Engine Driver Rajendra Varma

Anecdotes from the Analogue World Ep. 2 – By Nandakumar

Last time I told you about how I learnt about a symbiotic interaction between kids living on the river bank and the train that passes over the bridge that crosses the river.

This week, I shall tell you how I learnt a thing or two about trust from a rickshaw driver in India. This happened in the central state of India called Madhya Pradesh, at the Choral Valley. The nearest town/city was a place called Mhow. 

We’re kept being told that trust is so hard to earn and how, once it is lost, it is almost impossible to get back. That’s the hard part. The easy part is this. Trust is almost always given free of charge when you meet someone for the first time. Think about it. Taxi drivers trust that you’ll pay at the end of the ride and not dart away once the taxi stops. You too trust the taxi driver to bring you to your destination and not to a deep dark corner of the city and rob you at gun/knife point. Prior to that ride, you didn’t even know each other’s name, let alone any of each other’s deep dark secrets. I’ve had my fair share of problematic taxi/rickshaw rides but this post is not about one of those. It should hopefully end with the reader smiling.

As we ate the delicious rotis and potato curry sitting well above Ravine Viaduct 1, Ashok (my regular rickshaw driver in Mhow) asked me “why aren’t you talking much today? You’re very quiet”. He obviously knew I was a jabbering jackass.  

Train Passes Over Ravine Viaduct 1
The view Ashok and I had when eating our lunch comprising bread and a potato curry.

As you can see the view from this vantage point was pretty spectacular so it’s okay if one was left dumbfounded. But Ashok knew I had seen it countless times, so there was something else that was bugging me. 

I told him “There are many unfinished tasks Ashok ji. It’s bothering me. I need to handover photos of the people I photographed last time. But the engine driver’s hangout at Mhow (called the Crew Care Lobby) isn’t helpful at all. They refused to hand over the prints and asked me to come down tomorrow. But I am leaving tomorrow evening. I can’t be waiting there and missing shots in the process. “

He asked, “Who do you want to see?”

“What can you do with a name, I need to see Kaseem Seth” I replied. 

I would’ve shown him the print but I didn’t want to risk getting it wet as there was a mild drizzle. And I was very sure he’s not going to know anyone I name.

He replied, “Oh Badruddin’s son Kaseem? Yeah, we used to go to school together.” 

I wasn’t convinced, I said, “I don’t know if he is Badruddin’s son but how can you be so sure it’s the same Kaseem?”

He said, “If his dad was an Engine driver, then it has to be Badruddin’s son Kaseem. There aren’t many Mohammedan engine drivers”. With reluctance, I gave him the benefit of doubt.

I showed him another engine driver’s photo on my phone, (seen in the last image) and he said, “Oh, he was my classmate, I know him too. In fact,

I know where both of them live. We can head over and pass them the photos. But let’s walk over to the bridge you wanted to visit first.”

After shooting the train on the bridge shown above, Ashok and I then walked almost 10 km (to and fro) on wet railway tracks to get to another bridge for shooting the returning train. 

I was still not convinced he could find the two people I named.

And in the strangest of coincidences, on our way back, we saw a light engine head our way and it did its mandatory stop before the tunnel for a brake test. An annoyed looking engine driver stuck his head out and said, “I can’t keep bringing you guys to Kalakund like this all the time”. 

Obviously many of the locals hitched rides on the locomotives when it stopped for the brake test here. I recognised him instantly. The same engine driver I had shown the photo of to Ashok. But when he saw Ashok, he smiled and said, “Hey what are you doing here?”. It was Rajendra Varma. Turns out they were classmates indeed!

Engine Driver Rajendra Varma
Ashok’s classmate who I had shot a year earlier. Ashok identified him immediately.

Ashok smiled and pointed to me and asked his friend,”Do you recognise him?” Positively startled, he exclaimed, “Sir, it’s you? Come into the Engine, I’m headed to Kalakund too”.  I passed him his photo and told him my intention to head the opposite way politely. He said he definitely wanted to meet me again and I told him I’ll come down to see him at Kalakund that evening. I did. 

He bought me a cup of tea and a sweet called Kalakand, which by the way, is only available at Kalakund. I think. Teeth meltingly sweet. Insane.

Ashok completely extinguished the little spark of doubt that threatened to burn my forest of trust and cause it to turn into ashes of distrust. And as if it was not enough, I was brought to Badruddin’s house the next day and saw Kaseem Seth who was delighted to see me. Ashok was right. His father Badruddin was an engine driver too and so was his grandfather! 

It’s not the first time I have been proven wrong so spectacularly in my assessment of someone. And it’s certainly not the first time I was so happy to be proven wrong at this level.

On the way back Ashok said, “My dad used to be an Engine driver too. In Mhow almost everyone would have someone in their family either working for the railways or for the army. So we would know almost everyone who has worked here in the railways in the past two or three decades, one way or another.”

He too wanted to join the railways but some family issues came up and he couldn’t sit for one of the exams. 

I apologised to him for my skepticism earlier and he said, “Sir, you should not trust anyone until they’ve proven themselves to be honest. You did the right thing by doubting me all along!”

I told him to stop calling me sir. He refused. He is at least a decade older than me. Several decades wiser perhaps. We stopped by his regular tea stall for a cup of tea for which he refused to let me pay. Another taxi driver did this back in 2010 in very similar circumstances but I will save that story for another day.

Ashok was someone who took good care of me when I went on long treks. He’d bring food from his house knowing full well I don’t bother about those things when I’m focusing on getting the shot. Its only when I ate the delicious food did I realise what I was missing out on. 

Thanks to him accompanying me, the photos below became a tad bit easier to execute. 

A train meanders through the Choral Valley
The Choral Valley is a great place to spend the monsoons. Watching the train and the river meander through this valley is a sight to behold.
A light engine traverses the slopes of the Choral Valley
A light engine returns to the home station of Mhow. The ascending trains would have these engines attached to the rear end as a safety measure.

Tip of the day. Don’t be a cynical and distrustful idiot all the time. Once in a while, take it easy and trust someone for a start. Give them a chance to break the trust or build it stronger. Either way, you learn something.

You can follow me on Instagram at: grumpy_oldman_

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5 thoughts on “Anecdotes from the Analogue World Ep. 2 – By Nandakumar”

  1. Another wonderful post, for which thanks.
    Such a heartfelt human story woven out of a love of people, places and photography.
    On a lighter note, any railway photography is surefire click-bait for me.
    Looking forward to Ep.3.

  2. Excellent photography and a much needed glimmer that societal niceties can be found these days. I needed to hear someone relay a human connection amongst strangers. Thanks.

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