The song that made the ‘toy train’ famous was actually shot in Mahanadi, Ghayabari and Tindharia in the Kurseong sub-division and not in Darjeeling main, as is the popular belief. “The Kurseong railway station was the last stop. That’s where ‘mere sapno ki rani’ ends…
Dhanraj Tamang, now in his late ’60s, said it was difficult to get a ticket for an ‘RK’ film at a theatre in the Hills. “I remember buying tickets in black. I used to get four anna pocket money from which I spent 10 paisa on tiffin and the rest to buy an RK movie ticket at Rink Hall,” he says (Gazmer, 2012).
Aradhana’s (1969) Mere Sapno ki Rani is an ideal example of the reification of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, along with, of course, being justifiably a much notable periapt for the toy train. Thirty years before the UNESCO declared the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway world heritage, Rajesh Khanna’s popularity among the Ghurkha audiences forged an obligatory cultural memory. It became a national heritage, which is of greater consequence today, than the railways being a world heritage, which however, it is bound to lose in due continuation of the negligence by the State and the Ministry of Railways. Public imagination is innocent. The architecture of its unconscious is always in a land of the past. The demand for Gorkhaland is part of a series of positive separatisms of twenty first century India. Mark Twain certainly had not the opportunity to visit this India, and a comparison between his folk-like representation of Darjeeling, in Following the Equator, and Khanna’s public ambassadorship for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways would be unfair. However, where Khanna succeeded, the State of West Bengal fails: to reify the bonds of labour of the discontent or migratory population of North Bengal.
Paradoxically, Khanna takes the discourse away from labour. This is where the merit of the song lies. The film Aradhana relies not on the precarious twists and the crowded streets of Darjeeling or Kurseong. The latter is where the route of the train ends, in the song. It relies instead on the capacity for spectacles, and illusions that the public nourishes in visions of Batasia Loop—the silver firs and rhododendrons (phool si khil ke paas aa dil ke: come to my heart blossoming as a flower)—and, evidently, in that of Sharmila Tagore: a clear parallel to that public fetish for innocence. The song and the film totally reify all elements of labour, through the labour of love that fruitions in the play-front of the song, and more significantly, the labour of death that the protagonist-hero performs in the film. Batasia Loop, considered as one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century is remembered only as a simulation of the song, and not for the sheer ingenuity which led to its construction in 1919. Situated on the Hill Cart road, between Ghum and Darjeeling, the Batasia Loop was commissioned due to the drastic downward gradient—1000 feet—of the track after leaving Ghum. The spiral-loop leads into dispelling the train’s otherwise uncontrollable momentum due to gravity. Imagination therefore, is not governed by this marvellous engineering feat but by the shooting of the song in the self-same site. Khanna’s character, Arun, an officer of the Indian Air Force, dies leaving his child to be brought up by Tagore. The labours of death and chastity of the protagonists, as even in the historical narratives of that English aristocracy—which lies buried around the Ghurkha-served tea estates—overshadows the memory of the labour that went into the making of the hill stations at such insufferable heights.
The criterion, fulfilling which the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway acquired the word heritage status were:
Criterion (ii): The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of the interchange of values on developments in technology, and the impact of an innovative transportation system on the social and economic development of a multicultural region, which was to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world…
Criterion (iv): The development of railways in the 19th century had a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world. The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of a technological ensemble, representing different phases of the development in high mountain areas…(UNESCO).
The two grounds on which the world heritage status of the Railways stands is falsified by the memory of Mere Sapno ki Rani, and the songs to follow. Tagore’s son, Saif Ali Khan (or the character of Shekhar) undergoes a similar labour of suffering in Parineeta, as Khanna and Tagore did, tending to a labour of death. The economic development of the multicultural Darjeeling, which could have been in fact fostered by the representation of the Himalayan Railways in these songs, takes a back seat. Worse still, instead of dispassionately remembering the knuckleheaded British sense of conquering the hills, and the Ghurkha labourers who paid suit—not only in Darjeeling but also in Shimla, Doon Valley—the nation throngs the hills to partake of a feigned postcolonial aristocracy, if not in flesh and blood then certainly through the visual media.
The nomenclature that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway received—toy train—more than being a diminutive endearment, reflects the spirit of liveried play that the British exercised in their imagination of the hill stations. As Barun Roy notes, in his Fallen Cicada: Unwritten History of Darjeeling Hills, the term toy-train was not the official terminology but only came into place with literature. Due to the narrow gauge of the tracks Messrs Tom Mitchell of London was assigned the contract of constructing a “tiny” system of the rail and engine, which is why the christening of the first engine, at Jamalpore, promptly worked out as Tiny (31). In 1880,when the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, visited Kurseong to inaugurate the Darjeeling Tramway Company, the time when Tiny was to be put to test for the first time, his immense retinue and subsequent surplus of luggage proved too heavy for the engine to be borne up the steep gradient. Clusters of Ghurkha coolies were appointed instantly to push the train upwards, for eighteen miles, and the point where they halted was named by the Viceroy as the “eighteenth mile.” The “exceedingly dirty…pahari tartars” of Emily Eden (227) became for this, and other such obliging efforts, the “hardy Ghurkhas,” to royalty.
Bhartiya, Tarun. The Darjeeling Himalyan Railway. Documentary Film. Ed. Barry Reynolds. 3Di TV, Gerry Troyna, 2010. Film.
Eden, Emily. ‘Up the Country’: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India. London: Richard Bentley, 1867.
Gazmer, Deep. “Darjeeling: Queen of the Hills, Queen of Rajesh Khanna’s Heart,” in The Times of India, Jul 19, 2012. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Darjeeling-Queen-of-the-hills-queen-of-Rajesh-Khannas-heart/articleshow/15036390.cms.
Jacquemont, Victor. Letters from India, Vol. I. London: Edward Churton, 1834.
Kennedy, Dane Keith. The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj. California: University of California Press, 1996.
Samanta, Shakti. Aradhana. Perf. Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, Farida Jalal. Shakti Films, 1969. Film.
Sarkar, Pradeep. Parineeta. Perf. Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Diya Mirza. Vinod Chopra Productions, 2005. Film.
Roy, Barun. Fallen Cicada: Unwritten History of Darjeeling Hills. Digital Edition: 2013.
Twain, Mark. The Writings of Mark Twain, Vol. VI: Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, Vol. II. New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1909.
UNESCO. “Mountain Railways of India.” http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/944. Accessed: 22/10/2014.