Stoking old passions
Ashwani Lohani's love affair with 40 smoking beauties egged him on to write a coffee-table book on them
Stepney, an 1875 locomotive buily in England
STRANGE ARE the routes of history. Take, for instance, the path the steam engine has traversed over the last century. From its humble beginning with James Watt's teakettle experiments, it became the most significant propeller of the Industrial Revolution, a saga of blood, sweat and prosperity. The same soot-ridden engine is now taking tourists on nostalgia trips around the globe!
But tracking history in this manner is not what you would expect in a coffee-table book. So, not surprisingly, Ashwani Lohani's book on steam engines "is an attempt to portray the glamorous and happening side of steam locomotives". Again, not very surprising that it's titled Smoking Beauties and the innuendo continues into the introduction with references to romance, consummation, steamy types, raw fire, throbbing body, open design bordering on nudity... He goes so far as to suggest that a steam engine "requires the careful hands of a lover to stoke the fires burning within"!
In Bangalore over the weekend to release his book at Oxford Bookstore, the former director of the Railway Museum in Delhi and the current Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism talked about his long-standing love affair with the 40 beauties that surrounded him at the museum, and his attempts at stoking the fires of the oldest beauty of them all, the Fairy Queen. He is credited with reviving this train, which holds a Guinness record for being the oldest working steam locomotive in the world. You may have heard plenty of phallic allusions to the steam engine, but Ashwani insists that a steam engine is always a black beauty and a symbol of femininity and romance. "Nobody falls in love with a diesel engine, you see," he smiles.
But the innuendo does die out quickly enough in the book and the accent shifts to the international steam scene, adventures of the birth of railways in India and the steam locomotive's resurrection in the tourism segment.
It may take a true-blue train lover to enjoy all the details that go into the book. But even the not so devoted do find some interesting trivia. The story of railways in the hostile Himalayan terrain makes for some interesting read. The book tells you that it was an innocuous comment by a frustrated engineer's wife ("Darling, if you cannot go ahead, why don't you come back?") that led to the birth of the revolutionary Z reversing stations! It talks of how the laying of tracks in Simla (a horrendously expensive venture) was seen as necessary to "to refresh a European constitution and keep the mental powers in a state of health, beneficial to both the ruler and the ruled". Talking of the ruled, it would be interesting to explore how trains (which came essentially to carry men and material for the Raj) altered a range of factors in India from people's notions of distances and caste purity to our pristine forests. But that again does not fall into the book's ambit. Instead, it talks at length about the development of trains in individual segments. An entire chapter is dedicated to the labour pains of Fairy Queen's revival, what Ashwani terms "a real achievement... not a Guinness record for growing hair and nails!"
Ashwani believes that there is great potential for more achievements in the area of "steam tourism".
Since steam engines were around in India till recently, it does not evoke as much nostalgia as it would in a country such as the U.K. But as the years go by, there's bound to be demand for more steam trains in India, he says.
Ashwani Lohani says that a steam engine is a destination in herself
"Fire always fascinates," says Ashwani. "And it's one machine in which the entire mechanical process is visible." What's more, this is one kind of journey in which it's the means and not the end that's important. "Steam engine is a destination in itself!"
If the environmental lobby has its share of objections to the revival of steams, Ashwani simply calls them "misplaced concerns". "We have coal reserves for 200 years. The petroleum reserves are far less!" He points out that U.K., where environmental awareness is far higher, runs over 1,000 steams today in the tourism segment.
The Indian Steam Railway Society, of which Ashwani is one of the founders, acts as a pressure group to revive steam locomotion in tourism segment. It has illustrious members such as Mark Tully (who's written the book's preface) and Bill Aitken. The pressure group is working, says Ashwani. "In Railways, it has become fashionable to talk of steam engines!"
Fairy Queen, the oldest working steam locomotive in the world
If one wanted proof of workings of pressure and power, it was there in the fact that former tourism minister Anantha Kumar (now BJP MP and State BJP President) was to launch the book in Bangalore. Busy as he was with Tiranga Yatra at Hubli, he couldn't make it. But his brother was there to receive a copy of Smoking Beauties on his behalf.
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