Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tales from the Raj- Nostalgia at its Best

Tales from the Raj- Nostalgia at its Best
Syed Ali Mujtaba

On my way back to Chennai after the last Christmas holidays, I boarded the train for Kolkata at Jamalpur, a sleepy railway junction on eastern railway in Bihar, that once use to hub of railway activities when steam and coal driven iron horses use to crisscross the country.

Jamalpur still is an important place on the map of eastern railways because it boasts of one of the earliest railway locomotive workshop in the country established way back in 1862. It has also a railway engineering collage that produces top class mechanical engineers for the Indian railways.

The eastern side of Jamalpur has row of independent houses for the officers working in the railway workshop and other important railway establishment in Jamalpur. During the British rule, the East colony looked almost like a little England and was an exclusive white zone. The church and the cemetery there tell the story to even to those who are not looking for one.

Any discussion among the passengers boarding the train from Jamalpur invariably takes to the talks on the heydays of the Raj and some old-timers my recall the activities in the east-colony with great enthusiasm, now a thing of a past.

Mr Sinha, a police inspector and two young people working at the railway workshop in Jamalpur was my companion in the train journey to Kolkata. While Sinha was traveling to Sahibganj, a three hours journey to join his duty, spending his weekend in Jamalpur, the others were traveling with their families to attend a wedding at Kolkata.

Sinha, a potbelly, thick mustached man had fudged his date of birth and was still serving the Bihar police even getting close to 70. His retirement was due in two months and he was lamenting about it. He wished to die in office at the ripe age enjoying all the facilities that men in police uniform enjoy in that backward state that sits at the bottom of developmental index in the country.

A great fan of the Raj, Sinha had the first hand experience of the ‘White Sahibs.’

He kept every one captivated with stories about the life in the east colony of Jamalpur.Sinha’s uncle worked as a domestic help at the bungalow of one Henry saab, an officer at the railway workshop. As a young boy Sinha used to frequent Henry Saab’s house and had fond memories of those days.

The conversation actually started with the sorry state of Jamalpur workshop. The guys working there said why can’t the railway minister pump in some funds and make Jamalpur once again the railway hub. Every thing is there that one can ask for as far as infrastructure is concerned as it requires just some funds. India had three railway ministers Ramvilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and now Lalu Yadav, all in quick succession from Bihar but none have given any thought to develop Jamalpur. The other guy replied him saying all the railway ministers who took interest in the rehabilitation of Jamalpur have lost their ministry and it’s a jinxed case.

Sinha, immediately jumped into the conversation and took us to the flashback of the Raj. It was different days, English people were ruling country. Every thing was in order. Jamalpur was a bubbling with activities. More than 25,000 people use to work at the workshop. There use to be three shifts and the coolie train use to chug out of the workshop and transport the workers to quite far of places. Many people in the surrounding areas were depended on the Jamalpur workshop, Sinha said.

Sinha, upping his narration took us to have a peep into the life and times of Hennery Sab. My uncle worked at the bungalow of Hennery Sab. I used to go with him to that house sometimes, Sinha said nostalgically.

What a house it used to be, a big lawn full of flowers and Hennery Saab and his Memsab use to sit under the garden umbrella. They had two Alsatians dogs, a horse, a cat, a parrot and some other birds, hens and a green jeep in the bungalow.

I had seen Memsaab riding horse at the east end road and saab use to play golf in the golf course Sinha relished telling that as if he had an exclusive copyright over it.

Both Hennery Saab and memsahib were found of hunting, they had a few double barrels and rifles with them. I use to help my uncle clean the guns. There were three rifles, two DBL (double barrel) and one sleek pistol that I think belonged to memsaab. Once I accompanied them to a hunting expedition in the Bhimband Lake that’s in Kharagpur jungles of Monghyr district.

Such expeditions were usually in winters when the lake was full with ducks, cranes and other migratory birds. A lot many birds flew over the lake and others rested in waters, their chirping filled the atmosphere and it was an unforgettable sight, Sinha said.

An advance party would normally go and pitch up tents near the lake. There use to be chairs, table, garden umbrella and folding beds use to be put up there. There were separate tents for servants. The coal stuff ovens were carried there for cooking and make shift toilets was erected.

Hennery Saab, memsaab with their friends use to come in the jeep and stayed overnight in the tents and the shooting session use to begin since the morning. Hennery memsaab was a sharp shooter and her rifle shots were remarkable Sinha said. There use to be competition and invariable she uses to beat every one as she could shoot a duck in a cluster of birds.

Henry Saab use to go after the wild boar in jungles and all this fun filled activities lasted for the entire day. While the Sab and memsaab use to return before the sunset, the other staff left the place only by next day.

As Sinha was narrating this hunting expedition, every one sitting in the moving train listened to him patiently. To me it was the reels from the movie ‘A Passage to India’ by David Lean.

When Sinha said, goodnight folks have a pleasant journey to Kolkata, I realized the three hours of journey had already flew past. Although the train had stopped at many stations it for first time I could figure the slowing down sound of the moving train.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Great piece! Should start writing novels!


What a beautiful picture you've painted Syed! I almost felt like I was sitting across from Mr Sinha myself... listening to his fascinating stories as he twirled his thick mustache. Maybe I made that bit up about the twirling though AimeePearce 10 Jul 08 - 5:52 am


Very nostalgic- good history lesson.- susanna