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  Books   07 Feb 2020  It is a fast train, it only goes slow

It is a fast train, it only goes slow

Published : Feb 7, 2020, 1:40 am IST
Updated : Feb 7, 2020, 1:40 am IST

At the time, many have wondered at his decision, though others have followed in his footsteps.

As the title indicates, the stories are set in the rural hinterland of Purvanchal where time almost stands still and life seems immune to the pace of change. (Photo: Pixabay)
 As the title indicates, the stories are set in the rural hinterland of Purvanchal where time almost stands still and life seems immune to the pace of change. (Photo: Pixabay)

Mark Tully has been a veteran radio broadcaster and journalist for many years. In India, he has been the “voice” of the BBC, a reliable source for more objective and factual news, particularly during the dark days of the emergency when there was censorship of unpalatable news and the official radio broadcaster was dubbed “all Indira radio” after the late Prime Minister. Honoured and knighted for his services by his home country, Tully decided not to return to England but to stay on and live in India.

At the time, many have wondered at his decision, though others have followed in his footsteps. Not many would be aware that Tully’s family has had an inexorable linkage with India stretching back to almost five generations. While Tully himself must have had some idea of the family’s history and lineage, he seems to have discovered his ancestor almost by chance when one of his cousins sent him a copy of the reminiscences of his great-grandmother Esther Anne Betts.


In a fascinating book of short stories, Upcountry Tales — Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India, now out in paperback, Tully recalls that his great-grandmother had given an account of how her father, R. Nicholson, had served as an opium agent in the Saleempur area of what is now known as Gorakhpur district of Purvanchal. Nicholson guarded the treasury, a small, fortified structure where he kept cash to pay the farmers for their opium crop. Esther Betts had stated that they were miles away from the nearest European settlement till another Englishman Charles Betts settled nearby to deal in saltpeter, sugar and animal hides. Esther had five siblings and an aunt living with them and a close relationship developed between her and Charles which blossomed into romance.


This relationship was to prove fortuitous for when 1857 happened and when soldiers wanted to loot the treasury, Nicholson was able to send the family away to safety with Betts as an escort. He himself remained behind to guard the treasury till the proverbial “last minute” and only escaped when he saw the rebel soldiers approaching. The soldiers did chase them by following their tracks but then were misled by farmers working in the fields that they had taken the road to Gorakhpur. The family take a boat to land at Dinapur, a secure station, from where they make their way to Calcutta. Esther Nicholson and Charles Betts were married a year later at the Calcutta Cathedral and of the thirteen children born to them, one was Herbert Nicholson Betts, Tully’s grandfather.


Tully has set his book of short stories in Purvanchal probably because he nows the region the best but also perhaps out of a sense of gratitude to the people of Purvanchal but for whose timely intervention that fateful day in 1857, his ancestry would have perished. What a fascinating set of stories Tully weaves. As the title indicates, the stories are set in the rural hinterland of Purvanchal where time almost stands still and life seems immune to the pace of change.

The stories also show an intimate knowledge of rural life, of a people set into distinct hierarchies but fate decrees must interact with each other. Dalits aspiring for social change and a better status, inspire two of the stories, The Battle for a Temple and The Making of a Monk. In the first, the dalits want to construct a small temple to Ravidas on community land but encounter hostility from the upper castes. Finally, a compromise is reached politically, because the dalits are a vote bank and the local politician decides to favour them in the hope of re-election. In The Making of a Monk, a dalit boy entrusted with the job of looking after other people’s cattle manages to enrage the upper castes and is thrashed by them. An enraged father is persuaded by the local police officer not to register a case but enrol the boy into a school for it was only through education that social status could be changed. The boy shines in school and wins a scholarship to the high school where he is discriminated against by the
headmaster. Disillusioned, he finds a job in Delhi as a security guard, is befriended by an Englishman, but finally discovers Buddhism and converts to that faith. In the last section, the Englishman does meet the monk now in ochre robes and finds a remarkable transformation.


If I had to pick a personal favourite among the crop of stories which includes a murder mystery, I would choose The Slow Train to Santnagar.

The hero of this story is not a person but a train, Train no. 410 Santnagar-Faridpur Fast Passenger on the Santnagar-Faridpur branch line. Though the year was 1986, the train was still hauled by a steam locomotive, on a line that was still metre-gauge and run by an Anglo-Indian driver Pat Thomas, himself a relic of the past. Thomas had no wish to train to drive on diesel locomotives on the bigger lines. “I don’t want to be a bloody bus driver. A steam man has to know what he’s about to get the best out of his engine. A diesel-driver only has to press a button and off he goes — just like a bloody bus driver.” So the engine nicknamed Akbar went its leisurely way on its journey to Faridpur, the district headquarters a mere thirty kilometres away at a maximum speed of forty kilometres per hour. Officially, only one stop was permitted but it had many “unofficial” stops due to chain-pulling. When anyone complained about the speed of the train, they were told: “it is a fast train, it only goes slow”. But no one had
any reason to complain for passengers travelled free, for there was no ticket checking on the line.


The fact that the Santnagar-Faridpur line brought no revenue for the railways is brought to the attention of the railway board and the minister himself by the local MP. This worthy has a vested interest. He owns the bus line that operates between Santnagar and Faridpur and views the train as an opponent.

He finally persuades the minister to cancel the train and close the line. There is trenchant objection to this led by the lady chairman of the local municipal corporation. The stand-off and impasse is finally resolved by a local godman, a sant of the area who in his wisdom suggests a race between the two means of transportation. If the train wins, it would stay but if it lost, it would close. Both parties agree and the MP whose fleet of buses is always in a ramshackle condition, to maximise profit, finds the best bus among the worst and a foul-mouthed driver to match. The steam engine, Akbar, too, is patched up and freshly painted. In the race, which has twists and one gaining over the other at every turn, the train is finally halted by a leak in the rusty water pipe connected to the injector. While waiting for some hasty repairs, Thomas fumes against the railways who have economised with steel instead of a copper pipe. The bus which has problems of its own including a procession blocking the road and a blocked railway crossing is finally pipped to the post as it runs out of diesel. Though the owner had asked for a full tank, his underling had got the petrol station to put in less and share the balance proceeds with him as per the usual practice!


The train wins, the minister has to keep the line open but in his frustration, orders the line to be operated by a diesel locomotive and this is the end of Akbar!

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

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