Closely observed trains: Indian Railways and the families' memories

Updated on Jul 05, 2015 02:43 PM IST
On the 40th anniversary of the 70s' cult Anglo-Indian film, Julie, India's first railway families talk of discipline, timetables, loyalties, -- and the way they were.
Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

In 1947, when the British left India and withdrew its management from the vast network of railways it had laid down in the century before, the Anglo-Indian who had largely manned it, began to preserve his memories in aspic and doubled his efforts at the job. The engine driver sat up straighter in his white suit; his foot-plate and brass fittings gleamed; the locomotive mechanic left his bed if the breakdown siren sounded at night; the stationmaster's kids kept their eyes on the front-yard, from where they could see the train leave, to calculate when they could tell mum to put the kettle on for dad.

Back home, in the railway colonies, raged a storm. Short of money and faced with the real scare of losing near-hereditary jobs, domestic quarrels were fought behind the wail of a wind-up gramophone grinding out the Blue Danube while the younger children, unaware of the change of wind, jitterbugged at a Railway Institute dance, in the footsteps of the last British soldiers slowly leaving town.

"There were pressures and contrary to what people think, we didn't drink it all away," says Tamil Nadu-based Noel Everad Fuller, 56 (a fifth and last generation railwayman) with reference to 'Mr Morris', the hard-drinking affable engine driver in the 70s Anglo-Indian film, Julie, whose 40th anniversary it is this year. "For Anglo-Indians," says Fuller, "it was about how to deal with the changed times. In fact, life handed us a lemon, so we made lemonade."

Julie, released in 1975, was the story of an Anglo-Indian train driver, Mr Moriss, and his family. It was a box-office hit.

(Photo Credit: Footprints on the Track)

Due to the ease with which the community got jobs in the middle and lower management during the British era, non-Anglo-Indians dubbed it their 'Grandfather's property', a thorny inheritance as India became independent. "In earlier generations, Railways were the prime employer and very probably the availability of quarters and usual automatic recruitment of the next and succeeding generations would have been the driving force for a community that didn't have ancestral property," says Darryl Burke of Goa who joined as apprentice mechanic (electrical) and left the railways in 1982.

By the 50s, 40 per cent Anglo-Indians were drivers; officers and engineers were a mere 5 per cent. In the 80s, this dwindled down to 10 per cent - mainly drivers and guards.

But the idea of being a railway people and the bearers of a 'tradition' continued, especially with those continuing the parents' profession. It was, and still is, common among Anglo-Indian engineers to cite Anglo-Indian engine drivers such as Percy Carroll and Mack Johannes (posthumous recipients of the Ashoka Chakra, who sacrificed their lives to save passengers on their trains) as heroes; to treasure memories of being ticked off by a locomotive foreman, of mentioning their British-era railway-men as if they were closely observed trains.

Edna Caroll receiving the Ashok Chakra awarded posthumously to her husband Percy Caroll, driver of the Bombay-Calcutta Mail, from President Rajendra Prasad. (Photo Credit: Footprints on the Track)

"James Edward Fuller was 25 years when his marriage certificate listed his profession as engine driver, so we can safely assume that when he was 18, in 1856, when the first train rolled out in Royapuram. He was in the employ of the Madras State Railways," says Noel Fuller of his great-great grandfather, as if he is discussing both the locomotive's and the man's 'make'.

Senior technician Noel Fuller, before the last Meter Gauge Electric Train at Tambaram station, near Chennai. (Photo Credit: Footprints on the Track)

The past is, indeed, difficult to let go for the community even as many of them have moved on - either to the UK, Australia or Canada - or even as they still reside in colonies in which they saw the end of Empire. In 1947, Kharagpur was a synonym for 'happening', when Olive Lennon joined as a teacher in its railway school. Staying next to a bungalow, it used to be a "garden city -- never a dull moment; movies, card games, heavy-schedule social evenings", the 89-year-old says with real longing in her voice.

Just 110 km from Calcutta, a trip to the city was always on the cards -- for a perm, to do the Christmas shopping, buy barley sugar and 'Bandel cheese', or simply to accompany a married girlfriend with her help in tow doing a sing-song to the rhythm of the train's clickety-clack on the tracks: "Chhai chhai paisa, chal Calcutta!" ("With a six-six-paise, we are going to Calcutta!)

Besides, there were uniforms everywhere. The Anglo-Indian women also got into one of them. "Many Anglo-Indian women joined the Women's Auxiliary Corps to help the war effort," recalls Lennon (she now stays alone in a rented flat in Kharagpur), though it's not a route she took. "My father, a railway workshop manager, was anti-British, he said their top people were not really that educated but they were still trying to teach us what to do, so when we were growing up, he warned us: 'Now look, don't you go get the khaki fever."

The British and the Anglo-Indian relationship was a love story alright, but it was a difficult love story. The latter were a buffer community, they knew English and the local language, could get the job done and helped seal the working relationship between British and Indian workers. Aware that the railways, a mighty symbol of imperial power, could be sabotaged, a space was created for the Anglo-Indian to keep the racial politics vis-a-vis Indians intact. But socialisation was another matter. The Englishmen could dance at the Anglo-Indian railway institute and with their women, but there was an unspoken agreement that the Anglo-Indian man better not, at theirs.

Ladies Badminton Club at the Khurda railway colony, near Puri, Orissa. (

Photo Credit: Footprints on the Track


This is a reality that many Anglo-Indians confirm. Lucknow's Fredrick Correya, 87, who joined rail service ten years after Independence as an assistant transporation superintendent, a junior officer grade, is more than happy to call himself a "Keralite' having grown up in Trichy, as much as an Anglo-Indian. Of his father, a British-era engineer, who laid railway tracks in south India, Correya says he did not continue his service but went to work in the Kerala saw mills. The work hierarchies, one assumes, did not agree with him.

"Blonde hair, blue eyes - looks don't make an officer," says another elderly Anglo-Indian railwayman cattily of his British superiors. Life in an independent India within the first 10 years of the end of the Raj also brought its challenges - for a job in the railways, the Anglo-Indian had to sit for a competitive exam and face a selection board to prove his Anglo-Indianness. (A knowledge of Anglo-Indian Olympic hockey heroes, actors and musicians and an ignorance of Indian music and dance forms were usually a negative 'proof' of identity).

Footprints on the Track, an anthology brought out in 2013 by a railwayman's son, Harry Maclure, who runs the publishing house, Anglo-Ink, in Chennai, has several accounts of how the community negotiated this time in history. "This was a generation caught unawares. With no degree under the belt, many Anglo- Indians left the rail service…the invisible barriers nurtured by my father's generation towards Indians rubbed on the younger generation as well. Later they could not adjust to the fact that we were beginning to integrate," says MacLure, 54.

There is, however, one generalisation Anglo-Indians, especially those who have taken the heat of the service, is at pains to correct. There were compulsions that made the Anglo-Indians the "pyare lal" (beloved son) of their British and then their Indian bosses, says Noel Thomas, one of the highest ranking Anglo-Indian railway men, who retired as divisional mechanical engineer (DME, diesel), Waltair, in 1999. "The 1st commandment for an AI recruit was 'Thou shalt not strike.' To revolt was alien to his being," he says.

In the historic all-India railway strike of 1974, at the thick of the JP movement, and a year before Emergency, Thomas, then a 34-year-old senior supervisor, however, did the unthinkable. "Noel, how could a good soldier like you go on strike?" one of his supervisors at a party asked him many years later.

"It wasn't a mutiny," replied Thomas, a stationmaster's son, and the two laughed it off. But neither of the two has forgotten it.


    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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