Train tales and more
The girls who went to Nazareth Convent, in Ooty, were rich, snooty and well turned out. So naturally we, at
’s, the other convent school in the
hills, hated them. There was no such exclusivity about us at St Joseph ’s Convent in
Coonoor. Of course, we thrashed them at the Interschool Sports, as we did
the other girls’ schools too. But all the same there was an air about the Nazareth
girls which was irritating. St Joseph
|The NMR - 1920|
After the sports day, came the interschool matches. Some of the matches were at home and some away. Visits to Nazareth for netball and throw ball matches were both looked forward to and dreaded. The Nazis, as we called them were barely polite and we felt that they looked down on us. When I started playing for the school, the Nazi team had an exceptional good player called Beena. So we did not win the matches even though we had played quite well.
Besides all the fun of the matches, the school trips to Ooty were always on the hill train or the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) and a great adventure, every time. The school year started and ended with the NMR for many a boarder, especially the ones who travelled in batches from places as far away as Calcutta and Bombay. This doggerel would be recited ad nauseum as the school year drew to a close.
Two more days and where shall I be
Out of the gates of SJC
Travelling in the NMR
Engine number 93
No more Hindi, no more French
No more sitting on the hard fat bench
No more brinjals, no more buns
No more benders from the nuns
Traveling in the NMR was a highlight of every school year. Little did we know that this little train had so much history and in 2005 would attain the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The train and the station had a special place in my grandfather’s heart. I would accompany him to pick up and drop off numerous relatives after their summer vacation. He knew everyone – the station master, the ticket collector, the porter and the taxi drivers. Clearly it took him back to that bright lovely morning in February of 1914 when he stepped off the hill train at the Coonoor station.
The journey from his small village, Eraviperoor in Central Travancore, was long and arduous taking more than three days. He had just got a job as the Indian Assistant Manager at Glenburn estate near Kotagiri. At twenty four, he was quite a seasoned hand having already worked in Ceylon for a tea and rubber produce company.
After waiting overnight at Podanur, (the junction before Coimbatore became the hub) he boarded the Blue Mountain Express for his journey to Mettupalayam, the rail head where one got off to catch the NMR. The NMR was quite the miracle in engineering those days and for that matter, is so even today.
Here’s what makes the NMR such a marvel. The NMR runs on a single track up a steep gradient using the alternate biting system what is better known as the rack and pinion system to climb. It is a 16 km track winding its way through the mountains, skirting streams and waterfalls and whistling cheerfully through the 13 tunnels and 19 viaducts.
By the mid 1800s the number of European settling down in the hills had increased. The need for easy connectivity was also felt. A number of proposals were put forward but two schemes were considered feasible. The first one was by the engineer who built the Darjeeling Railway and was to be laid through the Kotagiri valley to
The Government though unwilling to fund this project gave the company permission to construct and also make the necessary surveys. The planters and residents of the hills got together to make the railway line a reality and formed the Nilgiri Rigi Railway Company Limited. After representations were made in
The cost of construction was Rs. 38 lakh and because of the high cost of working the railway the net receipts did not cover the interest on the debentures. The company found it difficult to run and the railway was acquired by the Government. The Madras Railway Company was formed to run the railway. The Government realized that unless the line is extended up to Ooty it would not be commercially viable. This extension was completed by 1908 at a cost of Rs 32.25 lakh. The increase in cost in the Ooty extension could be because of tunnel under Fernhill – about 480 feet between the portals. I wonder whether questions were raised on the increase in cost.
So when my grandfather made his journey up the hills, the mountain railway was still a matter of wonder. The scenery was also breathtaking. The changes are there today: the sholas are sparse, the streams not so pristine and waterfalls not so abundant but there are still hundreds of flowering trees and shrubs to delight the eye.
He must have watched the train leave the small, white washed houses on the plains around Mettupalayam with same excitement we feel, today. The train then whistles it way through the areca nut plantation at the base of the hills near Kallar. It is here that the rack starts. The sheer rock face of Droog greets those who look up in wonder at the mountains. Once the train starts its climb the vegetation undergoes a dramatic change. Flowers are seen in great profusion and the air starts getting lighter and more fragrant.
Starting with my grandfather’s first journey up the mountain railway, everyone’s first trip on the NMR is memorable. We all made friends and enemies too, some time. My grandfather also made some good friends on this journey up.
It was in Mettupalayam that my grandfather met this family of Tamil Iyers, the Padmanabans, also traveling to the hills. He struck up a conversation with them and was impressed by the patriarch’s foresight in this move to the hills- which was still largely unexplored territory. The friendship which started on that windswept railway platform was to last three generations. This family set up E.V.Paddu the pharmacy, Shanmugam stores the general merchants and Primrose the lovely store which sold books, comics and chocolates.
The journey from Mettupalayam to Coonoor took five hours and when my grandfather stepped off the train, he was greeted by a very strange sight. A tall, handsome man, clad in breeches and a silk shirt, a turban on his head and diamond ear studs, was standing up in an open horse carriage and throwing coins to the tongawallahs and the porters. Apparently this was an early avatar of the present day supari. He was setting up these fellows to thrash someone. But that’s another story.
Of course, the NMR is not for those in a hurry. It is a slowly leisurely trip up the mountains, a reminder that there is a better way to live.