Among the Railway Folk, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 1

A Railway Settlement

JAMALPUR is the headquarters of the East India Railway. This in itself is not a startling statement. The wonder begins with the exploration of Jamalpur, which is a station entirely made by, and devoted to, the use of those untiring servants of the public, the railway folk. They have towns of their own at Toondla and Assensole; a sun-dried sanitarium at Bandikui; and Howrah, Ajmir, Allahabad, Lahore, and Pindi know their colonies. But Jamalpur is unadulteratedly ‘Railway,’ and he who has nothing to do with the E.I. Railway in some shape or another feels a stranger and an interloper. Running always east and southerly, the train carries him from the torments of the North-west into the wet, woolly warmth of Bengal, where may be found the hothouse heat that has ruined the temper of the good people of Calcutta. The land is fat and greasy with good living, and the wealth of the bodies of innumerable dead things; and here — just above Mokameh — may be seen fields stretching, without stick, stone, or bush to break the view, from the railway line to the horizon.

Up-country innocents must look at the map to learn that Jamalpur is near the top left-hand corner of the big loop that the E.I.R. throws out round Bhagalpur and part of the Bara-Banki districts. Northward of Jamalpur, as near as may be, lies the Ganges and Tirhoot, and eastward an offshoot of the volcanic Rajmehal range blocks the view.

A station which has neither Judge, Commissioner, Deputy, or ’Stunt, which is devoid of law courts, ticca-gharries, District Superintendents of Police, and many other evidences of an overcultured civilisation, is a curiosity. ‘We administer ourselves,’ says Jamalpur proudly, ‘or we did — till we had local self-government in — and now the racket-marker administers us.’ This is a solemn fact. The station, which had its beginnings thirty odd years ago, used, till comparatively recent times, to control its own roads, sewage, conservancy, and the like. But, with the introduction of local self-government, it was ordained that the ‘inestimable boon’ should be extended to a place made by, and maintained for, Europeans, and a brand-new municipality was created and nominated according to the many rules of the game. In the skirmish that ensued, the Club racket-marker fought his way to the front, secured a place on a board largely composed of Babus, and since that day Jamalpur’s views on government have not been fit for publication. To understand the magnitude of the insult, one must study the city — for station, in the strict sense of the word, it is not. Crotons, palms, mangoes, wellingtonias, teak, and bamboos adorn it, and the poinsettia and bougainvillea, the railway creeper and the Bignonia venusta, make it gay with many colours. It is laid out with military precision; to each house its just share of garden, its red-brick path, its growth of trees, and its neat little wicket gate. Its general aspect, in spite of the Dutch formality, is that of an English village, such a thing as enterprising stage-managers put on the theatres at home. The hills have thrown a protecting arm round nearly three sides of it, and on the fourth it is bounded by what are locally known as the ‘sheds’; in other words, the station, offices, and workshops of the Company. The E.I.R. only exists for outsiders. Its servants speak of it reverently, angrily, despitefully, or enthusiastically as ‘The Company’; and they never omit the big, big C. Men must have treated the Honourable the East India Company in something the same fashion ages ago. ‘The Company’ in Jamalpur is Lord Dufferin, all the Members of Council, the Body-Guard, Sir Frederick Roberts, Mr. Westland, whose name is at the bottom of the currency notes, the Oriental Life Assurance Company, and the Bengal Government all rolled into one. At first when a stranger enters this life, he is inclined to scoff and ask, in his ignorance, ‘What is this Company that you talk so much about?’ Later on, he ceases to scoff; for the Company is a ‘big’ thing — almost big enough to satisfy an American.

Ere beginning to describe its doings, let it be written, and repeated several times hereafter, that the E.I.R. passenger carriages, and especially the second-class, are just now horrid — being filthy and unwashen, dirty to look at, and dirty to live in. Having cast this small stone, we will examine Jamalpur. When it was laid out, in or before the Mutiny year, its designers allowed room for growth, and made the houses of one general design — some of brick, some of stone, some three, four, and six roomed, some single men’s barracks and some two-storied — all for the use of the employés. King’s Road, Prince’s Road, Queen’s Road, and Victoria Road — Jamalpur is loyal — cut the breadth of the station; and Albert Road, Church Street, and Steam Road the length of it. Neither on these roads nor on any of the cool-shaded smaller ones is anything unclean or unsightly to be found. There is a dreary village in the neighbourhood which is said to make the most of any cholera that may be going, but Jamalpur itself is specklessly and spotlessly neat. From St. Mary’s Church to the railway station, and from the buildings where they print daily about half a lakh of tickets, to the ringing, roaring, rattling workshops, everything has the air of having been cleaned up at ten that very morning and put under a glass case. There is a holy calm about the roads — totally unlike anything in an English manufacturing town. Wheeled conveyances are few, because every man’s bungalow is close to his work, and when the day has begun and the offices of the ‘Loco.’ and ‘Traffic’ have soaked up their thousands of natives and hundreds of Europeans, you shall pass under the dappled shadows of the trees, hearing nothing louder than the croon of some bearer playing with a child in the verandah or the faint tinkle of a piano. This is pleasant, and produces an impression of Watteau-like refinement tempered with Arcadian simplicity. The dry, anguished howl of the ‘buzzer,’ the big steam-whistle, breaks the hush, and all Jamalpur is alive with the tramping of tiffin-seeking feet. The Company gives one hour for meals between eleven and twelve. On the stroke of noon there is another rush back to the works or the offices, and Jamalpur sleeps through the afternoon till four or half-past, and then rouses for tennis at the institute.

