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From the Himalayas in the north to the Nilgiris in the south,
for a hundred years, these little trains have climbed through the clouds
and into the wonderful world of Indian hill railways.
TRAIN WHISTLES BLOW
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the very first hill railway in India.
Referred to as the DHR, for the last 125 years
it's ferried passengers on an improbably narrow two-feet-wide track
into the Himalayas and to Darjeeling.
In the brisk climate of the Himalayas, the British built a home away from home,
where the stress of colonial rule could be filed away for the summer.
Like the tea and the Gurkhas, the train has become an indelible part of the identity of these hills,
and it touches the lives of everyone it meets on its narrow, twisting climb.
This is the story of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Once an old Gurkha military outpost, Darjeeling was purchased by the East India Company in 1835
from the rulers of Sikkim, a small Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between India and Nepal.
The British established a sanatorium here for its soldiers to recuperate from the duties of empire.
The climate of these hills was not only good for soldiers but also perfect for growing tea.
And it was tea which finally put Darjeeling on the world map.
The new British settlement attracted clerks from Bengal,
traders from Tibet and, most conspicuously, porters from Nepal.
Today, the most common language in Darjeeling is Nepali,
and the migration from Nepal has never stopped.
Fifteen years ago, Sita Chettri made a three-day-long journey from Western Nepal to Darjeeling.
She came to be with her husband, a migrant station porter.
With five sons to feed and educate, Sita decided to take over
her husband's work as a porter on Darjeeling station.
Even though the work is back-breaking,
she has plans to give a better life to her children and is grateful to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Each morning, she offers prayers to the gods, to the train
and to the station, especially when times are hard.
Although it's the beginning of the tourist season, in two weeks India is going to the polls.
Based on previous experience, the fear is that election fever
might bring trouble, so many tourists are staying away.
The residents of these hills don't want to be part of the Indian state of Bengal.
They want their own independent state of Gorkhaland.
And in this election, they want a candidate who will fight for a Gorkhaland in the Indian parliament.
At NJP Junction, at the bottom of the hill, the inter-city Darjeeling Mail arrives from Calcutta.
It connects to the narrow-gauge train going to Darjeeling.
But today, the narrow-gauge train is half-empty.
Before the hill railway was built, British box-wallahs faced an arduous journey from Calcutta -
first an overnight rail trip, then two river crossings by steam boat.
And when they finally arrived here at Siliguri
at the bottom of the mountain, they went up by bullock cart.
From Calcutta to Darjeeling, the whole journey took five days.
Although the railway has cut the journey time up the hill to Darjeeling to just eight hours,
at election time there are bound to be delays.
Halfway up the line in Kurseong, a Gorkhaland election rally is converging at the station.
Furtemba Sherpa is the pointsman at Kurseong station,
and he's responsible for the safe passage of both the train and the public through the town.
Furtemba is the first in his family to join the railway.
It gives him security, a regular income and the prospect of a pension.
And although he loves his job on the DHR, his dream was to be a professional musician.
Pointsman Furtemba Sherpa is a committed supporter
of the Gorkhaland movement, but with the election rally converging on the station
and two diesel and two steam trains to guide through the crowded streets,
Furtemba has a lot on his plate.
Gurkhas, both from neighbouring Nepal and this corner of India,
historically are famous for their bravery, both in the Indian army and the British army.
The Raj categorised the Gurkhas as a martial race, naturally warlike, courageous and loyal.
But in a modern Indian democracy, the new weapon is the vote and the war is about representation.
As the rally gets going, and despite Furtemba's endeavours, the train to Darjeeling is delayed.
Major Malla is a retired British Gurkha,
many times decorated and veteran of a dozen or more campaigns.
But now, with only time to kill, the train provides the opportunity to keep his memories alive.
The railway line is like an artery running through the main streets of each and every village and town
along the route, so it's the only place in the world where a train can be stuck in a traffic jam.
The train is already more than an hour late, and in Darjeeling, Sita is becoming anxious.
