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.


Gee said...

Looks like Eliot was to be spouted. Tsk tsk.

QKumar said...

[Gee]: Nopey. Not Hebrew, angreji wonly was spouted.

Prospect of spouting Eliot, alas, wasnt known then. Next time, of course, you know what I'm going to be quoting!

Priyanka said...

That was so well written... :)

QKumar said...

[Priyanka] - Thank you! The trip itself was more satisfying than the writing about it.

Samrat said...

shamanth your writing is brilliant.
i have also been to guwahati 3-4 times, and passed thru all these places, u evoke such fond memories of train travel