Ever since Shahrukh Khan danced atop a train for the famous song, Chhaiya Chhaiya from the movie Dil Se, toy trains have created a romantic idea of a train journey through the hills for me. When I recently got a chance to travel in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that runs from Ooty or Udhagamandalam to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, I felt like that childish romantic ideal was coming true.
I have travelled on the Neral Matheran toy train before as a child. Matheran is a cosy hill station close to Mumbai. That delight experienced was altogether different back then as I was only a kid who was simply excited by any prospect of travel, any prospect of being away from home and homework! Now, all grown up and supposedly an adult, travelling in a toy train is like bringing out, to be very clichéd, the inner child in you, to have the luxury of marveling at the train and its compartments itself, at the lush views and the fragrant eucalyptus forests; to stick your head your head out like a fearless child for a quintessential toy train photo while feeling the cool breeze graze your cheek.
Perhaps simply the word, toy train, is supposed to help us channelize our hidden childlike wonder!
While I remember being utterly awestruck when travelling in the Matheran toy train because it was so different from the trains we are used to traveling in, part of my reaction to travelling in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway also included absorbing the historical tidbits of the train and the colonial stations it winds its way through.
As a child, I do not think I would have been impressed or even fathomed the age of the Matheran toy train but years later, knowing that the NMR has been running for over 100 years did transport me to a time when Coonoor and Ooty would have been just tiny specks of hill towns, with British people milling about amidst verdant forests to escape the heat, while the locals went about their daily lives.
Everything about this toy train ride was filled with excitement: from seeing it chugging into the station, to gaping at the antique engine, from boarding the train to hearing the final whistle blow! I caught the train from Ooty and was going to get off at Coonoor. The train’s ultimate destination was Mettupalayam near Coimbatore. In the seat opposite mine, was a family of three: parents and a daughter. I think I saw myself in that little girl, since I was as excited to be on the blue train of these blue mountains. As it slowly left the Ooty Station, I could hardly contain the thrill!
It snaked its way through the forests and the heady smell of the eucalyptus trees was overpowering. The most childlike happiness came from the girl sitting opposite me when she pulled out like a magic wand a bubble toy and blew bubbles in the air! Her father also joined her! At least it wasn’t only me whose inner child was roused in this ride! So ephemerally beautiful the bubbles were; floating away oblivious to the vistas below.
Passing under tunnels and navigating the bendy loops were the other highlights. Tunnels had all the passengers screaming in delight while the sharp bends in the route made us look at the train’s snaking figure and its contrasting beauty of blue against all the green.
The entire train ride was steeped in the whimsical. Even the names of the train stations on the way brought out an old world charm. The first stop after Ooty was Lovedale. As expected, the station was miniscule, quaint, one of those that are stuck in time with their beautiful bright blue buildings and benches and the typical germanium flowers. All the stations (Ketti, Aravankadu, and Wellington) after that possessed a similar aura; they felt like they came straight out of a Ruskin Bond novel. They were frozen in time. Each time the train came to a halt at a station, the engine doors would open with the red flags waving and people would joyfully peer out to take in the views. As the train would depart, dozens of green flags were waved and you could hear the train whistle. All these were signals for the train’s departure. When was the last time you actually witnessed trains arriving and departing to the signal of flags? I couldn’t recall. I think I must have read about it in Malgudi Days! And so, it was amazing to actually witness it.
This is why travelling in the toy train feels like you are going back in time, not just to your childhood but also to a world where times were easier and simpler. The toy train gave me the space to be like a child again and to dip in a bit of nostalgia. Getting off at Coonoor, I felt absolutely satisfied. I took in the narrow criss-crossing railway tracks, the blue doors of the train all open, the vast blue skies and the teeming exciting crowds on the platform.
Cover Image: Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer – A.M.Hurrell Camera – Minolta X700 (35mm film)