Anecdotes from the Analogue World Ep. 4 – By Nandakumar

Things took a rather grim turn in my last post when I shared this story about mental health and how crippling it can be in preventing humans from pursuing their passion or even just carrying on living everyday.

This time it is death. And hence it is going to be another sad read. The pictures have almost no connection to the story but they do illustrate the idea of open spaces where I could shoot the train unhindered during the course of the project. The very open spaces that eluded me on the day when this story took place in 2017.

This would also be my last post for the foreseeable future on 35mmc.

For some reason, I have had a lot of people share their grievances with me during the course of my project covering the meter gauge trains in India for the past 3-4 years. In the year 2017, just before the onset of the scorching Indian summer, in March that I found myself in a very awkward but grief filled situation.

I was walking between the stations of Barwaha and Mukhtiara Balwada. I was hoping to catch the train from an open field where farmers were working. Unfortunately, two things were not in my favour. The first was the lining of trees on both sides of the single line track that blocked the train so I had walked pretty far with the lack of water looking for this elusive open space where I could get a clean shot of the train. The other thing that was against me was that the section I was walking in was where the train traveled at its fastest. A blistering 75 km/h (~47mph). So catching the train up close would result in considerable motion blur.

This was the kind of space I was looking for. Where I could shoot the train unhindered even if it was traveling fast.

After having covered 4 of the 10 km I met a lady seated by the tracks. She was in her fifties going by her appearance. I stepped to the side of the tracks and passed her when she called out from behind me asking “Where are you going son?”. I told her I was looking for this open area so I could shoot the train from the field. She assured me the trees lined the tracks all the way to the next station and there was no open area ahead. I wish I had met her 4 kilometres ago. I asked her if I could have some water. She immediately opened her water bottle that was wrapped in a wet jute bag. Cool water. Three sips. Heaven.
I thanked her and just as I turned around to return the bottle, she pointed to the tiny bridge over a tinier rivulet. She  said “You see that bridge? That’s where I found my sons body two years ago”. I quickly darted a glance on the bridge and turned around to face her. I asked her “That is so sad. Did he commit suicide on the tracks?”

Stupidity often results in accidents on the Indian Railways. In the search for the unique selfie, many a young life have been lost.

She said, “That’s what authorities will tell you. But we know what a body run over by a train looks like. It gets cut into pieces. He had cuts on his body. Cuts from knives or swords. Not from a train. And there was no train passing by when we found his body”

My heart beat accelerated.

She went on. “He was a man who could lift two quintals with a single hand” Being an engineer by academic qualification, I did what I knew best back then. I did the maths. I assumed she meant the imperial quintal which was about 50kilos to a quintal. Still didn’t make sense. Her son was lifting 100 kilos with one hand. I lost track of what she said during my mental maths session but I didn’t stop her.

She continued, “The headman asked me to close the case saying I’d be killed too if I took on these people who murdered my son”

This is when her husband walked in. He was the real grumpy old man, grumpier than I have ever been on Instagram. And boy was he grumpy. He had an affinity for the Hindi swear word that could be abbreviated as MC and his sentences were littered with it. It seemed appropriate when he addressed the authorities that refused to investigate his sons murder but he extend the vocabulary to his family members too.. And that’s where it started getting more awkward.

Their latest problem was a daughter in law that could not breast feed her child. The man was furious, saying, “This MC doesn’t want to feed her child and I have to pay 400 rupees every month for powdered milk.” I thought about explaining how some babies do not latch on to their mothers and its better to feed the baby off a bottle but I knew this was a losing argument. Once she asks how many kids I have, it would become an exercise in futility, so I just let them continue.

The lady supported him by saying “And she doesn’t even want to cook or look after the child. She keeps wanting to look for a job. I regret not pushing my son to study beyond his tenth grade. His salary is not enough to support his own family let alone the two of us. My first son had a strong body so he would work hard and earn money. My second son is a wastrel.”

I am a second son too. Roaming around railways tracks like a vagabond/wastrel. But I am lucky to not have a wife or a kid that needed powdered milk. She lost her son. My son is my creativity. Or whatever remains of it. It is slowly dying too. By a thousand cuts. Bringing along this project that will be, in all likelihood, left abandoned.

The train came on time and zipped past at 75km/h. By now the lady’s workers on her plot of land had gathered for their meal. They were insistent they don’t appear in the photo and I assured them the camera would be behind them so their faces wont appear in the shot. It was sufficient. The shot wasn’t good as the sun was too harsh but the mind was kinda chaotic too. Hence I have put up another photo of a railway crossing instead. Unlike that section in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh has plenty of areas where the train passes through unobstructed views from the fields.

Few things are worse than for a parent to outlive a child. Fewer things are worse than for a mother to see the murdered body of her child. And far far fewer things are worse than having to live with an injustice, helplessly, day in and day out.

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About The Author

12 thoughts on “Anecdotes from the Analogue World Ep. 4 – By Nandakumar”

  1. Dear Nandakumar,
    Please don’t let this be your last contribution to 35mmc. It is one of the best things I’ve read here and it seemed to end just as you were starting the story.
    Also, I love your images.

  2. Your voice is so powerful, and I eagerly look forward to your stories regardless of the tone. You pain a vibrant rain ow of emotions. I am sorry to hear that this may be your last here, and I hope that you are mistaken!