She needs to earn enough money every day to support herself and her five children.
Every rupee counts,
But with the train being so delayed, the DHR passengers are not in a generous mood.
On his world tour, Mark Twain wrote in his journal that the women porters in Darjeeling
could carry a piano right to the top of the hill.
Sita's load may be lighter than a piano, but it's still a heavy burden for a 45-year-old mother of five.
Darjeeling is no longer the place which Mark Twain encountered on his travels.
Quaint cottages have given way to concrete hotels and apartments.
The upper town,
which was once exclusively white, has now democratically merged with the native lower town.
But for many hill people, life has hardly changed.
Sita Chettri lives in a rented, one-room, wooden house.
She and her five sons share a room 15 feet square.
Her eldest son, Madhu, is 18, and he's just finished his schooling.
Sita wants him to continue his education and go to college,
but he's not sure whether he should go or not.
As the eldest son, Madhu doesn't want to be a burden on the family and their finances.
But his mother is having none of it.
Like most Indians, she's determined her son will be educated, no matter what it costs.
Sita not only wants Madhu to go to college, she wants him to go to the best -
St Joseph's, Darjeeling's most prestigious graduate college.
In a fast-changing modern India, respect is no longer just simply a question of caste.
Respect may be acquired through education or commerce or duty or even through music.
After work, at his railway house in Kurseong, pointsman and musician
Furtemba Sherpa enjoys playing Nepali folk songs with his sons.
The eldest son, Sapan, accompanies him on keyboard.
But Sapan also plays in a Nepali rock band, and they're planning to
release their debut single shortly and shoot a music video, too.
Sapan may not share his father's taste in music, but he shares his dreams.
Sapan's quest for stardom is typical of today's young Gurkhas.
He doesn't want to follow his father onto the railway, but, like most
eldest sons in India, he knows his first duty is to the family.
But even here in the hills, Sapan's generation knows
there is the promise of great opportunity in the modern world,
opportunities that his father never had.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway came into service in 1881.
Since then, it's managed to retain most of its original features,
and it still runs six steam trains every day.
Bishnu Pradhan is the second fireman on today's steam locomotive.
Chief fireman is Hari Chettri, his mentor.
It's Bishnu's job to break the coal,
and it is Hari who stokes it into the 80-year-old boiler.
Working on a steam engine involves a particular set of skills
that can only be learnt from your elders while on the job.
These steam engines certainly evoke the romance of a bygone age,
but they're extremely temperamental and highly labour-intensive.
Still, Hari and Bishnu feel proud driving their steam train.
It's the spirit of steam which gives an identity both to the DHR and to Darjeeling.
For the residents along the track, the railway is not some exotic antique
but a noisy family member to whom they turn for small favours.
Whether it's hot water for a bath...
..or a quick ride up to a friend's house...
..or even to solve the water crisis which plagues these hills,
trackside residents turn to the DHR.
Its water points along the route provide an emergency water resource,
a century-old lifeline for the common people
with the added benefit of a 52-mile-long adventure playground.
As well as the train, Darjeeling has kept its other lifeline intact: Buddhism.
India was where the Buddha gained enlightenment.
But today, Buddhism as a religion has almost vanished from the land of its birth.
It only survives as a living religion in a few isolated areas, like Darjeeling.
53-year-old Neema Yelmo is the chief ticket inspector at Kurseong station.
He also trained as a Buddhist monk until he graduated.
As the eldest son, Neema Yelmo had to leave his spiritual pursuits and work to support the family.
Although he's a chief ticket inspector,
he's not let his work interfere with his spiritual vocation.
He continues to keep all his vows, including that of celibacy.
The family pressures mean that Neema, the eldest son,
has to support the family, so he can't be a full-time monk.
Nevertheless, he still approaches his job as a true Buddhist.
In India, traditionally the eldest son has to become the breadwinner of the family.
Madhu wants to work,
but Sita's dream is more aspirational.
She wants him to take the entrance exam to St Joseph's College.
