Nilgiri Mountain Railway: Retracing the journey of an English schoolboy

As a boy, I've grown up in the Nilgiri mountains. My memories of these hills, apart from a plethora of other aural experiences, have definitely been interspersed with the rhythmic taka-taka-taka of the heritage steam rail pounding up the acutely inclined rack and pinioned mountain-side or listening to it choo-choo-ing down the less dramatic, but more densely inhabited hill towns of Ootacamund and Coonoor.

I realise though that these aural-visual experiences of mine have been experienced before; experienced by the scores of British school boys sent to the boarding schools of Lovedale and to Lushington designed to make them independent, strong young men. It is this mountain line that served as a crucial link not only to these schools but to their memories of the mountains. Having met quite a few over these years, returning as grown men to the Nilgiris, with full lives behind them, I've been privy to their detailed accounts of their memories of travelling this very railway line either beginning an arduous journey from Ooty or Lovedale down to the foothills only to then begin another tedious travel overland to ultimately reach the Malabar coast and port of Cochin for the month plus long steamer journey back to England. Inevitably these journeys had to be reversed in order to get back to boarding schools at the end of the English summer.

Across the board, memories going down the mountain have been peppered with anticipation and elation; anticipation of getting back to England and elation to be putting distance between them and their school. However unanimously their memories of returning were filled with the dread of the long arduous journey back and the angst of leaving England and everything familiar all over again.

My return to this railway line in February 2016, twenty five years later, now as a Man and Father of a three-year old, filled me with the memories of travelling on this line as a boy. I then began to fantasise what the English school boy would have felt as he got ready to board the train, ready to leave for England. Herein my fantasy begins, inter played with my Son's very real journey on this historic rail line.

It was a Sunday morning. The day began bright and sunny, cloud-less with a blue sky - the typical hallmarks of most winter days in the Nilgiris. But as is the nature of the animal, weather in the mountains will change least when you expect it. Predictably it did and by the time the train was pulling into Ooty station, there was perceptible nip in the air and a grey quilt that had blanketed out the sun; threatening rain from clouds that were non-existent in the sky.

My son Aarav sat down on his seat by the window, peering out at me. He lacked the excitement I felt as the English school boy, sitting on the train with my duffel about to begin my journey away from Lushington. However what I saw in Aarav was a different kind of excitement - it was an excitement that stemmed from the anticipation of the unknown journey ahead.

With a long pull of the whistle the the great big Diesel engine pulled it's haul out and away from the station. But wait - the sounds were all wrong! I remembered the long Toot-tooooo of the Steam engine and the great big crankshafts spitting and hissing at the wheels to get a move on. This sound I remembered was missing. Aarav however stared ahead in amazement. To him it was this engine that mattered. He was loving the surge of power that the Diesel brought forth, propelling him towards the great big conifers, pines and eucalyptus trees ahead. We shot past Fernhill and I could see the English station master of this quaint station waving us by. But what Aarav saw was the same quaint station still, preserved from when I had passed through as an English boy on his way home, but now standing lifeless, a memorial frozen from it's time of usefulness.

We had now begun to pick up the pace. Competing with the boys of Lovedale on the frost-covered cricket pitches in the hills, I knew that I would meet some of them at Lovedale when the train would pull in shortly. And then I saw them waiting on the station with their Dormitory Matron, as excited and anxious to get on the train and put distance between them and their school, as I was attempting from mine, moments ago from Ooty. As the train pulled into Lovedale's station, Aarav looked out and pointed to a new Suzuki car disgorging a hassled Indian family who proceeded to come bounding across the station, flinging themselves into their vacant seats ahead of us. As we pulled out of the station my fellow English boys were sitting beside me. We began talking to each other like only eager school boys would as we emerged through the mountainside to look across the sprawling Ketti Valley. Looking out, the boys from Lovedale pointed across to where their school stood, shrouded within the wild acres of it's forest growth. As I stared across the valley, I saw a valley rich in forest cover, sub-tropical stream beds and marsh teeming with mammals all seeking the rich growth of the forested valley floor.

Aarav was however staring fixedly out over the valley, now looking at tame cultivated land with their endless raised beds of carrots and the green-blue hues of large cabbage patches that now dotted the valley.

