16 October 2017

Burying the hatchet: Where the Kings Ate Rice!

Of the nearly 11000 stations that the Indian Railways boasts of, most are mundane, non decrepit single platform affairs, catering to an odd passenger train a day and having a name that few would be able to recall beyond its immediate surroundings. A few, are big junctions, having sometimes up to a dozen platforms, seeing a flurry of activity all through the day and often late into the night. Quite a few of these Junctions have been named (or renamed) after historic or political figures, as per the whims and fancy of the powers that be. In either case, the names of the stations are nothing much to talk home about.
However, there are a minuscule number of stations that boast of a name that means something strange or hilarious or even commonplace but definitely sounds strange as the name of a railway station. Take "Methai" (station code MEE) on the East Central Railways in North Bihar. This truly tiny station's name means "Sweets" in Hindi. How it got its name and why? It is a matter of pure speculation. Perhaps it had an ancient Buddhist "Math" (Monastery) and the name got corrupted from Math to Methai. In Northern Railway, there is station by the name of "Tanda Urmar" (station code: TDO). I don't know what it means, but it certainly scores points for rhyming! Mumbai, of course, boasts of a busy suburban station called "Andheri" (station code ADH) literally meaning "Dark". But the station is so busy and is populated by so many people in so much hurry, that perhaps they do not have the time to marvel at the inconsistencies on the meaning of the name of the railway station they are alighting at!
What takes the cake is a small station on the North Eastern Frontier Railway: Raja Bhat Khawa (station code: RVK). It means the place where the Kings ate Rice! The station is a smallish affair with two platforms. It lies deep in the elephant country of Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary. The station was on the metre gauge track connecting Siliguri in West Bengal with Rangiya in Assam. Subsequently, it has been converted into broad gauge. As a child, I had traveled on this line many a times and marveled at the curious name. I often wondered, why was the rice so special that the king had to come all the way, to this middle of nowhere, to eat it. In the 80s, the jungles were very dense and the train movements were often interrupted due to elephant activity. In the jungle, it became quite dark even during the day time due to the dense foliage. For many years, my mental image of a jungle, was the dense poorly lit train travel near this curiously named station of Raja Bhat Khawa. Later, I read about the history of Koch kings and of their internecine warfare with the Bhutanese. On one of the occasions, for making peace, a neutral venue was decided, in the middle of the dense jungle. The Koch king and the Bhutanese made peace and apparently, the mode of burying the hatchet, was eating rice together, hence, Raja Bhat Khawa came to be! Today, it is a place, remote and practically in the middle of nowhere, but it is not without character. It is the entry point to the formidable Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary and the mighty Tripadvisor, has a page on the place. Such is the fate of places that help make peace!

24 September 2017

Hashtags for breakfast on a Sunday morning

Politics of left, right and everything in between, on my fb wall
Rhetorical memes on myriad whatsapp groups
Stolid conversations and automaton like relentless  forwards
Filtered snaps and narcissistic stories on Instagram
Making it all look better than the original
Insinuations, parochialism, sunrise pics and flowers providing stale motivation
Gods and their mantras for instant gratification
Make up my breakfast with hashtags on a sunday morning!

21 September 2017

Ode to Cassini - Huygens

O Cassini - Huygens!
Marvel of modern science
Traveller of the final frontier
Seven years to reach the destination
Of the gas giant Saturn!
On a dark, deep and mysterious track
Slingshotting Venus and Jupiter
To gain velocity hither
Masursky, Enceledus and Titan on the way
Discovering what lies underneath and array
Twenty two times with much rigour
through the rings and into the plumes of vapour
Plunging finally into depths unknown
To prevent contamination of the watery moons!

03 September 2017

An ode to crow

O Corvus splendens!
I pine for thy attitude!
Cawing away in the morning, heedless!
Raiding the fisherwoman's basket, fearless!
Holding court over peers' unknown misdeeds!
Rearing young of own and Eudynamys,  undismayed!
O creature of unyielding courage and curiosity!
I pine for thy attitude!!!

Crow: A Prayer

Crows are courageos
Crows are curious
Crows are full of maternal love
Crows are for justice
Crows never forgive
Crows never forget
Crows care two hoots for anyone
Crows are everywhere
Crows are succesful
Crows are survivors
O God! Make me like the Crow!

