Like every other modern institution in India, railways too originated in Madras, in the sense that the Madras Railway Company was formed way back in 1845, when the ﬁrst-ever train ride in India, from Bombay to Thane, had not even been thought of. But the Great Indian Peninsula Company, set up much later, beat Madras by opening the Bombay-Thane line in 1853. Since the original structures of Bombay and Thane stations no longer exist, Royapuram station, declared open in 1856, is today the oldest railway station in the entire subcontinent.
Captain (Barnett) Fort’s sketch depicting its inauguration shows a large crowd of elegantly-attired Europeans gathered on the low-lying platform of the station. The eagerness to board the train is palpable. The platform looks strikingly grand because of its Corinthian pillars. From above the tall pillars hang large ﬂags that add to the regal air. Two tracks run in front of the platform: a train waiting on each of them. The train farther from the platform, carrying the natives, already has the steam-spewing locomotive attached to it. They are witnessing the inauguration ceremony from the train; while the Europeans, gathered on the platform, are part of the ceremony.
This afternoon, however, Murali and I ﬁnd neither the crowds nor any train as we drive into the Royapuram station, which is now painted in deep red and its Corinthian pillars in white. Murali parks the car right under the porch of the historic station, as if he owns the place. No one stops us: there is hardly a soul around anyway. In the hall described in The Illustrated London News as ‘very elegant and most superbly furnished with handsome punkahs & c.’, a couple of dogs are sleeping.
Given Chennai’s notorious neglect of its heritage, Royapuram station had nearly gone to the dogs. When I saw it outside during my ﬁrst trip to north Chennai with Murali, it was a crumbling building, left to fall on its own. But good sense eventually prevailed upon the railways which restored the station in 2005.
In the hall, there are pictures of the station before and after restoration. Inside the ticket window, a lone clerk is marking time. The train services may have increased since the restoration, but this does not seem to be a busy station, even though it was Madras’s main railway terminus until 1907. All I can hear is the chirping of birds.
Standing on the main platform, I try to visualise the scene of the station’s inauguration in 1856. The few Corinthian pillars that remain unmistakably belong to Captain Fort’s sketch. So it was here that the journey of railways in south India began. A railway employee, who has been watching Murali and me looking around and taking pictures, comes over. He tells us that some of the old pillars had to be broken to facilitate electriﬁcation of the line, and that how it had been nearly impossible to bring them down—so strong they had been. He also tells us that the Burma teak furnishings in the hall were stolen during the restoration. Our conversation is cut short when a passenger train suddenly whizzes past, startling both Murali and me.
Since this platform has no shade and the sun is beating down mercilessly, we too get back to the hall and emerge on the platform on the other side of the building, which is shaded by what appears to be a ﬁbreglass roof, red which has faded into patches of yellow. The slanting roof is held up by antique cantilevers. The platform is clean and empty and bears a historic look.
While Murali takes pictures, I sit on the lone wooden bench whose backrest has ‘M.S.M.R’ engraved on it. M.S.M.R stands for Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, which came into being in 1908 following the merger of the Madras Railway Company and the Southern Mahratta Railway. The company had its headquarters in Royapuram until 1922, when it shifted to the Central station. The bench, therefore, is about a hundred years old. If only it could speak. It must have seated countless genteel Europeans and distinguished Indians, and countless vagabonds and rowdies in the dark decades before its restoration.
The harbour is in close view: I can see the cranes and containers. At some distance is the Royapuram bridge, which we had taken to get here; the sound of the trafﬁc on it is now no louder than the buzzing of ﬂies. Right in front of me are three pairs of rail tracks, covered in places by vegetation. A dog is sleeping close to my feet. If you want to spend a quiet day with a book, this bench is the place to be.
The door to the station master’s ofﬁce is right next to the bench, and all this while, perhaps because of the silence, we’ve assumed that he must not be in. But he has been on his seat all along. He looks up from the paperwork and smiles nervously at us when we step in. He is puzzled that two strange men should be barging into his room and asking him questions related to his work. Murali, with his gift of the gab, puts him at ease by explaining to him, in Tamil, the purpose of our visit.
The station master tells us that at present, twenty-seven pairs of local trains pass through Royapuram station each day, apart from the occasional goods train; and that there is one train which still originates from Royapuram station—a goods train—and goes straight to Delhi.
As he talks, my eyes travel around his ofﬁce. On the wall is a large diagram of the station, down to the minute detail which only a railway man can decipher. There are homilies too, in English, about the dangers of drinking and driving—a train, that is. In a corner of the room, on an antiquated table, lies an assortment of iron equipment related to rail tracks. To my untrained eye, most of the iron pieces appear to be ﬁshplates. I also spot a piece of childhood fascination—the signalman’s lantern!
I lift it with great excitement and call out to Murali to take a look. The station master smiles at us. We are still examining the lantern when we hear a rattling sound on the tracks outside and soon ﬁnd a goods train passing by. We rush out to the platform with the lantern. I hold it up pretending to be the signalman, with the moving train in the backdrop, as Murali takes pictures. Then we quickly exchange positions. We put the lantern back in place and thank the station master for his time.
Only much later, when we are back in the bustle of the trafﬁc, does it strike me that I had forgotten to ask the station master something pertinent: how does it feel it to be presiding over the country’s oldest surviving railway station?
Bishwanath Ghosh’s Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began was launched in New Delhi on Friday.
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