Track Changes: Retracing Family Memories Along The Indian Railways

The author returns to her roots along the nation’s railway line.
Four generations of the writer’s family lived and worked along the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, which was the predecessor of today’s Central Railway. Photo: Mary/Indiapicture
Four generations of the writer’s family lived and worked along the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, which was the predecessor of today’s Central Railway. Photo: Mary/Indiapicture

My father was born in India but when I asked him where he had grown up, he provided me with a dizzying list of places: Agra, Bhusaval, Indore, Damoh, Itarsi, Jhansi, Jabalpur and Mussoorie. He added, “There may be more.”

I soon learnt that many of these towns were located along the Great Indian Peninsula Railway line, the predecessor of the Central Railway. Over the last few years, as I visited the country several times to research my family and the railway towns of colonial India, I began to realise that their histories imbricate with one another. On a more recent trip, armed with a greater knowledge of the family’s peregrinations along the railway, I searched for my grandmother’s grave. I wanted to give my father something from a trip that he was too old to undertake. When I rang him from India and read the inscription from his mother’s headstone, I heard a telling intake of breath.

When my father married my mother and embraced a fresh start of life in Australia after Independence and the trauma of Partition, he left India far behind. But a deeper, more corporeal India remained within him. It is there in the reminiscences that he sometimes allows himself, in his predilection for spicy food, vocabulary (choki meaning jail or lock up, tamasha, and doolally! derived from the name of the army camp in Deolali in Maharashtra) and certain inflections in his speech. My sister’s name is Kamala, we had a dog named Kala, and a cousin’s pony was nicknamed Chota.

I grew up in suburban Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, where relics from the Raj—kukris, guns, and photographs of unknown relatives—were scattered throughout our house. I was totally beguiled by the photographs. They spanned the last 40 years of the Raj, with the oldest taken in Bhopal in 1904 and the most recent around Dharamsala in 1947, capturing Dad’s experience with the Gurkhas on the cusp of Independence. These beautiful black-and-white images were a portal into my family’s lives in India.

India Railways Family

A photograph of the author’s great-grandmother from the 1930s. She lived and passed away in Bhusaval, where the author visited her grave. The quest for her roots took the writer to small towns of India, from Bhusaval in Maharashtra to Jhansi and Jabalpur in central India. Photo courtesy Deborah Nixon

They took me first to Maharashtra, ten years ago, to the graves of my grandmother and great-grandmother. When I arrived at Bhusaval, I had just come from visiting the astonishing caves at Ajanta and Ellora so it did not escape my attention that lying close by was Major Robert Gill, who became famous in the 19th century for his paintings of Ajanta. My ancestors are in august company, I thought, as I looked around the crumbling marble headstones in the Catholic cemetery.

This visit resonated through me. I had finally found evidence for why I felt at home in India. As I sat on the edge of my grandmother’s grave and traced my hand across the grey marble, I realised that I was the only member of the family to visit the site since 1947. A small chunk of stone broke off, so I pocketed it and took it back to Australia to show my family. My brother commented that it was as wondrous as looking at a piece of the moon, so remote had this history been. I knew then that I would have to return.

On my subsequent trip to a region my father referred to as Central India and which is now Madhya Pradesh, I had exact addresses of where the family had lived. I scanned some old photographs and optimistically began my new foray in Jabalpur.

Unfortunately, I could not find the house. Perhaps it had been demolished or was crumbling and unrecognisable. I did, however, become fascinated by the remnants of colonial bungalows and the repurposing of those that remained intact. They stood overgrown and empty, beautiful in their dereliction. The bungalows that had not fallen into ruin served as accommodation for army and police officers or had been converted into government offices. I managed to locate the grave of my father’s step-grandmother, and took a trip out to the famous marble rocks at Bhedaghat and to the Dhuandhar Falls. Jabalpur was bustling and friendly but it was time to move on to Jhansi.

Among my father’s mementos from India was a farewell letter addressed to my grandfather signed by “The Anglo Indian and Parsee community in Jhansi 1919”. I had also seen several studio portraits of my family taken in Jhansi studios. I wanted to meet elderly members of the railway community who may remember my family.

