Indian train spotting on a passage to India
By Etan Doronne
16 Sep 2011
Ever since I first arrived in India train is my favorite in the long runs. The railway plows the countryside and splits small villages and towns. The traffic freezes for what seems as eternity Crowds of motorcycle riders pile up among autorickshaw taxis, all waiting by the gate. So how does it feel to be on the other side, I often wondered watching them from above. This time I was lucky, found a railway crossing up the village road and gave a royal visit to the gate-keeper.
I came for a dentists appointment in this village, 8 km up a winding country road. The bus that took me there seemed so big while passing through the little tiny colorful villages on the way.
After my appointment, I went down to the street and couldn't help my urge to explore this village which feels like a snug glove even from a first visit. From my standing point at the dentist building's junction I could look around to engulf in one view the entire public life activity of this place.
I walked up to a fruit and vegetable stall, in just the few steps I could feel that unique familiar feeling of being watched by people around as a phenomena. Something so common to these places no foreigners visit often.
Got a banana, only 1 Rupee, no tourist 'special' price. Another of the non-visitor-oriented economies native to such villages. She didn't have change from 10 Rupees, so I took some tomatoes as well.
Then, walking and enjoying my banana, I turned to walk up the road with it's unpaved, red soil margins. As I looked up, I could see a railway crossing at the top of the hill. I felt gravitating there. On the way I nodded many times with a natural smile of joy to passersby and store keepers.
I saw the gate set in it's blocked position, yet even with my leisurely walk of a 100 meters I arrived while all were still waiting for the train. A few motorcycle riders and one autorickshaw driver were all waiting.
Then the train horn blew in the distance and soon it's read head appeared where the rails source from.
I watched all the familiar cars: the sleeper, A/C, the people standing at the doorways, those sitting together on the blue vinyl benches, but now I was one of those standing in no-where- village and having others think "I wonder what is life like in this small village ?"
The gate keeper got into fast action once the train had passed. Climbing a podium he turned a crank many times, winding the cables which pull the gates up on both sides of the rails. Then he shifted a huge iron lever, a sort of a mammoth 'hand-brake'. Just then he relaxed.
At that moment I heard a voice speaking English obviously to me. I met Binish, a water theme park agent who roams local schools arranging their class trips to that attraction. I hoped on the bike with him and got around his appointment with him for the day. But on my next dentist appointment, a day later, I returned to the railway crossing.
To my amazement I found the gate keeper, Jeyakrishna, to be a man of the world. Posted in such a small booth on a corner between the rail and the road, turning greasy wheels and shifting century old rusty cast iron levers, one may initially get a wrong idea. I admit in falling in this trap of pre-conceived notions.
He, for example, when his friend Raj Vell, asked which is the language I was scribbling in my notebook, Jeyakrishna knew that Hebrew is the language used in Israel. More then most devoted Christians I met, who are supposedly fully occupied by the bible and the activity in ancient Israel. He's conversational English was as fluent as our little chat required.
What is his job about, I was curious to know. So it goes like this: He gets a call from the near by railway station. At that time a train departs toward his crossing. He immediately lowers the gates and shifts the lever which switches to green a signal 1km away.
The train driver sees the signal and knows the crossing is safe for passing. If the signal is red, he has sufficient braking span and slows down to where he could see Jeyakrishna waiving a flag. In case of a technical problem in the gate mechanism, Jeyakrishna will block the road with an alternative heavy chain and lock and then will stand waving a green flag by the railway. Otherwise, if there's a railway blockade or rails problem he will raise a red flag and the train driver could slow to a hat.
For the past 4 years he is stationed here and arrives every day from his 30km away village by bus. Despite his free-pass on all Indian trains, he can not benefit in his daily life as there's no train reaching his village. Next he will take the railway exams and may be promoted to a field junior engineer. In charge of rail inspection and supervision of maintenance.
His friend, Raj Vell, is originally from Tamil Nadu, his village is near the southern tip of India. I was happy to use my little Tamil proudly established over my 4 months there. He is in charge of 4 km of railway in either direction from this crossing. Every day he marches by foot up and down a total of 16km. Inspecting all the nails and screws are safely in place and everything is intact. Then he comes and sits with Jeyakrishna. In case one of them needs to go for a nature call (although they are already in nature..) or for a lunch break they substitute each other.
In 2009, a railway census was carried out. It's findings are written on the wall. About 650 vehicles 50 trains pass over a 24 hour span through this point. What importance this has, I asked. Apparently the shift duration is calculated accordingly. Busier junctions will have shorter shifts. Jeyakrishna does 12 hour shifts in this sleepy junction. In January an additional parallel, railway will be inaugurated Though he will not have to double his duty, as he explained, trains will pass in both directions at one, so he'll lower the gate the same number of times as he does today. My jaw was left in it's fallen position: could that be attempted in India? I could find it hard to imagine, considering my experience with Indian timing and railway schedule too.
Is he happy in this job? Yes. He seemed to have made friends with the local figures around the little village and he's job never seemed the lonely-man-on-the-hill during my visit.
More about this documentary project on My India: Where every village is home - Experience !