In the hot weather it splashes in the swimming bath, or reads, for it has a library of several thousand books. One of the most flourishing lodges in the Bengal jurisdiction —‘St. George in the East’— lives at Jamalpur, and meets twice a month. Its members point out with justifiable pride that all the fittings were made by their own hands; and the lodge in its accoutrements and the energy of the craftsmen can compare with any in India. But the institute is the central gathering place, and its half-dozen tennis-courts and neatlylaid-out grounds seem to be always full. Here, if a stranger could judge, the greater part of the flirtation of Jamalpur is carried out, and here the dashing apprentice — the apprentices are the liveliest of all — learns that there are problems harder than any he studies at the night school, and that the heart of a maiden is more inscrutable than the mechanism of a locomotive. On Tuesdays and Fridays the volunteers parade. A and B Companies, 150 strong in all, of the E.I.R. Volunteers, are stationed here with the band. Their uniform, grey with red facings, is not lovely, but they know how to shoot and drill. They have to. The ‘Company’ makes it a condition of service that a man must be a volunteer; and volunteer in something more than name he must be, or some one will ask the reason why. Seeing that there are no regulars between Howrah and Dinapore, the ‘Company’ does well in exacting this toll. Some of the old soldiers are wearied of drill, some of the youngsters don’t like it, but — the way they entrain and detrain is worth seeing. They are as mobile a corps as can be desired, and perhaps ten or twelve years hence the Government may possibly be led to take a real interest in them and spend a few thousand rupees in providing them with real soldiers’ kits — not uniform and rifle merely. Their ranks include all sorts and conditions of men — heads of the ‘Loco.’ and ‘Traffic,’— the Company is no respecter of rank — clerks in the ‘audit,’ boys from mercantile firms at home, fighting with the intricacies of time, fare, and freight tables; guards who have grown grey in the service of the Company; mail and passenger drivers with nerves of cast-iron, who can shoot through a long afternoon without losing temper or flurrying; light-blue East Indians; Tyne-side men, slow of speech and uncommonly strong in the arm; lathy apprentices who have not yet ‘filled out’; fitters, turners, foremen, full, assistant, and sub-assistant station masters, and a host of others. In the hands of the younger men the regulation Martini-Henry naturally goes off the line occasionally on hunting expeditions.

There is a twelve hundred yards range running down one side of the station, and the condition of the grass by the firing butts tells its own tale. Scattered in the ranks of the volunteers are a fair number of old soldiers, for the Company has a weakness for recruiting from the Army for its guards who may, in time, become stationmasters. A good man from the Army, with his papers all correct and certificates from his commanding officer, can, after depositing twenty pounds to pay his home passage, in the event of his services being dispensed with, enter the Company’s service on something less than one hundred rupees a month and rise in time to four hundred as a stationmaster. A railway bungalow — and they are as substantially built as the engines — will cost him more than one-ninth of the pay of his grade, and the Provident Fund provides for his latter end.

Think for a moment of the number of men that a line running from Howrah to Delhi must use, and you will realise what an enormous amount of patronage the Company holds in its hands. Naturally a father who has worked for the line expects the line to do something for the son; and the line is not backward in meeting his wishes where possible. The sons of old servants may be taken on at fifteen years of age, or thereabouts, as apprentices in the ‘shops,’ receiving twenty rupees in the first and fifty in the last year of their indentures. Then they come on the books as full ‘men’ on perhaps Rs. 65 a month, and the road is open to them in many ways. They may become foremen of departments on Rs. 500 a month, or drivers earning with overtime Rs. 370; or if they have been brought into the audit or the traffic, they may control innumerable Babus and draw several hundreds of rupees monthly; or, at eighteen or nineteen, they may be ticket-collectors, working up to the grade of guard, etc. Every rank of the huge, human hive has a desire to see its sons placed properly, and the native workmen, about three thousand, in the locomotive department only, are, said one man, ‘making a family affair of it altogether. You see all those men turning brass and looking after the machinery? They’ve all got relatives, and a lot of ’em own land out Monghyrway way close to us. They bring on their sons as soon as they are old enough to do anything, and the Company rather encourages it. You see the father is in a way responsible for his son, and he’ll teach him all he knows, and in that way the Company has a hold on them all. You’ve no notion how sharp a native is when he’s working on his own hook. All the district round here, right up to Monghyr, is more or less dependent on the railway.’

The Babus in the traffic department, in the stores’ issue department, in all the departments where men sit through the long, long Indian day among ledgers, and check and pencil and deal in figures and items and rupees, may be counted by hundreds. Imagine the struggle among them to locate their sons in comfortable cane-bottomed chairs, in front of a big pewter inkstand and stacks of paper! The Babus make beautiful accountants, and if we could only see it, a merciful Providence has made the Babu for figures and detail. Without him, the dividends of any company would be eaten up by the expenses of English or city-bred clerks. The Babu is a great man, and, to respect him, you must see five score or so of him in a room a hundred yards long, bending over ledgers, ledgers, and yet more ledgers — silent as the Sphinx and busy as a bee. He is the lubricant of the great machinery of the Company whose ways and works cannot be dealt with in a single scrawl.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38