I arrived by train in Jhansi, at 4 a.m. on a cold April morning. Although Jhansi is relatively small, the railway junction is extremely busy and innumerable trains transit through its seven platforms. I had been given the address of Peggy Cantem, an energetic 90-year-old Anglo-Indian woman. Anglo-Indians say Peggy is as famous for her social work in Jhansi as Rani Lakshmibai was for defending it against the British. She instructed me to sit in the ladies’ waiting room at the station and told me that her driver would fetch me when dawn broke. Sure enough the driver soon appeared in a vehicle Peggy referred to as the “bum shaker”—a clattering auto rickshaw.

India Railways

The author’s grandfather sitting in the centre, was a part of the Jhansi Railway Institute during the 1910s. Photo courtesy Deborah Nixon

Staying with Peggy was a privilege. though she is crippled by arthritis and unable to walk unassisted, she has lived independently for decades in a simple house that turns into a salon every evening, providing a fulcrum for the town’s Anglo-Indian community and anybody else who can enliven the conversation. Despite being immobile, she has made it her mission to restore the Jhansi Cantonment cemetery and take care of its garden. Although pestered by marauding animals, Peggy has not given up planting flowers and tending the site. The cemetery now houses a monument to those who died in the conflict between the British and Indian troops in 1857.

She suggested that I meet Roy Abbott, who is perhaps the last remaining European in Jhansi. When I showed him my family photographs, he pointed to his relatives sitting next to my grandmother. This was an entirely unexpected moment. Roy was delighted to recognise his relative and compared it with a photograph hanging in his hallway—yes, it was a direct match. Once again, I experienced a frisson of identification with a place that had previously meant little to me.

This led to the extension of an invitation to the Abbott Farm, near Sagar. Driving to the farm was a hair-raising expedition, particularly as we travelled most of the way down the wrong side of a not-quite-opened highway. When we arrived at the place, all the workers began to appear in order to speak to the sahib. Many waited for hours in a queue that did not seem to shorten until sunset. Although elderly and confined to a wheelchair, Roy stayed up into the night talking to them about farming matters. What I liked most about the trip was the quiet of the country, bird song at dusk, and the sounds of a travelling troupe of actors entertaining the village closest to the main house. After a week, we returned to Jhansi along the chaotic, still-unfinished highway.

Jhansi fort still bears scars of the British siege in 1858, when Rani Lakshmibai led her famous rebellion. Photo: Exotica/Dinodia

Jhansi fort still bears scars of the British siege in 1858, when Rani Lakshmibai led her famous rebellion. Photo: Exotica/Dinodia

Back in Jhansi I was keen to meet members of the Parsi community so Peggy put me in touch with Farokh Pestonji, a supervisor in the Central Railway workshop. Under colonial rule, the Parsis, like Europeans and Anglo-Indians, found easy employment in the railways. But Parsi numbers are now in decline in Jhansi because many young people have left to find work elsewhere. Farokh showed me a small office building that would have existed in the 1920s and quite possibly would have been where my grandfather worked. He also took me to the fortress of the Rani of Jhansi and to Murli Manohar Mandir, located in the middle of a bustling market in the oldest part of the town. Farokh knew the family who acted as custodians of the temple, so we settled in for tea and I was shown around the labyrinthine building. A mysterious wooden door hidden behind a curtain was revealed to me as a secret passageway to the Rani’s fortress.

On my last evening in Jhansi, a group of Peggy’s friends gathered to play housie and have a meal of roomali roti, dal, mutton curry, and egg curry, followed by kheer and gulab jamun. I felt like I was a part of the community.

For many travellers, Jhansi is a transit town for Orchha and Khajuraho and offers little of interest, apart from the Rani of Jhansi’s fort. But I found much more, and it was hard to leave. Back in Delhi, when somebody suggested that it must have been boring being in “those towns for so long”, I had to disagree. The generosity I had been shown made visible familial threads connecting me to places and people with whom, for a short time, I stayed under the same skies as my ancestors.

Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Track Changes”.

  • Deborah Nixon is an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a keen traveller and has visited India many times, for research and for pleasure.

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