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!
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