi hui simti hui
Ayk muflis ki taraah sardi mayn thharraati hui
(Like a prisoner scared and cowering
Like a pauper in the cold shivering …)
But it soon recovers equanimity and looks ahead:
Safhaa-ay-dil say mitaati ahd-ay-maazi kay nuquush
Haal-o-mustaqbil kay dilkash khvaab dikhlaati hui …
(Wiping out images of the past from the heart
It conjures up hopeful dreams of a fresh start …)
And it resolutely attacks tyranny [here it must be borne in mind that in revolutionary Urdu poetry “shab” (evening, night); and “tareeki”, “zulmat” (darkness) mostly symbolise oppression]:
Daaman-ay-taariki-ay-shab ki udaati dhajjiyaan
Qasr-ay-zulmat par musalsal teer barsaati hui …
(The hem of the pitch black night it shreds to many a piece
And on the palace of darkness it rains arrows without cease.)
For sheer visual magic, there is this episode in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in which Apu and Durga gaze in wonder from a pathway parting in the meadow grass that dwarfs them at an approaching locomotive emitting from its chimney thick columns of smoke and listen to its mesmerising chugging till it vanishes into the horizon.
Then there is this word firaaq that at once means departure and separation; not only is it straightforwardly germane to our train narrative, but meaning as it at once does “separation and departure” it serves as a very effective trope in Urdu poetry to convey the parting pangs of lovers.
But by far, the greatest emotional impact trains have on us is when lying in bed late at night and the world is still and sounds carry clearly, we hear them from afar and wonder about their destinations.