04 July 2017

Trainspotting - box wagons

As an avid rail enthusiast, watching trains is fun. It was even more fun in the 80s and 90s, when there were no digital distractions and nothing much to do on long train journeys. One could see out of the train window and see vast swathes of this great country pass by, gradually but decidedly changing in contour, vast alluvial plains, dense tropical forests, arid undulating plateaus. Depended on the journey one was making. But one thing remained same, watching a parallel tracks and watching trains pass by. The passenger trains all looked the same in their red livery. But the destinations were different and it was fun to speculate where a train was headed to and then watch out for its name tally on the Guard's cabin. If passenger trains looked similar, goods trains were even less diverse. They were similar to each other, there was no destination written and they seemed to interminably long often with more than 100 bogies. They seemed to appear more frequently than the passenger trains too. One had to devise innovative ways to make the goods train look interesting. One way was to look at the markings on the bogies. To the uninformed this seemed like a curious set of letters and their hindi equivalents. I found पू सी  (NEF - North Eastern Frontier Railway - पूर्वोत्तर सीमांत रेल) to be the funniest. There was  the ominous म रे (or dead) (मध्य रेल Central Railway - later it was changed to म ध्य), पू रे (or complete) (पर्वोत्तर रेल Eastern Railway) and other less interesting ones like द म रे (दक्षिण मध्य रेल - South Central Railway), द रे (दक्षिण रेल - Southern Railway) etc. Since at time there were only nine zones, the characters became repetitive very soon. The other notes usually stamped on a box wagon was curious: "When empty return to _____" . This was followed by a depot name with which one was not familiar, like Wadala. It was puzzling that why so many box wagons would turn up at Wadala when empty! Years later when I came to Mumbai I realised it was referring to Wadala container depot! Another marking on a box wagon was "Return" followed by a date and a month. Like 08 - 94, i.e. Aug 1994. I presumed that it must be the date when the wagon has to be scrapped. The dates stamped were usually 8 - 10 years away. This allowed one to take an imaginary time travel in future. It became a good diversion (and a time taking one on long train journeys) in say 1987 to speculate what one would be doing while the wagon was being scrapped in Aug 1994!!! To break the monotony, there were other types of goods wagon too, open boxes carrying heaps of coal, cylindrical ones carrying petroleum products and a curiously shaped Guards Van right out of the movie Sholay! The most rarely sighted and exotic one for me were the cylindrical ones, carrying Milk, usually painted white with Amul written in large fonts!
With the coming of standard shipping containers in mid 90s, the hey days of the Box Wagons were over and these days one sees only Shipping Containers. Initially they seemed interesting, colorful in comparison to the drab red box wagons. The name of the shipping line, say Maersk, inscribed in an exotic font over them. But soon, one got used to the shape and then it was like a paradign of monotony. The numbers and letters inscribed on them were too complicated to make sense of and make games to play with. Last year while doing a rare train journey of 2 days, as I was looking out of the window, I couldnt see a single red box wagon, only containers were spotted. It was then I realised that I had grown fond of the boring red goods train box wagons!

