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What Mukund Toys has to offer

December 10, 2007 13:42 IST
A true enthusiast offers no explanations and accepts no excuses for following his hobby. So even with family members disapprovingly clucking each time he chooses to spend hundreds of dollars on "toy" engines, and despite living in space-starved Mumbai, Mukund Ketkar is halfway through assembling a full-scale model railroad layout in his Ghatkopar flat, complete with motorised engines, passenger bogeys, a shuntyard and scenery.

For this mechanical engineer working with UDHE - an engineering, procurement and construction company - the fascination with the miniature trains is almost encyclopaedic and he's certainly not new to the hobby.

In fact it is bordering on a genetic endowment: his engineer father collected model railroads as well and gave him his first Crown engine for his eighth birthday. Which he followed up with the gift of a Hornby Iron Horse.

"Unfortunately", says Ketkar, "there are no Indian manufacturers for model railways, and so Indian hobbyists have to settle for model trains that look nothing like the ones they are used to." Ketkar and two of his model railroader friends are setting that right. Their newly formed company Mukund Toys, which started off as the importer for collectors' favourite Bachmann trains, have begun manufacturing Indian Railways models from a small workshop in Pune.

In fact, they've just launched their first engine, the EIR 060 at the National Railway Museum. "There is a demand," he insists, "even if mostly in the export market." Ketkar is the strategist and marketer of the trio. "We sometimes forget how respected the Indian Railways is. Its track distance is the largest in the world, and it is also considered among the safest. That alone will make its models very desirable."

Ketkar is keenly awaiting the delivery of a Mikado 282 classic collector's engine. It cost him $500, but then again only 500 pieces exist in the world, and it comes with a computer-controlled chip. The model railroading fraternity is a small but close-knit one in India, and Ketkar knows most of its members. One friend even supplies scale layouts to the Indian Railways to train pilots in signal systems.

Another friend, who lives in a tiny chawl, empties his house of its contents on weekends, lays out his 500-plus piece layout and runs his trains all weekend long, only to dismantle it on Sunday night and put it to rest for another week. A third friend is in the process of developing software to help the Konkan Railways use GPS systems to identify obstructions on the tracks in advance and control engine speed without pilots.

But it isn't technology that drives Ketkar's interest. It isn't the high speed TGV trains that inspire him - it's the good old steam locomotive. "To me it's a fascinating mechanical device that is so full of romance. I would never collect a model of the Bullet," he explains.

A conversation with Ketkar will have you believe he'd have treasured a job with the Railways but that isn't true. "Maybe drive a steam engine, but work with the bureaucratic public sector? No thanks," he laughs. And then quickly to the defence of the Indian Railways - "Employees of the Indian Railways have been so helpful with providing us blueprint drawings of engines and coaches for free. I now have several ticket collectors, guards and chief engineers as friends."

Mukund Toys has just received its first order of 200 pieces; by the end of year one they will have three or four models in their catalogue. They're developing a motorised scale model of the Fairy Queen, the world's oldest running steam locomotive that still carries high-spending tourists between Delhi and Alwar. "They are bound to sell as souvenirs. You'll be surprised at how many people buy scale models of trains for their showcase," he adds.

Speaking of which, Ketkar's seven by four foot showcase is ready to accommodate a simulated layout of the Lonavala-Khandala ghat section, which will be electrified and ready to run in a couple of months. Does his family object to the physical intrusion of his hobby in their living space? "On the contrary," he says, "my family is full of collectors, stamp collectors, book collectors; they 'get' me." The layout will set him back by Rs 50,000. "It's an expensive hobby but don't we think nothing of buying a mobile phone for 17,000?" Besides, once Mukund Toys rolls out its first production line, it'll make the hobby more affordable for potential model railroaders.

Ketkar's weekends are spent tinkering with new designs for the company. Even his choice of employer, he candidly admits, was partly influenced by the fact that his workplace in Vikhroli would be close enough to his home in Ghatkopar. Less travelling time would automatically mean more time for his hobby. Of course, if Mukund Toys hits the big time, he will be more than happy to devote all of his time to it.

Incidentally, Ketkar hates travelling by local train. "Ask me to sit and watch trains, and I can do that for hours, but let's face it, travelling by Indian trains is not entirely pleasurable," he laughs.

Arati Menon Carroll in Mumbai