Round About: Railroad feverpunjab Updated: Oct 15, 2017 16:13 IST
In her book, Vijaya Singh envisions the railways as the technological force that deeply impacted cultural life and imagination across India(HT Photo)
I am a train freak and will happily take a train journey anytime. My favourite train poem is a three-liner by Alok Dhanwa and faithfully translated from the original in Hindi to English-Vinglish, it would be: “Every good ‘fella’ out there has a train/That takes him to his mother’s home/Blowing smoke and whistling away”. One could call it ‘mother fixation’ or ‘train fixation’ but how well it captures the ‘coo chhuk-chhuk’ days.
Now a favoured train joke of the hundreds that abound on the journey on tracks. This one here has a reference, of course, to the Mumbai local: “Everyone has someone to lean on”. My best rail song, given my age, has to be an outdated socialist number. Yes, the pointer is to Sahir Ludhianvi’s spoof on Alama Iqbal’s ‘Saare jahan se achha Hindostan hamara’ which has lines for those who sleep on railway platforms: “Sone ko ham qalandar aate hain Boribandar/Coolie har yahan ka hai raazdan hamara” (We wanderers come to sleep at Boribandar/Every coolie here is our confidant). This one was picturised on Raj Kapoor in ‘Phir Subah Hogi’ (1958).
Let me now return from the past to the present. This fortnight, the target of my envy and admiration is a comely English lecturer who has turned her railroad fever into evocative writing and films. It was an unscheduled encounter with curly-haired Vijaya Singh who has just come out with a book ‘Level Crossing: Railway Journeys in Hindi Cinema’ and before that, a 12-minute award-winning film called ‘Unscheduled Arrivals’.
In the book, she ponders over wall murals in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, Bhartendu Harishchandra’s travel accounts, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’, O Chandu Menon’s ‘Indulekha’, films such as ‘Jawani ki Hawa’, ‘Achhut Kanya’, ‘Miss Frontier Mai’l’, ‘Station Master’, ‘Railway Platform’, ‘Bhuvan Shome’, ‘27 Down’ and others to view the railways as the technological force that deeply impacted cultural life and imagination across the length and breadth of India.
When you ask Vijaya, who works at the Regional Institute of English in the city, how all this happened, she says: “My father was in the army and since childhood we ventured for long train journeys to and fro from our home town, Kota, in Rajasthan. These journeys offered such thrill and the fascination followed me into my adult life.”
Vijaya’s research project at the All India Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, some years ago, involved train as a recurring symbol in Hindi cinema. Not just that, she took it on herself to take a sabbatical for a direction course at Film and Television Institute (FTTI), Pune.
For her academic project of a documentary, finished with an impossible deadline, she made her way to the Pune railway station to film in a single day people who found themselves on the station not quite knowing where to go: a stranded labourer woman abandoned by the Bihari contractor who brought her to the city with the promise of good work, two orphaned children who landed at the station to find a better life elsewhere, and a family living there and sending their children to school from there.
The textures and feel of the short film was shortlisted at many national film festivals and won the prestigious 11th Cilect Asia Pacific Award for best documentary in the Asia Pacific region (2016). CILECT is the French acronym for International Association of Film and Television Schools.
A few weeks ago, came another surprise for Vijaya. The institute sends films for competition; her 15-minute short fiction film, ‘Andhere Mein’, made as part of the course and based on a story by Hindi literary doyen Nirmal Verma, won the John Abraham National Award for best short fiction at SIGNS Film Festival in Kochi. The film also received a special mention at XVIth Imagine India International Film Festival held in Madrid in May 2017.
But another day to Nirmal’s story and Vijaya’s interpretation; for the moment let’s just relish the flavours of ‘Gaddi aayi hai chhlanga maardi, mainu yaad aaye mere yaar di’ (The train comes jumping and I am reminded of my love).
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org