15 November 2005

A Long Train Journey

I managed a place for myself in the 7:05 Kalyan slow at CST. I was headed towards Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, from where I would catch the the weekly superfast LTT - Bhubaneswar express. I had left a good 2 hours before the departing time so that I could reach in time. In its efforts to decongest CST and Mumbai Central the powers that be have created a string of railway terminii all over mumbai, from where long distance trains leave for all over the country. However the problem with these terminii is that they are poorly connected to any of the major lines and hence creating problems for the already hassled long distance train traveller. Lokmanya tilak treminus is no exception. In days before the great marathi resurgence it was plaintively called ‘Kurla terminus’ after the nearest suburban train station. Political compulsions forced it to be renamed ‘Lokmanya Tilak Terminus’ after the great Maharashtrian statesman. The terminus is at a some distance from the Kurla suburban station which creates unique difficulties. While its not near enough for one to lug the baggage and hike to it, it is neither far enough for it to affford a decent taxi fare to make the commute commercially viable. The result, the few autos and taxis that do take passengers to the terminus overcharge and overload. The road is potholed and dimlit. The experience already starts looking like the place where the trains leave to from the terminus, namely Bihar and Orissa and other less fortunate places.I find my way to the terminus which is agog with people. I guess mostly migrant laborers from Bihar (for the train leaving to Patna) and Orissa (for the train leaving to Bhubanneswar). The lathi weilding Railway Protection Force is having a heady time keeping the crowd in control. I soon find out why, when the train arrives. The so called ‘reserved sleeper cars’ are reserved only in name.The RPF is forcing the milling crowd to form decent queus for these ‘reserved compartments’ and the bogies are carrying people which would shame CST fast during the peak hours. I bless my stars for having forunate enough to book in 3 AC, which by the way is locked and nobody is there to open it. Fear grips passengers as the departing time nears when suddenly someone opens it and we all rush in and find our places. I look around to survey my co passengers. A family of six - husband, wife, three kids and a teenage girls whose relationship to the rest is not evident immediately. It also turns out that he has bought tickets till Cuttack when he only has to go till Badnera less than one third the distance. The rest of the compartment is filled with mostly Oriyas, and people going to Nagpur all of them seem to have extremely noisy kids. The train starts on time and soon the network starts receding and then vanishes completely. I go off to sleep only to wake up in the morning at Badnera when the family leaves creating acres of space in the erstwhile claustrophobic compartment. Its 14th Nov - Childrens Day. The kids in the bogey seem to know this and are celebrating it with ruckus while their parents coax them to have breakfast. I look out of the window to find the great Deccan plateau waiting for me. There is not a single soul, only tilled land till the eyes can see. The landscape is completely featureless. Cultivated land interrupted by trees. I count twelve minutes before I can see a person. The train must be doing about 80 an hour so it makes about one person every 9km! Something must surely be wrong. May be this great indian landscape compensates for the overcrowded indian cities. The emptiness of this land only eccentuates the vastness of this country. I sleep off trying to finish off Maharashtra but it refuses to go away. Finally a good 16 hours after we started from LTT the last vestiges of Maharashtra vanish and we enter the ‘new’ state of Chhattisgarh. Gondia greets us with a deserted station and a few chaiwallahs trying to sell their wares disinterestedly. There is a subtle change in the landscape. The houses are thatch covered. The occasional people you see are evidently less well off than their neighbours in Maharashtra. The painted advertisements are about, ayurvedic toothpastes, cement, and miracle cures for piles. We hit Durg which is immediately followed bythe industrial complex of Bhilai which accords it the granduer of three railway stations. The train doesn’t stop at any one of them. It is like an oasis of industrial activity in an otherwise impoverished region. Soon we are in the ‘new’ state capital of Raipur, which is conspicuosly flowing with new money in the hands of the priviledged few. My mind wanders off to the question of reorganisation of states. Seemingly an insurmoutable problem. But smaller states are good. Or are they? I again sleep off only to be woken up in the evening by the the caterer with ‘non veg’ meal which contains egg curry, some gritty rice, curd and one sabzi. I eat uncomplainingly having missed my lunch. The people here are discussing the Mumbai floods. Suddenly I find that people are also discussing airline fares. Nearly everyone has taken the pains of finding out how exhorbitantly high the BOM - BBI fares are, infact so much so that the return fare of BOM - SIN is almost at par with BOM - BBI fare.I find this amusing. Firstly because the class of people travelling 3AC has undrgone a dramatic change and now they are wanting to break new barriers by flying and I am sure soon they will have the money too. I sleep off and morning finds me at Cuttack. I find the station much cleaner and spanlier that the last time which was some years ago. Soon I am in Bhubaneswar and haggling with a rickshaw -wallah.
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