Saturday, January 19, 2008

Train of thought 4.75 - One hour in the last town

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 .

**

Dibrugarh station is about as big as some of the double-track town-stations through which express trains whizz by without a second glance. The overbridge stands out, emphasised perhaps by the paucity of people on the platforms. The sun is up-and-shining by now, the 5:40am here is like the 9am of elsewhere. Still, the weather is beautiful and clear – no fog or rain, tis bright and cloudless.

Going past the mud-and-puddle filled front yard, I move out of the station, and walk towards the row of cycle rickshaws. I don’t quite know where to tell them to go. I think I should perhaps just walk around town. I’ve an hour here, and no idea how big the town is, so a rickshaw would be in order after all.

“Okay. Take me on a trip around town.”

“Uhh? Where do you want to go?”

“Well, I’ve an hour here, so I want to see the town.”

“Eh?”

I’ve seen that ‘you’re crazy’ look before, yesssir.

“Okay. Take me to the bus stand. How much is it?”

“10 bucks.”

En route, I tell him to chuck the bus stand and just show me what’s worth seeing in the town.

“But there’s nothing worth seeing here.”

“Well, the streets. The shops. The like.”

“It’s not even 6. Nothing’s going to be open now.”

Ahh. It’s warm, nearly getting hot, I forget that it’s effectively a different time zone.

“That’s okay. Let’s just go around the big streets of your town.”

The empty ‘big streets’ seem to have no other prominent attribute other than their width. The ‘big streets’ haven’t been claimed by commerce – they are residential just as well. They’re just uber-wide bylanes. There’s not too much of a concentration of signboards and shutters and hoardings around. Mostly homes and porches and parked cycles and bikes and coloured wooden doors opening out onto the street.

Once in a while, there’s a wide front lobby that my rickshaw-man points out as a ‘major shop’, but most places are closed, boarded up. I have to remind myself that it’s still 6am, even though it’s broad daylight. There’s one two-storied building with a glass fa├žade that I’m told is a prominent hotel – would I like to stay here? For a fraction of a second, I’m tempted to agree.

**

“Perhaps you’d like to see the river?”

“There’s a river here?!”

“The Brahmaputra”

Augggh. Dammit. Brahms!? Why didn’t I know that before? Of course, because I refused to look up information online, because I thought that would be like skipping to the last chapter of a mystery novel. Because I thought it’d sour any element of surprise.

“Sure thing. Go right ahead.”, say I, camouflaging my excitement with a difficult, unstable calm.

We pass a private bus agency. To be precise, we pass the painted board above the closed office. I remember the milestone on the road just outside Dibrugarh telling me Jorhat is 145km away. Temptation wells up again, growing steadily until it threatens to overwhelm existing plans. Plan B seems tantalizingly possible. I know there is a Jorhat Guwahati train leaving around 2pm, and I tell myself I’ll comfortably catch the Dibrugarh-Amritsar Express in Guwahati. For a couple of hundred bucks, that’s great RoI, say I.

Practicality, unfortunately, arrives. Some consideration, and plan is shelved. Some more money, some more time on my hands and I wouldn’t mind the uncertainties of that unscheduled detour. Not today, alas.

Hindsight vindicates me – I find in the evening that the Jorhat train's arrival is half an hour after the Amritsar one’s departure. Still, I cant quite help a tinge of regret at missing out. Next time, I’m coming here without reservations.

**

From the main road, we enter an opening between buildings that’s supposed to be a path. Stones and hardened-mud lie ahead. The rickshaw guy tells me the river’s just beyond the end of this lane. The rickshaw struggles over the stones-and-hard-mud, so I just tell him I’ll walk – no point torturing his rickshaw on this monstrous path.

We walk between a row of huts, and then pass a board advertising a ferry service across the river. Temptation puffs up yet again. This time, it brings some regret along, perhaps knowing too well that the trip cant be done.

When we reach the river bank, I’m puzzled. This is a small water body – some 30-40 metres across, staid, calm, almost like a canal. Surely this isn’t the grand swirling mini-sea that I saw outside Guwahati? No, no, tells my rickshaw guy – what you see is just a mid-river island across the water. There’s a massive part of the river on the other side of the island – it’s bigger than you've imagined. If only you had the time, he adds with a tinge of infectious regret.

I fold my arms and brace myself, for there’re gusts of cold air, even as the sunlight beams down. There’re some 20-25 men and women in sweaters and scarves waiting on a bench for the morning’s ferry, whose services are advertised by another board. The ferry, my rickshaw guy says, is the only way to go across – there’s no land route.

Sigh. The few times you manage to resist temptation end up being the few times your best experiences loom ahead.

The chill in the air is suffused with the warmth of the sun that’s sprouted and fully come out. There’s a wall-less shack that exhibits glass-jars full of biscuits and rusks. We walk in, sit down on the raised-planks of wood.

“Two cups of tea.”

“Biscuits? Nashta?” asks our 10 year old waiter.

“Nahi. Phir kabhi lenge.” I so want to mean what I said. It’s 6:15am, and I so do want to come back here. Perhaps spend a couple of days, drive around town, go across river, explore roads and places in the vicinity of the place.

