The train lines in India and Burma run like arteries, pumping life through some of the most remote and underdeveloped landscapes on the planet.
They stretch from the slums of Mumbai and Delhi to the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas and the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu. But now the country is modernising, and India’s narrow-gauge railways are beginning to disappear, one by one.
For decades, photojournalist and writer Angus McDonald captured these rail-bound journeys on film, and the fruits of his labours are on on display at Sydney’s Customs House until 22 January 2016, as well as 45 Downstairs in Melbourne from 8-19 December 2015.
Sadly, Angus recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. His wife, Catherine, wrote a moving article for the Telegraph Magazine after he died, and we’ve republished excerpts from it here with her permission:
Only a few days before he died – so abruptly and unexpectedly, yet not so, since he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer less than one year previously, and it ought never to have come as a surprise to me – Angus and I took our final train journey together on the metre-gauge Shwenyaung-to-Thazi line in Burma’s southern Shan State. In 2013 the country’s rail network looked much as it does on a yellowing map from 1913: like a flattened centipede, a snaking spine running from the former capital, Rangoon (now Yangon), to the northern trading post of Myitkyina in Kachin State. Truncated branches sprout intermittently from the central artery.
Our destination, the hill station of Kalaw, was on one such branch. This was an offshoot of the so-called British tool of ‘railway imperialism’, which saw the Raj stamp its territorial dominion on some of the most challenging and wondrous of terrains. It was the Marquess of Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India, who decreed in the 1850s that India needed to modernise. Here in Burma, where the railway revolution was somewhat belated, labour, rolling stock, engines and even coal would have been imported across the border. Angus and I now travelled on the last major line constructed by the Burma Railway Company, completed in 1918 and the full stop to a frenzied period of infrastructure development, which began with the first line between Rangoon and Prome in 1877. To us, travellers in a land newly exposed to tourism and one ill-equipped to deal with this newer, more modern incursion, little appeared to have changed in the intervening century.
Rocking gently from side to side, we beetled across the Nyaung Shwe plain at the base of the Shan foothills, averaging not more than 20mph. Yet the tempo of the journey suited us. It seemed to offer a brief suspension of time, and of tribulation, in a period that had pressed us to cherish every waking second. I could not deny that, only days before this train journey, Angus had begun to fade visibly in front of me. He tired more easily. His appetite vanished. The night sweats had returned, joined now by day sweats. I wondered, as I had each day since his diagnosis with stage-four pancreatic cancer, if his own bodily incursion had, perhaps, at last conquered the vestiges of a healthy and vigorous body. He would be taken from me, and soon. Yet on this blessed train journey he revived.
Through open windows we looked on to thickets of rhododendrons and woods laced with lily of the valley, our fingers trailing through the leaves of mahoganies. The rickety line was steeped in all the romance and mystery of the most archetypal of subcontinental hill railways. Each bend revealed unexpected delights: a congregation of red-turbanned Pao mothers soaking their naked, wriggling children; mellow woodsmoke curling from a brazier; the form of a speckled goshawk balancing on a teak branch. A bullock cart, its driver intent only on manoeuvring the bony, flyblown beast, ambled within a few yards of the track, its carriage laden with shiny red chillies. At miniature stations solemn railway staff discharged their duties with the utmost care. They wore impeccable peaked caps with polished trimmings. The train rattled wearily, but our knees nudged one another in jaunty rhythm to the cadence of its pistons, and Angus smiled lazily on to the splendour of the hazy midday landscape.
It was a journey not at all dissimilar to those Angus made over the course of seven years, a personal odyssey on the 10 narrow-gauge lines lovingly chronicled in his book India’s Disappearing Railways, which in the year after his death I edited for posthumous publication. With his cameras he documented these with all the attention to detail of a Victorian plant-hunter collecting rare specimens. He reserved a special love for the KVR, which he declared was ‘the most beautiful railway line in the world’. Though built with an entirely utilitarian function in mind – to transport machinery to the Shanan hydropower project near Joginder Nagar – the KVR is emblematic of the astonishing engineering, audacity and innovation that came to define these narrow-gauge lines, and which Angus in his postscript describes as having ‘an elusive quality, a tension between the warmth of human settlement and the powerful forces that would overwhelm it; if there is something unworldly about it, there is also something almost accidental’.
Unlike the top-down development of Burma’s network, India’s railways – particularly its narrow- gauges – proliferated in a patchwork of happenstance, often constructed by Indians themselves. In Gujarat, the Dabhoi network grew as a direct result of the American Civil War to help meet the resulting global cotton shortage, constructed by the Gaekwad of Baroda. The Matheran line in Maharashtra was built by the canny businessman Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy to connect a hill station to the main Bombay line. The Gwalior Light Railway originated as half a mile of 2ft track brought from England to the Maharaja of Gwalior by his tutor; it grew to about 150 miles in length, delivering relief in times of famine, and in times of feast transporting Madhya Pradesh’s bounteous crops to market.
These lines are steeped in timelessness. There is nothing fast about them. Rarely are they comfortable; rarely do they run on time. Peeling paintwork, creaking hinges and abandoned stations speak at best of indifference, at worst neglect. But whether in the arid Western Ghats of Maharashtra, the fertile alluvial plains of Madhya Pradesh, the cool blue mountains of Tamil Nadu or the scented deodars of the Himalayas, these noble railways are rare and precious beasts, each uniquely evolved in its distinct terrain, society and history.
These railways are trade routes, homes, playing fields. They are people’s bedrooms and backyards, their social spaces and their sanctuaries. They are reminders of what we have abandoned in our hurry to modernise: community and connection.
The world was so much smaller than we thought,’ mused Charles Dickens on the expansion of rail travel in the 19th century. ‘We were all connected.’ With the loss of such lines, Angus argues, we lose human interaction too. If this sounds like an elegy, then that is not without reason. Successive Indian governments have attempted to unify the country’s rail network into one single gauge, ending forever these dinosaurs of infrastructure and reverting to pragmatic Lord Dalhousie’s dream of a one-gauge system: a model of efficiency. To terminate the bloodlines of these railways would be to make extinct an entire way of life. Their cultural significance is arguably as potent as that of the pyramids of the Mayans or the hydraulic structures of ancient China. And for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on these lines, their demise would sever links long-established, links redolent with history and with poetry too.
Now the limitless train journeys that Angus and I had dreamt of enjoying together have taken on the filmic quality of an imagined encounter. We do not have the luxury of returning to the places we loved, or the places we loved in. But his photographic legacy allows us to preserve and to protect those daily journeys that make these lines – which have already outlived countless human lives, including those who gave birth to them, and the many who have documented them – living and breathing treasures.
You can donate to the Angus McDonald Trust at any time, the proceeds from which go to support grassroots projects in Burma. If you’d like a copy of Angus’ book, India’s Disappearing Railways, you can purchase a copy here.