  3. Nandakumar,
    Your recounting of the encounter with the grieving mother & father marks you as a good, compassionate human. You were meant to get their story and to share it. Your photography compliments them.
    I have worked for 40 years (as a mental health volunteer) with American Viet Nam veterans. I hold their stories. When these accounts are shared, we help lift a burden from their shoulders. Our photography becomes secondary. Please continue to post. I love your articles. Take a break if you need to, but don’t stop.

  4. Thank you all for your kind words of encouragement and praise. I appreciate you taking time to read the articles and to leave your thoughts here. Unfortunately, the prevailing circumstances in my life have taken a toll on my mental health and killed my curiosity. Until both recover, I am afraid I won’t be able to put finger to keyboard or pen to paper.

    Once again, thank you so much for kind support and encouragement. It definitely helps in the recovery.

    1. Rest well, and do what you need to recover your strength. I’ve been through burnout, I have a vague sense of what you might be feeling. It takes time, so much time, and rest, and surrounding yourself with supportive people. As you can see, we are here for you when you need us! In the meantime, you know what’s best for yourself, please take care.

  5. Ibraar Hussain

    Really enjoyed your thoughtful and personal essays and photographs
    Interestingly in Pakistan the railways are broad gauge 5’6” and even though nearly all steam locomotives have been retired (bar a couple which were used for tourism purposes in the Bolan Pass and Khyber Pass) the stations are nearly all as they were when built during the Raj.

  6. Dear Nandakumar,

    I’ve just read all four of your anecdotes, exquisitely illustrated, in one go as for some reason (fate wishing me to have the luxury of reading them through at once?) I missed them as episodes. They’re good- alongside the (fictional) anecdotes of Faussone the rigger in Primo Levi’s lovely “The Wrench”- and the photos are great., including, especially, the light leak/ weedy flash one where the flaws appear to make it magical in a way that maybe it would not have acheived had it ‘all gone according to plan’.

    Very little in my life has ever gone according to plan, and aren’t infantry officers taught that the best laid battle plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy, so their skill lies in what to do next? Your relationships with the drivers and the guards and the rickshaw driver, and the rude old woman who wanted to bathe, the rotis and potato curry… all appear to silently uphold the photographs of the beautiful railways that are the visible bit of the exercise, much like the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

    I sincerely hope you have fairer weather ahead. Thank you for your writing and photographs.


    Poignant story (like your last one), and really great images to go with it. I think the train is a great metaphor for relentless, blind forward motion, like life, always pushing forward, and suits the story very well. I also like that the trains leave diesel fumes in their wake, emphasizing their motion. I was trying to pick a favourite photo, and I could not – they’re all really good. Please keep going with your project!

  8. Graham Orbell

    Wonderful story and photographs Nandakumar. I especially love the shepherd with the long train in the distance. I hope you keep you photos and stories coming

  9. Hello Nandakumar. I have just binge read all the posts you have written that I can find, having just discovered you. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of it. As someone who has, and continues to, struggle with mental health issues I would like to, most humbly, reach out and say if you would like to strike up a conversation privately to talk about your – and my – concerns, I would be very happy to do so. If not, I eagerly anticipate your return and wish you the very best in coming to terms with your problems.

  10. Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne

    Nandakumar, I’m so sorry (and truly dismayed) to know you are leaving us. To return eventually, I hope. I’m sure I can safely say, we all hope.

    Mental health issues are so commonplace in this crazy, crazed post-Covid world. It all seems so futile, things we’ve enjoyed and even our passionate pursuits all become entirely irrelevant. A change is needed. Creativity can be revived by occasionally walking away from our cameras and what we pursue with them. Over the years, I’ve had to do this three times, once in the late 1990s for three years with my cameras stored away and seemingly forgotten in my unused darkroom. Eventually I went back to photography, and found my creative powers had been fully recharged by being away from it all for that long time.

    Digital did the same to me in 2009, for two years. Eventually I found my way back to my photography, but at a price of compromise – film for my B&W work, digital for color. This has served me well for the last 14 years, and amazingly, since Covid forced most of us into long periods of “retirement” from the world in general”, my interest in analogue and especially so in returning to my darkroom, has emerged even stronger than before.

    We all have our reasons for doing everything we do. In your case, you may have partly fallen into the trap of doing your photography to please other photographers and not for your own end. I may be wrong (I hope I am) in this, but it’s by far the worse way to try to find affirmation in one’s creative pursuits. I am not saying this to disparage the opinions of other photographers, but in my many decades of shooting, I’ve found that so many of so-called “critiques” I’ve had from other photographers were basically “I just think that…” uninformed, off the cuff opinions, ego-gratification, without meaning, often lacking in perspective other than “I don’t like this”. I learned long ago to go through my life at my own pace and in my own shoes, and do my photography for what motivates and moves me. I believe it’s vitally important to not lose sight of this personal goal. To thine own self be true.

    In your case, I believe your photography is more than only picture-making. You are documenting an important aspect of life in your country, one as such richly deserving to be recorded for posterity. So you are a historian as well as a photographer. Don’t ever lose sight of this, and guide your photography accordingly. In our entirely too fast-changing world, future generations will thank you for what you have preserved on film for them.

    I wish you all the best, and again I know I’m safe in speaking for many, most or even ll of us here in saying, we will all miss you and we will look forward to your return to this site.


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