Friday, November 16, 2007

Train of thought 2.5 - Dilli Door Asth

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

The next town appears fairly big. The train ploughs through some 6-7km of its suburbs. Most of these suburbs are populated by stone quarries and grey dust. Rows of grimy trucks are kicking up mud, stuck in a traffic jam in the midst of a field. There are also, as someone put it, sons of toil covered by tons of soil.

The station is a pinkish building, making perhaps half an attempt to give itself a sandstone look. There’re arched doorways and windows – faded white semicircles that taper into onion-domes. There’re tall, dark, wine-bottle-y window panes that narrow upwards into a rocket-like shape. You’d almost think the station is all smooth curves and no edges. No storeys, just the ground floor spread flat over the length of the platform. A clocktower barely manages to peep out over the ground floor terrace.

The sunny, muddy, cow-laden platform at Kota Junction unfolds under my feet.

Signboards that could be tagged ‘career, bright, future, excellent, 100%’ fill the railway station. IIT, CBSE, GATE, IAS – some boards manage to fit all the abbreviations. The town has something for everyone.

The attendants head towards a waiting cart, and purposefully carry the day’s lunch trays onto the train. The red flickering display board makes a mention of the Haldighati passenger due later in the evening.

**

The train’s running an hour late. But we’re on twin tracks and an electric engine, so we flit through the fields, perhaps just over a 100km an hour.

There’s a bridge across the Chambal, with a bund downstream. At 15-20feet, it’s not quite a dam – the river threatens to dunk it underwater anytime it desires.

A hill range unfolds itself parallel to the track. This one’s rather disorderly – with edges like shards of broken glass. There’re stones strewn in the valley, that see to it that nothing can grow in the rough, stony terrain.

This is the Chambal valley, which used to be India’s prime dacoit zone. The dacoit zone begins here, and spreads across the vicinity of Jhansi-Lalitpur-Gwalior. There’re no trees, no people, and hardly any vegetation along the vast span of the ravines. The mind imagines horses thundering down the hills, but the eye only meets a hard, rocky, silent backdrop of loneliness.

**

The train speeds past a dusty, open air station. The platform is unoccupied. There’re no people, poles or roof-shelters – nothing other than the floor going flat out. There’s just the station master who’s just come out of his single room. The man in white holds out a faded green flag which stubbornly refuses to sway or flutter. The only other presence other than him is one forlorn, frayed board at the very edge of the platform , marked Ranathambore.

**

I have some company at the door by now. There’s this young man, some 25 or so, who’s had my window all the time I’ve been at the door. He's in the corridor near the door, but doesnt quite want to stand at the door.

“Dilli jaa rahe ho?”

I nod.

The usual where-from-where-to questions follow, with a where-re-you-really-from added for good measure. I’ve gotten used to the irritation of the where-from-where-to questions by now. When you’ve never quite belonged to any one place, and travelled without anything resembling a purpose, you really can have any number of equally valid answers for each of these questions. I mention at random one place apiece for each question. It's hardly any effort to skip all the qualifying that’s perhaps necessary.

Madrasi hoke Hindi to achhi jaante ho.

“Haan. Thoda bahut seekha hai.”

Yeh Braj Kshetr hai. Pata hai? Krishnaji yahi pale the. Agla station Mathura hai.

I'm aware, indeed, that Mathura is in proximity, so I nod.

He pauses awhile, wondering how to continue conversation with a man who persists in looking outside the door.

Braj Kshetr ke log gaaliyon ke liye mashoor hai, pata hai aap ko?

The man’s attempting to break the ice. I do an “Achha?”

Arey? Aapko pata nahi kya? Saare UP-Bihar se zyada bhayankar gaaliya yahi pe sunne ko milegi aapko.

I stand with my back to the opened door, acknowledging that the monologue had potential to get interesting.

Ek kahaani sonata hoon Braj Kshetr ki gaalibaazi ke baare me. Ek banda Braj Kshetr jaana chahta tha. Mathura se sau kilometre door aake poocha – Braj Kshetr jaa raha hoo. Jab aayega to kaise pata chalega?

To logo ne bola, aage jaate raho. Jahaa par log bhayanak gaaliya denge, wahi Braj Kshetr hoga.

Aage jaata hai. Ek board laga hai – Braj Kshetr. Phir bhi aadmi se poochta hai – bhai, Braj Kshetr jaa raha hoo. Jab aayega to kaise pata chalega?

Toh doosra aadmi Braj Kshetr ka board dikha ke bolta hai – “Eee boarad kaa teri maa ki choot me laga hai?”

The man, verily, employs a sledgehammer to break ice.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Train of thought 2 - Morning Calm

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

The window-glass to my left dulls the white lights coming in from the platform. The diffused haze wakes me up. Uh, where am I? There’s this disoriented whaa-what-am-I-doing-here sensation. The eyes creak open. Memory flickers to life. There’s still a moment of disbelief – am I *really* doing this trip?

My sleep-fogged, confused mind demands other questions to be asked of it. Another beam of light seeps in, much sharper than before. The train squeaks to a stop. 'What town is this?’ - appears a suitable choice to engage the still partly dormant mind. Surat? Memories of one past trip make me wish it is. The green of the radium in my watch glows 5:40. Vadodara.