02 July 2017

Going Home

Among all the difficult things in my childhood, perhaps the most difficult was getting home. Not the home where we lived, but the "home" where we ostensibly belonged and where I was born. This home was a place called Saharsa. It doesnt ring a bell, does it? Few people have heard of it even today and fewer still had heard of it in my childhood. To identify it, one had to qualify it further. While posting a letter to the place, it was usually prudent to add, NEF Railway (For North Eastern Frontier Railway) to help the Deptt of Posts find this elusive place. Sometimes, one had to add, North Bihar, just to make sure people looking for it on a map knew where to look for it. Not that the place was without identity, at one point of time it counted as one of the ten poorest districts in the country (and perhaps still is). Reaching there was much more difficult than sending a letter there or finding it on a map. It was a railway junction for sure. Railway branch lines went from Saharsa to further non-descrepit towns (but fancy names, nevertheless) like Forbesganj, Mansi and Katihar. That made it a junction on the edges of North Eastern Frontier Railway. The puny NEF Railway is headquartered 800 kilometres further east at Maligaon (Guwahati). It was bordered immediately by the equally stolid North Eastern Railway, headquartered 450 kilometres to the west at Gorakhpur. So, in many ways, Saharsa Junction was an orphan, too far from its parent headquarter and too alien for the railway zone nearby. Ofcourse, this was just the fewer of the troubles of reaching Saharsa. The major one was, that it was on Metre Gauge. A railway gauge in vogue in rest of the world but in India it plays second fiddle to the mighty broad guage.  This inevitably meant a change of trains to reach Saharsa, from whichever part of the country one was coming from. As the broad guage network expanded, it became even more difficult to reach there as the inter-change stations became smaller and desolate. In 1984, while coming from Jullunder, one could get comfortably as far as Barauni on a broad guage train sitting expansively on a reserved First Class coupe. After a wait of a few hours, one could catch a passenger train to Saharsa, that had a (unreserved) First Class, which sure had a few illegitimate occupants, but it was still comfortable. A few years later, while coming from Tezpur in Assam, it was even more convenient, as one had to get a change at Rangia to a meter gauge train with a sparsely populated First Class, that went all the way to Lucknow via Saharsa! But soon the meter gauge network began to get converted rapidly to broad guage and this track became fragmented. As always, the gauge conversion at Saharsa was last in priority for the planners. This made the interchange station at Mansi, a 78 kilometres from Saharsa. Mansi is a tiny station with two platforms named after the benevolent Sita of Ramayana. But perhaps thats where the benevolence about the place ended. It was not advisable to arrive at this station after dark for fear of theft or worse. Expectedly, all the trains from major towns crossed Mansi after midnight, leaving one at the mercy of the benevolent Mansi-ites. If one did survive this, one had to wait till morning 7 for the superpacked passenger to turn up for one to reach Saharsa. This had no First and it stopped and started according to the will of its hundreds of passengers. Usually, if one was lucky one could expect to reach Sahatsa by noon, a seemongly trivial distance of 76 kilometres, almost 12 hours after one would have left the luxury of the broad guage train at Mansi. But most superfast trains and Rajdhani trains passed by Mansi in speeds in excess of 100 kmph without bothering to stop. These trains next stopped at Katihar, which is about 115 kilometres away from Saharsa. This is a fairly large Junction, which means it is confusing and crowded. And keeping in traditions of NEF Railway, one never knows which train will leave when from which platform. One's best bet was hiring a coolie, whose primary duty was to ensure that you boarded the right train and got space to sit. How the coolies managed to find this information and achieve their duty remains a mystery to me, because most of the time such mighty figures, as Station Masters, were unable to tell which train was coming on which platform. Well, boarding the right train was just half the battle, because it would still be a 5 - 8 hour excruciating journey to Saharsa. All this to get "home". It became so hassled that it was easier to just call a better place, "home".
A decade and a half passed. In the interim, governments came and went. Apparently someone fished out that priority list and found that nearly the rest of the country was broad guage. So, perhaps it was time for Saharsa too and one limb of the branch line, the one from Mansi got BGed. This made it possible to have a direct train from Patna, Delhi and Calcutta to Saharsa. But I never managed to have the privilege of traveling by those trains. After 14 years, I landed at Patna airport. The last direct train to Saharsa had gone. I thought of taking a trip down memory lane by taking a train to Mansi, reaching there at 2AM and trying my luck just like the good old days. Something in my head told me it was inconvenient, foolhardy and dangerous. I looked askance at my smart phone which told me, wonder of wonders, an Ola Outstation is available at the princely sum of ₹5000. I sighed and chose to take a bus, cost me ₹250 for a full sleeping berth. In six hours flat I was staring at the slush filled cesspool that was allegedly the Bus Stand. I tip toed out of the bus, careful to avoid the worst of the slush holding my strolley bag above my head, to the nearest rickshaw-wala, who seemed to derive an evil pleasure at my plight. The world might metamorphose but the home will still stay the same!

29 June 2017

Grammar Nazi

Why do few people turn in to a grammar Nazi?
Why do few people turn in to grammar Nazis?
Why do few people turn themselves in to grammar Nazis?
Why do a few people turn in to a grammar Nazi?
Why do a few people turn in to grammar Nazis?
Why do a few people turn themselves in to grammar Nazis?
Why do a few people turn themselves in to a grammar Nazi?
Why do a few people turn themselves in to the grammar Nazi?
Why do a few people turn themselves in to the grammar Nazis?
Why do the few people who turn in to a grammar Nazi are never at hand to help!