Indian railways

Time travels in a train: How a trope from Satyajit Ray’s fiction and cinema inspired Wes Anderson

Trains featured in several of Ray’s films and writings as an in-limbo space, between the past and the present or the living and dead.

Examples of English novels set on the Indian Railways are few and far in between. Rather than Indian authors, one usually recounts the railway stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (the numerous railway journeys on which Dr Watson accompanied Sherlock Holmes or his trail), Agatha Christie’s railway novels (4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train, or Murder on the Orient Express), Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, or more recently, the enchanting Hogwarts Express, from the Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling.

Although RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond have given us several marvels of train journeys or railway platform chronicles, for a sustained railway experience – characterised by the thrill of nocturnal adventures – one must turn to Indian films, or the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. His affinity with trains, especially first-class compartments, has yet to be explored.

Trains through the Haunting Nights

Ray inspired Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), in which three American brothers who have reached a haunting twilight in their lives decide to take a spiritual journey across India, in what appears to parody a possible Orientalist take on India. A lot of the film’s soundtrack was originally composed by Ray, and all the sequences on an Indian train which masqueraded as a microcosm of India, were part of a trope borrowed from Ray – one that he used many years ago in his film Nayak (1966).

The Darjeeling Limited. Photo credit: Fox Light Search/YouTube
The Darjeeling Limited. Photo credit: Fox Light Search/YouTube

Ray’s own train compartments operated as realms haunted by history.

In the film Sonar Kella, three time zones come together on the trains. Mukul Dhar, a five-year-old boy and a jatishwar or reincarnate, remembers his previous life and claims to have seen precious jewels since his father was a gem-cutter. A parapsychologist, Dr Hemango Hajra, takes Dhar to Rajasthan. Two conmen, Mandhar Bose and AM Barman, pursue the doctor and the child under the belief that Dhar knows the site of some hidden treasure.

The conmen intercept the two on the train, befriending them and travelling with them to Jaipur, where Bose pushes Hajra off from the Nahargarh fort. Like Dhar the revenant, Hajra too revives, and boards the train in which the private detective, Pradosh C Mitter (or Feluda), his nephew Topshe and literary comrade Lalmohan Gangouli (Jatayu) are travelling to Jodhpur. Hajra becomes a “highly suspicious” presence – a spirit to be kept at safe distance by the conmen, or the benevolent apparition Feluda must trust.

The first-class compartments of Sonar Kella assume surreal identities – dwellings-in-transit outside the railways and the time in which they travel. In the film’s most iconic sequence, Feluda and his compatriots, mounted on camels, chase a train to Pokhran. Three modes of transport – banjara caravans, railways and a motor car (primitive, modern and postmodern, respectively) – and their historical milieus coalesce. Later at night, Bose’s plan to attack Feluda and his sleeping companions is foiled – Bose hides in a neighbouring compartment, where he sees what he believes to be the ghost of Hajra. A strong nocturnal draught fells the petrified thug from the speeding train – a train known as the Fort of Jaisalmer.


Ray wrote a little-known short story called First-class Compartment for the Sandesh magazine. In the story, Ranjan Kundu, the son of a wealthy baron, has recently returned from London and is a self-avowed Anglophile accustomed to travelling first-class. Set in 1970, the story begins with a lamentation on the disappearance of the timeworn first-class compartments, in what Kundu considers the decline of imperial civilisation and comfort.

Travelling on the Bombay Mail, he is suddenly awoken from his dreamy reminiscences of Kelder’s chicken curry with rice and custard pudding (colonial culinary delights from the trains of yesteryear). At the Rourkela station, Kundu hears the uncanny hawking of a tea vendor, selling “Hindu chai” – part of the usual practice of Hindu-Muslim segregation of beverages and edibles on the railways of the British era. Soon after, he encounters a fellow passenger, Major Davenport, a British officer from the Second Punjab Regiment. Kundu discovers that the Major is the ghost of a Briton, killed in a skirmish with an Indian passenger nearly 40 years ago. The ghost drinks whiskey throughout the night and even in its inebriety, it inspires unspeakable dread and subservience in the Indian traveller.