**

I wade out of, err, bed. Ugh, my calves almost feel sticky from the lack of exercise. I need a walk on the platform. The platform is tiled with people sleeping upon newspaper-sheets-turned-mattresses. Been there, done that, yessiree. I skirt the sleepers and walk on. It’s still dark. The tubelights blaze away relentlessly, but the slumbering multitudes are unperturbed.

The diesel engine detaches itself. The coach attendant explains ,”Cant stop long enough to change at Panvel or Vasai. The local trains, saab. They cant wait for us.”

Another unattached diesel engine coasts past, with its name ‘Cheetah’ written in large, friendly letters. The chill from the night is still in the air. There’s the sweatshirt around me. There’s the warmth of the bed tea(well, almost) that’s in my hands.

**

Sometime due north, the dark sky gradually fades until it is a lighter shade of bluish white. There’re rust-golden colored industrial edifices that wield chimneys. Canals and rivulets are dreary patches, wholly unlike the clear water bodies on the Konkan that made you want to dive right in.

The fields and villages are dotted with tractors that have retired for the night. The train curves around grassy mounds that look like massive pin cushions. These aren’t thick forested hills - these are stubbly hillocks that have been liberally sprinkled amid meadows and farms. Nothing is cramped or stuffed – even the two-tracked railway line has plenty of space for itself as it freely scrawls across the landscape.

**

Buildings in most towns have dull grey coatings. The decrepitude of most of these edifices suggests that their purpose isnt residential. The train slows down near another such town, one that doesn’t seem to have been refurbished in ages.

The platform harbours no rooms, no offices or stalls - only vendors who idly watch us go past. Another engine slumbers on the adjacent platform, its name ‘Prachand’ written in, you guessed it – large, friendly letters.

As my train leaves the unpeopled platform, the name board of the station comes into view – ‘Godhra Junction’.

**

The grey dissolves, the towns recede. The only habitations you can see are houses amid farms, almost like dots on a huge canvas. In a while, rocky cliffs come into view ahead.

As the train scrapes between the first of the cliffs, you see a turret topping the two cliffs on either side of the track. A pair of ornate, carefully crafted watchtowers herald the entry into an enclosure of cliffs. The train winds past subsequent hillss on either side – the rock faces are formed into carefully carved ramparts flanking the track. There’s vegetation and undergrowth amid fragments of these crumbling battlements. As the train enters the curves here, it looks like it is tucking into the remnants of a fortification or castle.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Train of thought 1 - Due north again

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

Not too much sleep. Sigh. I push back my overgrown hair and crumple my blanket into a heap. I look out into the dull grey of the water to my right. It’s just after 6, but the halogen lights atop the adjoining road bridge are still on. The blunt orange drips down through the half-sunlight, and winks back upwards from the water surface.

I am tired, sleepless after the exertion of the last evening. There still are 8 days to go, and here was the dank Nethravathi, intent on enveloping my first morning in gloom. The decrepit, unpaved, almost bombed out looking Kankanadi station that follows doesnt do much by way of looking cheerful.

When the milk powder + hot water + tea bag come by, the cup verily overflowed, so to say. Sigh, I know I wouldn’t be getting anything resembling proper tea for a while.

Not the most promising of starts, then. Still, the hot water of the mix warms my hands. As I slowly sip the drink at the door, I protectively hold on to the cup.

**

Stations on the Konkan Railway are all far away from the cities and towns whose names they bear. Most of them stand aloof, all by themselves. Murudeshwar has a distant mountain range for background and emptiness for foreground. Ankola is a small raised stage amid paddy fields that go flat out on every side. So is Karwar, except that it’s also at the mouth of a tunnel at the foot of a huge hill. All along, there’re no crowds, there’s hardly any sort of milling and activity that you’d have been accustomed to see at transit termini.

There’re brief glimpses of the sea, occasionally atop grand bridges. The river Gangavali comes by, but it refuses to sport the profusely green-draped look that it did when I saw it from the road. Goa comes by, and the track tucks into hamlets and villages that seem to have folded themselves away from the rest of civilization. The damp wetness of the morning is gone. The sun’s up and shining as the train brushes through glades and vegetation.

**

Past Madgaon, the train goes deeper into the Western Ghats. The green gets denser, the hills go higher. Streams and rivulets sparkle away in the mild afternoon sunlight. Viaducts pull away the ground beneath my feet, revealing yawning drops underneath. Wide, deep valleys open up. There’re tunnels that are areas of nothingness that distort my sense of space and time – the longest spans more than 6km.

As I get off at some of the smaller stations here, human habitation is farther than ever before – Vilawade is perched atop a high ledge between tunnels, Rajapur Road between two rocky faces, Vithalwadi Road amid thick forest cover. Some stations are beside waterfalls, some atop valleys, but none close to any extensive human presence. At some of the railway stations, fish flap around in the inter-track drains.

Droplets of rain come down, intensifying slowly. There’s wetness in the air. Everything appears washed, cleansed. The water dulls the greyish-steel top of the train bogies. The train ambles ahead on the sole, lonely track in the bright orange afternoon sunlight.

The train attendant asks me to move from the door for a moment. As I move away, he does a heave ho, emptying the day’s quota of waste food, bottles and packaging into the Sahyadris.