Though Rajendra Aklekar does not offer an explanation for the title Halt Station India, a reading of his book indicates it may be due to the pattern of narration he has chosen—starting from the tip of south Bombay or the first starting station on the Central and Harbour lines (GIPR) and Western Railways (BB&CI) to the last suburban station.
The first chapter is an enthralling account of the twists and turns surrounding the coming of the first railways to India and how military and trade compulsions acted as catalysts. The story of untiring crusaders like Berkley, the chief resident engineer; Faviell and Fowler, the duo which took up the task to construct the first Indian railway; and Chapmen who projected the case with objective research to have railways under GIPR are told with requisite flavour. The narration of the public frenzy caused by Lord Falkland, the first broad gauge steam locomotive, and contrastingly the ride of Lady Falkland, wife of the then governor of Bombay, on April 16, 1853, with 400 chosen invitees, on the first train from Bori-Bunder to Thana is equally captivating and so are the accounts of the obscure thoughts that fuelled rumours about the launch of railways breaking the societal order based on caste/class distinctions.
The next three chapters are devoted to what is Aklekar’s forte, affirming his confident response of telling “lots” to the doubting Thomases who felt that nothing else could be told about railways. Aklekar proceeds with an aplomb to tell in a series about the “halt stations” with an incisive eye for detail and a structured methodology of presentation. The comity of purpose that liberal developmental aspirations had with colonial aspirations has also been nicely captured. Aklekar’s studied approach has been rightfully acknowledged in the rather affable foreward by Mark Tully, who calls Aklekar’s detailing as “nuggets” of history that would spice up journalistic writings on railways in India.
The author’s inclination and deep love for heritage is often visible in the strong sense of lament that he expresses about how the relics of the past have vanished. His relentless quest to supplement his research through chronicles, administrative records and other forms of literary evidence surrounding growth of the railways is amazing.
Compared to his more detailed account of GIPR, the treatment of BB & CI is not so detailed. Some of it can be ascribed to the fact that there is much more history that GIPR can offer. The chapters on ‘Forgotten lines,’ and ‘Tramways’ can be seen as efforts to offer a more complete story of railroads in Mumbai and perhaps are indicative of the fact that Aklekar will dwell further in these areas, given his insatiable zest for research. The book also gives insights into the role of Indians, particularly Parsis, in ushering in railways.
Be it the clock at Victoria Terminus, the witch-infested watchtower of Sion station, the stories of love and deceit of Eliza Draper, the impact of disease and epidemics, Aklekar regales in the fable-wrapped narrative. Add to it the way stations or places like Kurla, Chambor, Charni Road and Pydhonie got their names or the heroics of Lady Tredwell or Raosaheb Chandra Vaidya and the recipe is complete.
This book is a well-researched narrative on the history and continuity of railways as it starts with the right doses of nostalgia and heritage along the lines, leaving hope for the future of the railways given its ability to overturn adversities into opportunities