Hugging the mountainside first and then dropping very quickly into the Ketti valley, all of a sudden we had a wall of mountain on one side, which only moments ago, we were on top of. Ketti, as it began to emerge, was a small station in the middle of this forested grassland wilderness. I looked around and saw a group of Toda men emerge out of a forested clearing following a small herd of their Buffalo. Ketti came and went quickly as we began trundling towards the Munitions factory and the cantonment station of Wellington. Passing Ketti I vaguely heard Aarav pointing to a line of cars at the rail crossing, awaiting their turn to cross over the tracks.

Trundling along, the boys from Lovedale had all sunk into a quiet revere, brought on with the constant and unremarkable swaying of the train. We passed the Cordite factory and the station of Wellington. I noticed a handful of smart soldiers in their Sapper uniforms, replete with their smart Red Tunics with brass buttons and the ink blue trousers, milling about the station. I recalled their Barracks weren't far away from the station we were passing.

My revere was broken with the loud banshee wail of the engine as it approached Coonoor. The boys excitedly gazed out of the Windows to see Coonoor station emerge out of the thicket on both sides of the tracks. Coonoor station was like a scene out of Kings Cross and made me giddy with pleasure but still painfully aware that home was many, many days away. However I revelled in the sight of smart English gentlemen and their wives milling about the station with porters moving great sets of leather cases from the waiting carriages to the platforms. As the train pulled into the platform and finally stopped, I looked out and only then noticed the mad dash to a modern tea and samosa shop that seemed to have sprouted from the ground next to the old station building.

Coonoor seemed a chaotic affair now. Aarav was taking in all the hustle and buzz of activity as stiff-limbed people got off the train while nervous tourists began to clamour on, all at the same time when Railway Engineers were busying themselves with the shunting of the Steam Engine as it readied itself to haul us further down the mountain, towards the warmer plain of Tamil Nadu.

Pulling out of Coonoor, once again my English boy nose sniffs out the distinct smells wafting out of a Bakery somewhere. I've heard stories about this Crown Bakery. I know they've supplied our School Mess halls and I've heard the Barrack Mess halls too with these incredibly crunchy Ginger Biscuits and soup stills. Oh! And their buns. Their sweet sticky buns! And then I spot it. Crown Bakery, nestled amidst the Cash bazaar where all these men seemed to Be going in and out of the tiny two-storey buildings, all nestled cheek to jowl with each other. Other boys tell me that this is where traders go if they seek a loan to tide themselves over.

We were leaving Coonoor now. I was leaving the familiarity of the hills and the surroundings that were my surrogate home. The boys joked with me that we were about to reach Runnymede! It shot a pang of yearning which drew me even closer to home and England and for a moment forgot how many more miles lay in front of me. As the civilisation of the Cash Bazaar slipped away behind us, it opened up to the large tea plantations of Glendale. By now the train was slipping further and further down and into the valley and as I stared up, like towering sentinels the hills bore down on me. Dotting these hill sides, I spotted the women picking tea, with a fellow Englishman on horseback not far away, weaving his way through.

Runnymede came and went in one sweeping arc as we dropped further down over terrifying bridges and through tunnels hewn out of sheer volcanic granite rendered pitch black from the soot of the bellowing engine. The forest was now thick and dense. I stared out into the foliage and noticed deer running through the cover, a herd of Elephant grouped together around some bamboo undergrowth ripping through them to reach the tender shoots within and then further away a large bull Gaur grazing with the impunity of an animal that knows they're too large to be threatened by predators.

As I kept scanning the forest for more activity, I suddenly was cognisant of a faint voice repeatedly calling to me saying "Daddu Tunnnnnneell!" I suddenly realised that the English school boy has remained in those forests and I found myself in the middle of the bustle of the station at Mettupalayam with my son Aarav looking at me with glee repeating that he'd gone through Tunnels.

Returning home later that evening I realised that the afternoon spent on the train was indeed an interplay of my fantasy English boy's journey on a train with the very real train ride that my son Aarav had experienced for the very first time. It dawned on me that this heritage rail line and its history that had now spanned a 108-years probably constantly served as a medium for such kinds of interplays to occur; the contrasts between fantasy and reality, between the historic and the modern: of gnashing cog-wheels and modern bio-diesels and between stark wilderness and modern civilisation finding a foothold within.

But for all this railway line has seen over the century it has survived, I wish it continues to find relevance in our modern lives and continues to live on through this century; but only to serve as the medium for the romantic with a taste for the fantastical.