The tea is a sugarless, strong concoction with very little milk. I let the intense, almost-bitter-ness of the taste linger on my tongue. The heat of the glass-tumbler-with-vertical-rims passes through to my chilled hands.

**

I have to hurry the poor rickshaw-man on our way back to the station – he halts at the station gate with some 3 minutes left for the train’s departure. For a moment, I mull about how much to pay the guy. Quickly making my mind up, I thrust a 100-buck-note into his hands and go in.

The guard tells me there's five minutes left, so I manage pick up a couple of omlettes with some scrawny, thin bread. As I walk alongside the train, it jerks itself alive and into motion. I clutch the left railing, and balancing the food in my right hand and bag on my back, hoist myself into the now-inching-ahead bogie.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Train of thought 4.5 - The Easternmost point on the Indian Railways

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).

**

My bones feel squeaky, and produce occasional snapping noises like cracking knuckles. Muscles feel like they’ve decayed to a pulp, and seem to be in a squashed, rubbery, gooey state. When the only energy expenditure you’ve done in four days is walking-to-door-and-standing-there-and-return-to-seat, you understand why the body feels uncomfortably stifled, trapped within itself. Having eaten frugally over these days hasn’t helped ease the bodily rustiness.

The hour-long stop at Guwahati, then, is just what the doc ordered. One walk all the way up and down the platform, and the muscles and bones feel slightly better. That, even though there is this persistently uneasy feeling that the paunch is slowly expanding, growing – some tummy patting gives little consolation.

I’m now right in front of the engine, having walked across the tracks and come back. I think it’d be neat to be photographed on the track between the engine-with-torchlight-headlamp that’s on one side and the signal-post-with-red-light that glares out on the other.

And before I know it, the engine leaps out from where it parks, having decided that it is time to depart, for it was already running late. It is, you’ll realize, extremely unfunny when you’re some 20 metres away from a million tonne railway engine hauling a billion tonne train, and when the said engine-and-train abruptly decide they’re going make a lunge towards you.

Yes, so 20 metres are perhaps 20 metres too many. But there still is the small matter of registering the engine’s pounce, activating instinct-of-self-preservation, leaping off the track, panting, recovering, immediately recognizing the fact that you still have to get into the train, reactivating instincts-and-reflexes, commanding whiny legs to run back like crazy, braking at just the right moment, turn around in an instant, start running in the other direction and simultaneously leaping into the speeding train.

All ended well, as you’ll have guessed by now – the episode culminated in a new world record for the aforementioned series of actions.

**

I pry my eyes open, and push the white bedsheets away. There’s mild, slight light outside the window. The watch shows a quarter to 5. I mutter a ‘huh?’ to myself. The train’s stopped. I slowly, sleepily totter to the door.

Tis New Tinsukia, under an hour from destination. There’s a gentle, soft sunlight that’s spread on the clean platform that’s hardly peopled. The station clock confirms that it indeed is a quarter to 5. It takes a while to realize that I’m now so far east that the day begins and ends much sooner – it really should be in a different time zone.

The compartment, fully occupied from Delhi till yesterday night, is only one-third or so full now. Everyone around has gotten off at various points of time in the night. No matter how often you’ve travelled, how often you’ve seen the here-today-gone-the-next-station nature of train travellers, you can never really help feeling vacant, weird when you wake up to see empty berths and seats, vacant luggage-less aisles. This, even though the infinitesimal familiarity you have with your-fellow travellers is further diluted by your parking at the door most of the journey.

**

Dibrugarh arrives at5:35 am. Getting to the Easternmost point on the Indian Railways has an Everest-ish thrill while map-gazing, while fantasizing. Reaching Dibrugarh for real doesn’t have the adrenalin-and-excitement of the fantasies – there’s a calm, an understated peace about it that makes you feel content about all that’s come on the way. I look out from the door as the train squeals slowly through the suburbs of the town. I realize I don’t quite know what to expect from Dibrugarh Town. I mean, hey, so it’s the Easternmost point on the Indian Railway. But what’s an Easternmost-point-on-a-railway *supposed* to look like? And what is one supposed to do, having gotten to the Easternmost-point-on-a-railway?

Still, the anticipation, the expectation that has been building up all these days has been quite an experience. The build up is somewhat like the trip to Chamarajnagar station that I did when I was 8 or so. Chamarajnagar was(and is) the dead end before the Nilgiris thwart any attempts at railway line building. I remember the days before that trip, almost jumping in expectation of seeing a place where the tracks would just stop. They just wouldn’t go further, and I couldn’t imagine *how* that would be possible. I mean, hey, tracks are supposed to go on and on and on, right? How could they just *not* continue?

Very often, when you do give yourself a build-up, such an eager sense of expectation, it turns out that your destination is much more familiar-seeming, much more un-exotic than you thought. You go far away from where you are, and yet you find the land, the people, the crowds aren’t new, aren’t novel. Somehow, not seeing something radically new doesn’t disappoint you – it’s a reassurance, a comfort, a feeling of belonging. Perhaps that just means you’ve made your peace with the place.

