THE SUNDAY DIARY It may be just a matter of time before the Royapuram station joins the graveyard of other historical buildings

As a child — when you are still not old enough to understand what your parents have in mind for you — you often nurse the simplest of ambitions.

Sometimes you want to be a police inspector, sometimes a soldier, sometimes a bus driver or railway motorman, sometime a ticket-checker — depending on who catches your imagination for the moment. And then, one day, engineering or medicine takes over.

One of my ambitions, as a little boy, was to stand at a tiny railway station in the dead of the night and show the signalman’s lantern to a passing train. That the faint glow of the lantern could make a train proceed or come to a halt — that made the job seem very powerful and fascinating at the time. My ambition came true, but only at the age of 40, that too only for a few moments — but it did come true. In the summer of 2010, when I was researching Tamarind City, the book I wrote about Chennai, I spent an afternoon at the Royapuram station.

I had to go there because like every other modern institution in India, the railways too — at least on paper — had originated in Madras. The Madras Railway Company was set up way back in 1845, but it was the Great Indian Peninsula Company, founded only later, that ended up running India’s first train from Bombay to Thane in 1853.

Royapuram, which could have become India’s first station, was eventually inaugurated in June 1856, when one train took about 300 Europeans on a joyride to Ambur (near Vellore), and another train carried a similar number of natives to nearby Tiruvallur. But since the original stations at Bombay and Thane no longer exist, Royapuram remains the oldest surviving railway station in the subcontinent.

But it may not survive for long, considering that Southern Railway finds the structure an obstacle to ‘development work’. It may survive a little longer because of campaigns by heritage lovers, but the fact that the railways can even think on these lines shows how dismissive we, as a country, are of heritage and it may be just a matter of time before the Royapuram station joins the graveyard of other historical buildings. It is the mindset that is killing heritage.

The station would have collapsed on its own had it not been restored in 2005, thanks to columns that appeared in this paper. But during the restoration, the expensive Burma teak furnishings, which had managed to survive the neglect, were stolen.

Much of the structure — along with some of the Corinthian pillars — remains intact. There is even an old wooden bench, engraved on whose backrest are the letters ‘M.S.M.R’ — Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway (the company formed in 1908 after the Madras Railway Company merged with the Southern Mahratta Railway).

It was at this station, in the station master’s office, that I had found an old signalman’s-lantern. I had picked it up with childlike joy and asked the station master if I could ‘play’ with it for some time. When he agreed, I rushed out to the platform — along with the friend who was accompanying me — to play signalman.

Precisely at that moment, a goods train happened to pass by. Since a goods train, being long and slow-moving, takes forever to get out of your sight, my friend and I had ample time to pose with the lantern against the passing train — for Facebook. Today, I regret not having asked the station master if I could take the lantern home. He would have said no in all probability, but what if he had said yes? I could have preserved it at home, in memory of a childhood ambition that never came true.

If the station is demolished, I can still buy the lantern from a scrap dealer, but where will the railways shop for the lost piece of its own childhood — should realisation strike later?