Shattering news of the death of legendary railway historian Dr Ian J Kerr, Senior Scholar in History at the University of Manitoba, and Professorial Research Associate in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, last month. Rest in Peace, sir.
“I begin to doubt if I will finish a final book of my own, let alone take on new projects. I have been telling people as the occasion arises that I’m now withdrawing from most aspects of my career as an historian of India.”
This email from Dr Ian J Kerr while we were collaborating in 2017 had me worried. Born in 1941, he was one of the oldest living and foremost historians on Indian Railways.
His large body of work, including a number of books and several dedicated academic research papers on the subject, has always given the Indian railways’ heritage and history a new lease of life and inspirations of millions of history enthusiasts like me.
My memories of Ian’s visit to Mumbai twice, in two decades, have been vivid. I usually was around to play host to him when he came here and during interactions, his enthusiasm and passion for railway history at that age always motivated me a lot. I had so many questions to ask and so much to tell him and he had so much to see around and access from local archives. He was here in 2004 and 2014.
The enormous effect the railroads had on colonial and postcolonial India is indisputable, he always said.
Kerr, a senior scholar with the University of Manitoba in Canada, had passionately written about the story of the first rail line and the construction of the most difficult mountain inclines in the Ghats at Khandala and Lonavala in the 1850s breaching the Sayhadri mountain range to take the first line from Bombay to the interior parts of the country.
Not many, however, knew that 40,000 workers had toiled hard for years and more than 10,000 died during the construction of the Khandala railway line, till Kerr broke it down into annual statistics, neatly tabled, magnifying the real impact of railway construction on human life building it. His focus on the pioneering construction labour humanized the entire subject, gave it a 360 degree spin and changed the perspective of the first train history that usually just said three locomotives with 400 guests ran between Bombay and Thane on 16 April 1853.
There were people who died, communities who suffered and families that lived in forests to build the sub-continent’s first lines. It gave life to many sub-plots and a whole new spectrum of research.
His papers on John Chapman, for example, the pioneer who did ground work for India’s first line along Bombay and was later forgotten, are eye-openers and I would someday want to take it ahead in some form.
Kerr told me he had come to Mumbai to see the Khandala line to actually see the massive piers, tunnels and bridges that ferry those trains now. “I have researched and written so much about them all my life. Now, I want to see them all. For the construction of the Bhor Ghat section, which is now known as the Khandala railway line between Mumbai and Pune, workers came from all castes and communities, from near and far, to work as per their expertise. The breaking of the barrier of the Sayhadri mountain range was an important milestone.”
I then took him to the CSMT Heritage Gallery, a small museum that I had helped set the railways up in its early years and he had loved it calling it a treasure house of information with crateloads of documents and archives. “The last time I interacted with top officials at railway board in New Delhi, I suggested them to collect such archives and documents from various zones and centralise them at one place so that there could be a national railway archive. In fact, now many of the important documents have been shifted to the record centre of the national archives at Jaipur,” he had told me.
At the same time, 90-year-old R Venkataraman, a railway veteran himself with his child-like passion for trains, was touring India to write a book of his own and I had been host him at Mumbai CSMT. Venakt sir was so excited when I told him that Prof Kerr was in Mumbai that he asked Kerr to pen down the foreword for his forthcoming book. “Every word that Dr Kerr has written is worth a million dollars,” he said. Venkataraman, a former railwayman, passed away a few years ago and this time I write this obit for Dr Kerr.
Adieu, both of you!