Story By: Olympia Bhatt
I have always identified Indian trains as a mode of travel of the pre-Modi era, a time when things had substance than mere empty and style-heavy demagoguery of today. Nobody cared whether we got burgers on train. If we wanted them, we’d pack them before we boarded. Or Wi-Fi for that matter. We connected to mobile data or total strangers with whom we shacked up in our shaky bunk beds/berths. Things were familiar and functional. The constant back and forth of the moving train could cough and spit and surmount long distances like a slow trundling giant. Nobody complained because they knew giants too had limitations, which recurred year after year especially during the fog-laden winter months, and hogged headlines for a few days in the “breaking news” cycle.
The year was 2011, the month of January. I was a recently married student on a measly scholarship with the added liabilities of middle-class living. We had to go home for Bhogali Bihu, the foodie festival of Assam that often coincides with Makar Sankranti and its other namesakes all over the country. And what better way to travel than Bharatiya Rail? Cheap and plenty of seats available provided you have looked into the future and know when you travel.
So BB and I booked our train tickets on Sampark Kranti (SK), which by the way literally translates to Contact Revolution. We reached New Delhi station in the cold winter night and waited on the designated platform for the train to arrive. It was running late because of the winter fog. The winter fog is a shorthand for an undefined hour of delay which would be defined once the train IS on the platform. For us it was four hours at 2 am when our visible breaths were vain attempts to warm ourselves.
Half an hour later, it began to move. It was going to be the longest train ride of my life so far.
SK’s route was through the heartland of UP and Bihar, the foggiest regions during the winter months. It was a foretold event that tested the limits of our patience, our ability to withstand the status quo. We did things to keep ourselves busy. Like sleep, eat every now and then, talk, fight, complain, argue, laugh, observe, watch – quite like the hamster in the glass cage scurrying around on the spinning wheel. The fields outside moved from barren lands to the yellow flowering mustard all around meant that we had reached Bihar.
In Bihar, the train stops being electric (if it was so before) beyond Katihar. Diesel engines chugs and fumes along the hairpin chicken neck turn of New Jalpaiguri as we leave the domineering ways of the Indian heartland and slide slowly into the hidden unknown wonders of North-East India. Even its railway division is called North East Frontier Railway, a moniker reeking of our colonial past and present-day attitudes.
I must mention the trapped feeling also had some glimmering moments. Like the chicken curry and poori we had on the train. The curry was sparse and basic but the freshly cooked wonder from the pantry was another way to mark change on the train. It also turned out to be the best chicken curry of my life and ever since, I have been looking for it in the train journeys that followed.
About five years back and in the pre-Jio era, North-East like Kashmir was marked out by blocking prepaid GSM networks and all kinds of CDMA network. The only way we could inform our families was through a local paid phone, close to impossible to inform them about the duration of the delay. All they would do at the station is wait in the cold for the train to arrive just as most of us were anxious to get out of it. The limits of patience and our ability to withstand all sorts of human and other smells were tested to the point that by the time we did manage to step out of the train, we had reached the zen zone that made anything and everything in the world gratifying to the soul.
So when we finally reached at around 12 am on the day of Bhogali Bihu, the journey was not just worthwhile. But managing to get together in spite of the constant unforeseeable delays made us cherish all the people in our lives. With grateful sighs, we partook the feast and thanked Bharatiya Rail in making cheap affordable long-distance travel possible.