And today is the day.
The entrance exam starts at ten o'clock.
Madhu knows that if he's successful in the college exam, it will put him
in a different class.
Sita is happy.
Her son listened to her, and he's going to take the entrance exam.
But Bishnu and Hari are not so happy.
Their engine has decided to misbehave today.
This may be a heritage line, but keeping these B-class steam engines running
sometimes calls for skills which can only be called "unorthodox".
When the train breaks down, emergency repairs have to be made
based on a century of experience and a pragmatic DIY approach.
They can't call for expensive spares, so sometimes a rag
or even a crisp packet serves as an effective temporary solution.
And if this doesn't work, Hari will have to drive the engine
down the hill to Tindharia, DHR's very own dedicated loco workshop.
Once upon a time, this workshop could manufacture a complete steam engine.
But now cost cutting has reduced its workforce of skilled mechanics,
and it can only service the engines periodically.
But without this workshop and its resourceful team of engineers,
these old steam locos would soon become redundant, the old skills would simply dwindle and die.
Loco 788 was made in Glasgow 112 years ago.
It's been in the workshop for two months,
and it takes almost three months to overhaul an engine completely.
In these days of cost-cutting efficiencies, the workshop is under pressure
and so is the track.
Landslides, traffic damage and vegetation on this 52-mile line
means that it also requires constant maintenance.
Pemba Lama is one of a dozen or so track-mates responsible for the maintenance of the lines.
Each man is allocated to one stretch between two stations.
But because of the freeze on local recruitment, Pemba has only one trackman working under him.
Once upon a time, there would have been six.
The DHR, like most of the Indian railway, was once a family affair.
Jobs passed down from father to son.
It was a family tradition, secure and respected.
But now recruitment has been centralised, and with all the
cutbacks, Pemba's son has little chance of joining his father on DHR.
The next most secure and coveted job is in the army, and in Darjeeling, that means the Gurkhas.
But the Gurkhas will only take the best.
The odds are fifty to one.
So every day, Pemba's son is training hard.
There was a time when Bachan would have been able to try
for both the British Gurkha and the Indian Gurkha regiments,
but the Indian government has now stopped the Brits from recruiting here in Darjeeling.
Today, if you want to join the British Gurkhas, you have to travel to Nepal.
Fifty years ago, Major Malla joined the British Gurkhas.
He was recruited right here in Darjeeling.
Today, Major Malla's regiment, the Princess Mary's Own 10th Gurkha Rifles,
is celebrating its regimental birthday.
It's an opportunity to reminisce about military service under the British crown,
the good times
and the bad times.
So although the rules have changed, the attractions of a secure army job are the same.
Life in the army has always been an escape from the harsh reality of life in the hills.
Apart from the railway and the army, there are few other job opportunities for unqualified
young Gurkhas and certainly none which promise job security.
The alternatives were low-paid portering or tea plucking or common labouring.
Furtemba wanted to be a musician.
But his railway job has given his family security and allowed
his son Sapan to get an education and to think beyond the railways.
Over the last year, Darjeeling has developed a vibrant music scene,
thanks to a local boy winning the national TV talent contest Indian Idol.
Sapan and his band Ardra, named after a constellation,
have their sights set on stardom with their soft-rock ballad I Don't Like You.
Sapan wants to establish his Gurkha identity through his band and his music.
But as the eldest son, he has to think about his duty to the family, too.
In the mist-covered hills of Darjeeling,
isolated from the rest of the world, the elections are imminent.
At a time of great changes, even life on the railway is no longer the great constant.
Neema was forced to compromise his spiritual calling,
but at least the railway has allowed him to fulfil his duties as the eldest son.
Trackmate Pemba's eldest son, Bachan, is trying for a place in the Gurkha regiment.
With jobs on the railway harder than ever to find, he believes the army is his best bet.
As dusk falls at Darjeeling station, Sita is waiting for the last train.
But she's also waiting for Madhu's exam results.
