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Off the beaten track

It's a rare passion. But members of the Indian Railways Fan Club are keen on keeping their interest alive. SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN writes

Pic by V. Ganesan

Rail pals all... Pic by V. Ganesan

ON AN intensely muggy Sunday evening, seven men are out for a stroll. They form an eclectic group. The youngest, at 19, is a physiotherapy student, and the oldest is in his fifties; between them are ranged an insurance employee, two engineers, a technical writer and an audio-visual consultant. The stroll looks innocuously aimless enough, random conversation and desultory gaits all firmly in place. Except that these men happen to be on a deserted platform of the Egmore railway station.

A diesel locomotive crawls puffily onto the track next to them, and every one of the seven instantly snaps to attention. "It doesn't look as if all its cylinders are firing," mutters "Poochi" Venkataraman, shooting it a look of concern that mothers reserve for mewling babies. "This locomotive was transferred to the Erode shed from another one," says Sridhar Joshi, to exclamations of interest. Abhishek Vaidyanathan takes in the remarks only perfunctorily; he is already whipping out his digital camera and, with all the agility of a limber physiotherapy student, leaping across the rails to take photographs of every square inch of the locomotive, right down to the nymphets on the newspaper page plastered in one of its windows.

Only train please!

This is one of the frequent yet irregular meetings of the Chennai chapter of the Indian Railways Fan Club (IRFCA), an informal Internet-based group of more than 2,000 people who are interested in the Railways. And when we say interested, we mean single-mindedly devoted. These are people who will take a train even when their company offers flight fare, who will spend the entire journey taking copious notes for a detailed trip report, and who will clarify the sort of mystical queries that such reports invariably tend to raise. Why was a Kanpur locomotive pulling out the Coromandel Express? Is there a new stationmaster at Howrah? Why did the food on the Jammu-Tawi smell so suspiciously of burned rubber?

"There is no charter to our activities per se," says Poochi. "We just keep our eyes open to notice aberrations and changes, and believe me, there are plenty of them. It's not like the railway systems in Australia and the US, which are so process-oriented that if one locomotive is assigned to a train, it will pull only that train. Here there is uncertainty and suspense. You never know what is going to happen."

Gautam Parthasarathy dredges out of his memory a quote by Paul Theroux to back Poochi up. "What is the charm in being strapped into a seat on a plane, where you can't even face each other? In Indian trains, you meet so many people and travel through the soul of the country. Where else do first-class travellers drink the same tea as the chair-car occupants? That way, the railways are a hugely important part of Indian life."

Valuable information

But it's not just sentimental passion that keeps the IRFCA going. That passion translates on a regular basis into vast reserves of information and knowledge. "We've contributed rare photographs to Railways exhibitions, and Railways employees are almost always amazed at how crazy and obsessed we are," grins Poochi. "In fact, believe it or not, officials have sometimes even approached us for information. If they had to get it from another Railways department, they'd have to go through long-winded bureaucratic procedures. They prefer to use us as their short-cut."

Two thousand people who know timetables by heart and who will tell you that the biriyani served on the Janshatabdi between Vijayawada and Chennai is the best in the country can also form a potent force as a whole. "The Railways won't admit it, but we were one of the most active pressure groups in getting Chennai Central repainted in its original colour," says Poochi. "But they don't bother us in any way. They know we're just a bunch of harmless buffs."

Like most harmless buffs, the Indian Railways Fans face up to their own unique tribulations. "Some of our wives don't allow us to utter the word `rail' at home, and to attend our meetings, one of our younger members actually has to feed his parents the little white lie that he's going for a movie!" Poochi says. "His parents think train spotting is for kids. I suppose really, in retaining our childhood fascination for trains, all of us have remained boys at heart. But frankly, we'd like to remain that way for the rest of our lives."

* * *

e-links

The Indian Railways Fan Club is rather illogically abbreviated to IRFCA because when it started back in 1989, it was the Indian Railways Fan Club of America. At the time, and actually even as late as 2000, the IRFCA was essentially a handful of members, but since then, thanks to the Internet, membership has exploded to more than 2,000 people, all hungrily devouring emails devoted to locomotives and shunts and sidings and Sampark Kranti Expresses. The IRFCA web site (http://www.irfca.org) is the repository of mind-bogglingly abstruse information. This is not only where subscribers sign up for the mailing list but also where you would go if you want to download a sound file of the GZB WAG-5 horn, video footage of the now-extinct YAM-1 or pictures of the WDS-6 36012. Needless to say, it is also where you would go if you want to find out what in heaven's name the GZB WAG-5, the now-extinct YAM-1 and the WDS-6 36012 are in the first place.

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