Arguably, First-class Compartment is an adaptation of an incident involving Ashutosh Mukherjee, senior judge at the Calcutta High Court and Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University. Once Mukherjee had travelled with a British jute industrialist, who was opposed to sharing a compartment with an Indian. While Mukherjee was asleep, the industrialist threw away his slippers. The next morning when the Briton woke up to find his jacket missing, Mukherjee informed him, “[y]our coat has gone to fetch my slippers.”

The episode, which occurred around 1910, was later mythicised as an important anecdote in the anti-colonial freedom struggle. In Ray’s story, the reemergence of the British tyrant – the zeitgeist of the likes of the jute industrialist – suggests a wilful repudiation of that anti-colonial spirit. Major Davenport had got into a duel with a Bengali passenger in 1932, in his usual rage at the presence of a “nigger”. Knocked down by the Bengali, the sahib had bled to death. Since then his ghost haunted the first-class compartment. Nonetheless, the ending reveals that the British ghost was played by Kundu’s friend, Pulakeshwar Sircar. Humiliated by the ghost of a purported sahib and a toy revolver, Kundu is compelled to return to the reality of his time.

Winding the clocks

Time winds back and forth in Sonar Kella and much else of Ray’s oeuvre. The ominous Gents clock, shown twice in the film at the Calcutta and the New Delhi railway stations, acts as the keeper of a time that otherwise appears to come to a standstill inside the trains. While the trains themselves traverse enormous distances, the first-class compartments afford a suspension of time, in which stories surpassing decades, or histories straddling centuries, can be ruminated upon.

For instance, it is in a first-class compartment that Barman and Bose encounter Hajra, who had foiled their scheme in 1962 in Allahabad. In another Ray story, Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, Barin Babu meets a Pulak Chakravarty, from whom he had stolen a Swiss Clock nine years ago in 1964, in yet another first-class carriage.

Clocks play an important role both historically and psychologically in Ray’s railway representations. The name of Gents & Company of Leicester, founded by John Thomas Gent in 1872, stands witness to the history of British imperialism and the possibility of retracing time to the colonial and pre-colonial era, which Dhar inhabited.

A still from 'Sonar Kella' (1974). Credit: YouTube
A still from 'Sonar Kella' (1974). Credit: YouTube

Bhowmick’s theft of the Swiss Clock – commemorating Hans Hilfiker’s design of the Swiss Railway Clock from 1944 – recapitulates the colonial ideology of wanton loot. Bhowmick, despite having won a lottery of Rs 7,000 (a hefty sum in 1973), remains a thief – a kleptomaniac. Nine years later, however, the hunter is hunted, in a similar, if not the same, first-class compartment.

Bhowmick intends to hide the stolen clock back in Chakravarty’s suitcase. Unable to do so, he hands the belonging back. Later, when Bhowmick reaches Delhi, and opens his suitcase, he finds that Chakravarty has nicked his packet of Three Castles cigarettes, Japanese binoculars and money. Chakravarty too has been a kleptomaniac all his life, notwithstanding his lavish upbringing.

Ray’s film Nayak, the most philosophical of his railway sequences, also travels back and forth in time during its narration about the life of a celebrity actor, Arindam Mukherjee. While travelling from Calcutta to Delhi, Mukherjee actually travels back in time, yielding to the request of Aditi Sengupta, a journalist who wishes to take his interview. In the first-class restaurant car, he feels secure with her, whereas the other passengers give fodder to his cynicism.

Nayak transcribes the passage of an age of deification of artists and celebrities. As the train arrives in Delhi, the passengers return to the normalcy of their ordinary lives. Sengupta does not turn back, but Mukherjee looks on intently as he is garlanded by a crowd at the station. Instantly, he hides his eyes behind dark sunglasses, like the coated window-glass of the first-class compartment that the gaze of bystanders cannot penetrate. Like a luxury train, he too is expected to resume his celebrity career, time after time, acting merely as the carriage for the aspirations of his audience.

A still from 'Nayak' (1966). Credit: YouTube
A still from 'Nayak' (1966). Credit: YouTube
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