The majority of Gurkhas believe an independent state of Gorkhaland would give them a better future,
and tomorrow they vote.
Darjeeling is a constituency of over a million voters,
and they're expecting an 80% turnout in the hills today.
Indian elections have been called the biggest exercise in democratic franchise
ever held in world history.
More than seven hundred million voters will vote in a million polling stations,
and up and down the DHR, even railway stations are pressed into election service.
Hari is voting early because he has to be on duty today,
and as a person running an essential service he's allowed to jump the long queue.
Every voter has to have an election photo identity card, and every name and photo is on the electoral list.
To ensure that everyone gets just one vote,
one finger is painted with indelible ink.
But behind a screen, India employs the very latest voting technology to cast and count the votes.
Although it will take a month for all 700 million voters in India to cast their votes,
they can all be counted in a single day.
Once voting is over, Darjeeling gets back to its main interest, tourism.
In the tourist season, Hari and Bishnu have two extra trains to fire up,
and it's an opportunity to bring the DHR much-needed cash.
DHR was the engineering prototype for the other Indian hill railways in Ooty and Shimla.
But everybody's come here to enjoy the romance and the excitement of a real steam train,
a train which climbs 7,000 feet in 52 miles.
The DHR, like all Indian railways, is state owned, and its passenger services are heavily subsidised.
Yet it still loses money.
Today, the DHR faces an uncertain future.
The worry is that, to survive, the train will simply become an amusement ride.
And if that happens, it may lose its place at the heart of this community.
There was a time when authorities planned to scrap the DHR.
But thanks to a vociferous local protest and petitions by train enthusiasts around the globe,
it was formally declared a world heritage site in 1999, and its future seemed assured.
While the overhauling of engine 788 is almost complete,
there are worrying developments on the shop floor.
The authorities have decided to turn some part of the workshop into a diorama for the tourists,
and not everyone is happy.
Trackmate Pemba Lama and his family live beside the railway track in subsidised railway quarters.
They're up at dawn every day, Pemba to the railway and eldest son Bachan for training in the hills.
Breakfast for Bachan is a protein drink of milk and raw eggs dutifully made by his mother.
But today is different.
It's recruitment day in Darjeeling.
The Indian army is screening for admission
to India's own Gurkha regiment, and Bachan will be just one of 10,000 hopefuls chasing 200 places.
The entry test for the Gurkha regiment is a demanding process.
You must prove that you are between 17 and 21 years old.
Then you're expected to pass a timed series of physical fitness tests: pull-ups, sit-ups, a mile-long run
and a nine-foot long jump over a ditch...
..a selection of well-tried tortuous feats to sort out the men from the boys.
If you pass these tests, you must then take a medical and a written general-knowledge exam.
But the first test that everyone has to pass is the height test.
Unlike other army regiments, the Gurkha height requirement is 1.6 metres or five foot three.
Bachan fails the height test.
He's disappointed, but he's still growing and young enough to try again.
There's a note of disappointment at the railway institute as well.
Sapan's band were hoping to audition girls for their new video,
and so far no-one's turned up.
Eventually, three local girls arrive for audition, and the mood changes.
Now that the cast are in place...
-..Sapan's band can finally begin their shoot at the station.
The word on the street is that rock ballads are in at the moment.
A successful video could propel their song into the charts.
In the storyline, Sapan plays a photographer whose girl is stolen from him by his best friend.
-It's a classic story and a universal story of unrequited love, set in the hills.
-And like many Indian movies, it's the DHR which provides the film's perfect romantic location.
Every day, after the last train has left, Neema Yelmo leaves his worldly
life behind on Kurseong station to return to his real love, the Buddha.
Even after a full day's work, he spends hours in prayer and meditation at his monastery.
For twenty years, Neema has struggled to balance the job
of a ticket inspector on the railway with the religious duties of a monk.
Neema knows that the solution to his dilemma would be a complete renunciation of his worldly life.
But only his sense of duty has prevented him from taking that final step.
