Last Victim of the Monsoon Express – magic and murder on the Indian railways
Vaseem Khan, author of the Baby Ganesh Agency series, reveals the magic of the Indian railways and the inspiration behind his new novella Last Victim of the Monsoon Express.
Posted on June 10, 2019 in Guest Author
Tags: Baby Ganesh, Baby Ganesh Agency, Inspector Chopra
There are few aspects of the subcontinent that evoke as much nostalgia as the Indian railways. Young or old, foreign or native, rich or poor, the railways have cast a collective spell over our psyches for well over a century. Indeed, no trip to the subcontinent would be as memorable without at least one journey on these ubiquitous trains. But dig a little deeper, and you discover that there is more to the Indian railways than a sense of colonial grandeur. The network is a living, breathing entity, as integral to India as the wheat fields of her rural hinterlands, or the skyscrapers of her overcrowded urban metropolises.
The railways form the backdrop to the latest book in my India-set Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series.
But first, a little history. The Indian railways began life over 150 years ago, under Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, as part of a push from London to make traversing the vast spaces of the subcontinent an easier affair. (Of course, the railways were not about creating transportation for the masses or leaving a legacy, but about making it more efficient to plunder the wealth of the country.)
The first train ran between Bombay and Thane, inaugurated on 16 April 1853. During the 1860s, British engineer, Robert Brereton, expanded the network relentlessly, ultimately making it possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta, the route that later became the inspiration for French writer Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days.
Expansion continued apace into the new century. WW1, however, left the railways in a state of disrepair and collapse. This was rectified to a great extent during a period of interwar growth, but the Second World War again severely crippled the network with forty-percent of the rolling stock hijacked to the Middle East, and the railways workshops converted to ammunitions factories to help the Allied war effort.
By 1946, the network had been taken over by the government, and with steady investment, the service continued to innovate, though some innovations took longer to arrive than others. For instance, it was some five decades after the first train left Bombay that trains finally had toilets, only installed after an irate passenger named O. Chandra Sen wrote a furious letter to the railway office in 1909. One can only speculate as to how passengers accommodated their bodily functions prior to his outburst.
Today, the Indian railway network is the largest in Asia, with 115000 km of track running through 7172 stations, and carrying almost 25 million passengers daily. Staffed by 1.5 million people, it is one of the world’s largest employers. The network is record-breaking in other respects. The Nizamuddin Rajdhani is the longest running non-stop train in the world – 528 kms in 6.5 hours. The shortest named station is Ib; the longest Venkatanarasimharajuvariipeta – personally, I’d love to hear Western train announcers try and get their tongues around that one!
It is the history of this marvel of engineering that particularly beguiles us. The Fairy Queen that runs between New Delhi and Rajasthan is the oldest working steam locomotive in the world. Four railway stations have been declared world heritage sites including Mumbai’s CST, and the Darjeeling station on the Himalayan Railway. The railways played a particularly poignant part in the story of Partition. They became the scene for violent bloodshed as millions of Muslims and Hindus migrated towards Pakistan and India respectively in 1947. Thousands met grisly death as gangs of men entered the carriages and slaughtered all inside. The echoes of that cataclysm continue to haunt the subcontinent, in spite of attempts to find common ground. The Samjauta Express (the ‘Friendship’ Express) has run between India and Pakistan for over 40 years, intermittently being suspended as relations break down between the two nations. (It is this train in particular that inspired my current book.)
I lived in India for 10 years and had the pleasure of regularly travelling on the network. There is a certain temperament needed to navigate the rails. Punctuality is non-existent. For instance, the Guwahati-Thiruvanananthapuram Express is one of the world’s most unreliable trains – it is, on average, 10-12 hours late. Unlike in Japan there is no apology, no expressions of remorse or offers to commit hara-kiri. It just is.
Stories abound of the democratic nature of the train travelling experience. Tales of stolen footwear, arguments over luggage racks – in quite differing languages and dialects so that no one actually understands who did what to who; the collegiate atmosphere of mealtimes (invariably watery lentil soup). Yet, there is a genuine sense of camaraderie as the train hurtles on into the country’s vast interior, stopping at rural outposts where fare-dodging locals clamber onto the roof, clothes-bundles in tow, like an army of silent langurs. One of my own favourite memories is of a magician’s act, boarding the train to beguile us with various sleights of hand and even a knife-swallowing demonstration. I later discovered that this was a cunning ruse to enable various pickpocket assistants to perform their own sleights of hand.
India is a nation of more than a billion and lately they all seem to be on the move. On any given journey you will meet people from diverse backgrounds: the software engineer travelling to India’s IT hub, Bangalore; the harried-looking lady from Bihar travelling to arrange her daughter’s wedding in the neighbouring state; the young Goan salesman chatting to the foreign backpacker, teaching them a local ditty, best sung after a few glasses of throat-scorching feni. There is no better place to get acquainted with this vast multitude than on a train.
My fondness for the railways has found its way into the latest book in my crime series. The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency novels began with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, introducing us to Indian police detective Ashwin Chopra, who is forced into early retirement in his late forties, but cannot seem to set aside the cause of justice in a country where wealth and influence can often allow the guilty to escape punishment. He simultaneously struggles with the rather unique dilemma – unique in the annals of crime fiction, at any rate – of looking after a one-year-old baby elephant that has been sent into his care. Last Victim of the Monsoon Express is the latest adventure for the duo.
In a symbolic journey of reconciliation, the Monsoon Express is traveling between hostile neighbours India and Pakistan. The passenger list includes politicians, celebrities, and former Mumbai policeman Inspector Chopra. Then a senior diplomat is found murdered in his cabin. Accusations fly, tensions rise, and an international incident seems certain. But is the murder political – or personal? Tasked to investigate, Chopra has just hours before the train reaches its destination and the news goes public. He must unmask the killer quickly if he is to stop the last journey of the Monsoon Express going entirely off the rails…
This novella (it is 30,000 words) is both my love letter to the Indian railways and a homage to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. As well as hopefully offering the discerning crime reader a gripping murder mystery, I use the book to bring you the richness of modern India and the magic of her railways.
One last thing: it just so happens that the mascot of the Indian railways is an elephant dressed as a train guard. How perfectly apt.