**

So, what plans have I for Dibrugarh town? Scheduled arrival is 5am, and I’ve planned a fleeting, running view of the town before moving out by the Dibrugarh-Amritsar express that leaves 6:45am. That just so I can see the 567km Dibrugarh-to-Guwahati stretch in the daytime(the stretch that passed in the night while arriving). The 5:35am arrival leaves just around an hour to check out the town.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Train of thought 4 - Further East

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 moisture in the air makes every deep breath thicker, more refreshing, particularly when the train speeds through open pastures. Soon, there's Kishanganj and the West Bengal border. The broad, vacant NH31 that wafts some way off looks inviting.

**
Some way on, the much anticipated New Jalpaiguri arrives. Much anticipated, because it's one of those places whose only significance arises from the fact that it's a railway junction. Jolarpettai, Mughalsarai, Daund and Londa spring to mind as finest examples of this rather alluring species.

There's really no commerce, industry or activity intrinsic to these places, no crowds or overreaching urbaneness anywhere nearby. However, it is these towns' status as railheads gives them a supreme importance. What commerce there is revolves around the trains and transport.

Railway travelers who switch trains know that these places are the old faithful, even though they've probably never stayed here. They know of the multiple platforms and huge station premises and availability of trains anytime anywhere. Even those who arent quite regulars know that these stations command 20 minute halts, and speak of them with a reverence that befits such a status.

New Jalpaiguri, then, is the archetypal frontier town. It seems designed more as a marker, a milestone than to actually harbour people. It really wants no role other than that of a junction. One grand, massive railway station, and seas of uninhabited nothingness along the tracks on either side. You walk up to the engine, and you can see the fields and emptiness right ahead. I keep thinking of Jolarpettai, and fond memories of one-evening-amid-the-sunset there pop up. I've only 20 minutes here now, but am reassured by the prospect of a 5 hour wait-for-train here while returning.


**

Among other passengers is a young lady with dad. Splits life between Delhi and her town in East Assam, where she's headed with Dad. Isnt that the town where there was a major shootout last week, I ask. Oh well, happens so often, we dont really notice it. Once again, I don’t quite feel like the 'we always imagine it all happens to someone else' line, so I shush. As if sensing what was left unsaid, she says - of course, it helps that nobody in your immediate life has been caught up in the violence so far.

So, where was I going? Umm, err, say I. Pleasure trip around the country, say I. Like all travelers, she isnt content, and asks for more information. Sighing, I give brief outline of intent.

"Some people have such a passion for travel", saith the lass.
"I've heard that one before. It means 'you're crazy'"
"No. Really. All I can say is wow. I wish I could do that sort of thing."
"Tis not too difficult. Sit at your comp, book a ticket, and you're on your way! For now, you could park at the door for starters. It's not dangerous. Really."

"Umm, yes. I'll say yes, but I'll lose interest when I think of actually making the plan. Reg. footboard, dad's around now. Maybe the next time, I'll travel alone."

As the train clangs over a bridge, I spot the name of the river. I ask the young lady if that indeed is the river she's been named after. She blushes and nods.

**

"So, you must've met interesing people while traveling."

"Oh yes, tis fun, that." say I. The man-at-door-near-Mathura comes readily to mind. Nopey, not that, I cant be saying that! I do, however, tell her about the young woman at Jhansi who'd read the Hitchhiker's in Hebrew. We'd spent half a night and early morning morning walking around in crazy cold, warming ourselves by the impromptu mini-bonfires that had sprung up on the sparse platform. And while leaving, decided we wouldnt trade numbers or email IDs, and would just disappear to each other. (That, by the way, was in the hours preceding that cult classic – the Gwalior Barauni Mail).

"Well, nobody you meet on a journey is a permanent presence. Everything is transient - here today, and when you wake up tomorrow morning - poof, they're gone. That way, tis a bit like a microcosm of life in general - you cant quite expect anything to last forever. Once a journey is done, the only place it really exists is in your head."

"I'll probably never see some of these places again. At any rate, I'll never stop over and stay at these places. Knowing that you’ll never own some things, that you’ll never be a permanent part of some things doesn’t stop from loving, enjoying, appreciating them. See, you and I will never meet again. We still talk, just for this moment".

She tries to sound somewhat offended at that suggestion. "I might just pay you a visit at your post-retirement-happily-ever-after-tea-estate-villa. I hope you'll remember me then.".

**

There arent any hills like you've been told, no tea estates. Just rice fields that stretch on. These are a shade of intense green, evenly spread out like a vast trampoline. No light, faded or dusty shades of green here - just bright, clean, almost wet green that lies low enough to give you a view of the vast horizon.

As Assam is entered, the towns, the roads look more leisurely, less frantic, with plenty of space for themselves. Late in the evening, just after darkness descends, the train slows down, and ponderously, steadily goes with a slow rattle across the Brahmaputra, which is wide enough to look like an arm of a sea. There're city lights of Guwahati twinkling in the darkness, there're the lit up hills that adjoin the said city, there're glimmers in the vast water stretch right underneath me.