Today in Darjeeling, St Joseph's College is publishing
the results of the entrance exam, so Madhu and Sita are excited
and also a little apprehensive.
With a thousand students trying for a place at St Joseph's, Madhu needs to be in the top five per cent.
And if he's been successful, his roll number will be somewhere on this list.
His number is there. Madhu has passed the entrance exam and been
offered a place at St Joseph's College, Darjeeling.
Sita's joy is tempered by the fact that now she has to find the money for the fees.
But she has a plan.
She's going to ask the college principal to waive them.
But the college is closed.
The building has been requisitioned for the counting of the votes.
In Darjeeling, two weeks after they voted, supporters of Gorkhaland have gathered for the result.
They remain confident their Gurkha candidate is going to win.
Gorkhaland candidate Mr Jaswant Singh has won by a quarter of a million votes.
However, in fighting for an independent Gorkhaland,
he'll find himself a lone voice in the Indian parliament.
Now is a time to savour victory, and that wouldn't be complete
without a photo of the winning candidate and the steam train.
Sita has an appointment with the principal.
She's going to ask him to waive Madhu's fees...
..although her son is not so enthusiastic about asking for charity.
If Sita doesn't get the fees waived, it means that half of her annual income will have to go towards
Madhu's education, and then she would have almost nothing left for her other four sons.
Against all the odds, Sita's done it.
The principal agrees to waive Madhu's fees.
Her eldest son, a student at St Joseph's College - she can hardly believe it.
And she can't wait to share the news with her friends on Darjeeling station.
As tradition dictates, she hands out sweets so that others can share
in her happiness.
In Kurseong, Furtemba Sherpa's son and his band have gathered at the house
for a family premiere of the band's new music video.
Sapan's music and video may have made his father proud,
but now he and his band have to get the video onto local TV channels, and they need a recording contract.
This young Gurkha's journey into adulthood and responsibility has only just begun.
Today is Saga Dawa, the day when Buddha was born, finally died and attained nirvana.
For the Buddhists of Darjeeling, it's like Christmas.
Neema Yelmo always takes leave from his railway duties to participate in this annual ritual.
By getting a job in the railway and suppressing his religious vocation,
Neema was able to pull his family out of poverty.
And now that's happened, he's hardening his plans to take early retirement from the railways
and leave his family and go into retreat as a full-time Buddhist monk.
Leaving mother and family is not going to be easy.
Even the Buddha himself found it difficult.
In India, breaking with the family is serious,
and turning one's back on family duties is considered a tragedy.
Neema's desire for a religious life means the breaking of family ties forever.
Buddha had said that "all know the way, but few actually walk it".
Neema has finally decided to embark on that journey,
the journey of his lifetime.
The music video of I Don't Like You was broadcast
on the local cable network, but Sapan and his band still haven't got a recording contract.
Being the eldest son in a railway family, pursuing a life in music means a job without security.
Now, just like his father before him, Sapan faces a choice between duty and dreams.
Sita Chettri fulfilled her duty to her eldest son.
He's now an undergraduate studying for a literature degree at Darjeeling's finest college.
He's also taken a part-time job in a shop to help his mother with growing family expenses.
Bachan Lama continues his morning exercises.
He checks his height every week
and is eagerly awaiting the next Gurkha recruitment rally.
Neema is still waiting for the railway authorities to process his application for an early retirement
so that he can finally retreat from the railway and the modern world.
Until then, he's still a chief ticket inspector and still on duty on the DHR.
After three months in the Tindharia workshop, the mechanics and the engineers,
the fitters and the welders and the rest of the team
have managed once more to breathe new life into engine 788.
This fine old engine is back on the line,
and Hari and Bishnu are happy to be back with their favourite loco.
But their hopes for an independent Gorkhaland, meanwhile, remain just a dream.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the story of a railway so close to the people
that it flows like a river through their lives.
It's a century-old partnership of mutual respect, tolerance and survival,
together on a journey that's still not reached its end.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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