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A Dominic Xavier sketch
Riding the Rails... Slowly
... from Bombay to Bihar

Archana Masih

You could call us the wise travellers. As the train stood at Kurla terminus, the step-child among Bombay’s railway stations, we had no romantic illusions of a great train journey ahead. But as wise as we claimed we were, a stinking loo in our bogey, that too right from the starting station was the least we expected.

What unbearable proportions that stench would take at the end our 36-hour journey was already a dizzying dampener. "I am sure they’ll get it cleaned at the big stations on the way. At least they are supposed to," said a woman with her sari pulled up to her knee at the toilet door.

The Kurla-Darbhanga Express was indeed strange in many ways. What prompted the railway officials to run a train travelling through three large states without a pantry car can only be their guess. Those who had lived and learned, carried their extra bags of food supply, as for the rest – they had to make do with the oily samosas, puris, aloos dished out from carts at stations.

In the largest railway network, we were quick to learn that our train held a pitiful slot. The cracked window panes in the AC compartment, nearly all, had been doctored by brown tapes. As for the running schedule of the express: "Oh… be prepared, in normal circumstances it runs five to six hours late, you’ll be lucky if it reaches your destination at all," had smirked the coolie or porter.

Cautioned with the forewarning, we, however decided to take it as it comes. Armed with Trains at a Glance -- the railway timetable, we realised much to our co- passengers surprise that we were quite gung-ho.

The train screeched through the picturesque Western Ghats, past the ups and lows of small hills. Away from the smog and crowd of Bombay into the fresh climes of small town Maharashtra. Through with the initial curious pleasantries with each other, passengers settled into their seats. Some bent over newspapers, some reaching for that bag of goodies under their berth. Others already snoring, and two arguing with the attendant.

Their complaint – it was too warm and suffocating inside. To which our attendant had a cool explanation, "Is this the Rajdhani, that the cooling will be as good as that train?" It was not until an expensive cigarette was offered to him that our man made an effort to adjust the temperature.

Map by Dominic Xavier/Rajesh Karkera sketchSuccessful in coaxing the groaning attendant, the two boys returned and fought over a pair of headphones. The jean-clad youngster got the better off his chappal-sporting friend, stuck the headphone into his ears and got lost in some dhank-chick-dhan-chick music. His chappal friend took the cue, pulled out The History of Political Thought and read it for a full 15 minutes.

The couple opposite looked at him suspiciously. The stack looked menacing enough – communist magazines, books on Indian history… the right ingredients to make a boring journey more boring. Obviously, the intellectual didn’t think so. It was beside the point that he didn’t show any inclination to flip through his train collection throughout the journey.

We stopped at small and big stations through Maharashtra. Trains at a Glance proved a source of sound consolation – the train was running on time. A point which was repeatedly cross checked by another gentleman, who asked every chaiwallah and coolie at every station if we had reached as scheduled.

Past little hamlets where little children came running to wave at the passing train, and brought their cows and buffaloes along. Past railway crossings in busy towns, where impatient scooter, auto rickshaw and motor cyclewallahs bullied each other to get as close as possible to the gate.

We crossed over into central India at dusk and spent the entire night travelling through the country’s largest state of Madhya Pradesh. Groups of men, huddled around small fires in the cold December night, deserted roads and stations. While inside, this time, our attendant had been quick enough to increase the inside temperature.

The couple, by now had pushed The History of Political Thought thoughts away, and decided to make maximum use of the time they had together. The newly weds – traces of the girls mehndi still remained – knew that once they reached their home in Darbhanga, their joint family would hardly leave any time for each other.

The wife played with her husband’s chin and told him stories about all what had happened the day before the wedding. How she implored one of her friends, who never ever combed her hair, to at least brush it when she came for the wedding. And how her family did not get along with Chunnu mama’s family, especially his daughter.

Raising his voice to counter the din of children playing Antakshari, her husband told her how his house was burgled by a group of men in broad day light two years ago. And how Mohan bhaiya will come with the car to pick them at the station…

We woke on a foggy morning in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Much to our surprise, the train reached the city of the Nehrus' before time. Having tea on the platform was a bad idea. None of us could get past the first sip. Within a few kilometres we had crossed the Yamuna and Ganga.

The country’s most famous rivers bore a quiet, sombre look. Its banks dotted with small heaps of cold ash from last night’s firewood, and defecating children. Our entry into the fertile tract of the Indo-Gangetic proved a slow haul. By the time we crossed over the Ganga in Varanasi, the train was already two hours behind schedule.

"It would have been so much better if we had taken the Sahara flight to Patna," said an irritated husband as someone pulled the chain, bringing the train to a halt for the third time. Towards eastern UP, the illegal halts increased while the legal halts at stations became painfully longer.

We went past the neat patches of sugarcane and bright yellow mustard fields. Children still came running to greet the train even though the train was considerably delayed. Inside, bored passengers tried their best to kill time. The husband-wife went back to catching each other’s before-marriage life. A bunch of parents-kids amused each other with Antakshari. The walkman-History of Political Thought duo preferred several games of Ludo to their music and book.

Others slept and grumbled.

Into the night we crossed into Bihar. The green fields of northern Bihar, set in neat rows were a under a blanket of darkness. Shortage of electricity had remained a persistent problem for years, yet the darkness outside looked terrifying.

With our destination tantalisingly close, our restlessness had increased. Our food supplies had almost exhausted, and we craved for a proper cup of tea. Now five hours behind schedule, we expressed deep sympathy with those who would reach their destination in another 10 -12 hours.

Some just couldn’t take it anymore. The family of four, travelling from Bombay hopped off two hours before the train reached their destination. "We have a distant relative here. Might as well spend the night there and start afresh tomorrow morning," said the disgruntled father.

As for us, Chapra station had never looked so inviting and warm before. We stretched our feet, our hands, our backs as we stepped on to the platform. To take in the familiar environs of the station that looked just the same, each time we returned. The puri-aloo wallah still parked his cart at the same point on platform number one. The book stall still in its old corner.

And suddenly we felt strangely relaxed.

Sketch by Dominic Xavier

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