East Coast Express

Good friends are a bounty. One of them lived in Shillong and invited me to visit them for a week. I had just finished high school in 1972 and was at a loose end, so the invitation was most welcome. Summer in Hyderabad has temperatures in the high 40’s Celsius while Shillong is a mist covered heaven, so the invitation was most welcome. Money, as always, was in short supply and so I traveled by third class train. I took the East Coast Express which I had to catch at Vijayawada on its way from Chennai (called Madras in those days) to Kolkata (called Calcutta).

This journey was the longest that I had ever taken – two nights and three days. During the journey I felt like I had been born and grew up on this train. And that I would always be on it.  The train goes through Orissa and Bihar, a bare and desolate progress. Indian train journeys were usually very interesting with all sorts of eating places on the stations, lots of different people getting off and on and a lot of activity and energy. But not so on this trip. The train would stop at every little station. Nobody would get on. Nobody would get off. And there was nobody on the station except the station master. He would dutifully wave the green flag and off the train would roll on. Those were the days when a train had an engine and cars (bogies or compartments) that it pulled behind itself. No frills like dining cars and air-conditioned chair cars. You, Mr. Passenger, were responsible for your own welfare. If you wanted to eat, you had to either carry your own food or buy it on the stations enroute. Many people did carry their food in tiffin carriers, some of which looked like little skyscrapers and happily shared their food with others. Train journeys were an extended potluck party. People knew this would happen and would bring along more than they needed for themselves, to share with strangers.

Young student-types like myself were pampered and mothered by the warm-hearted aunties who would insist on feeding us, claiming that our own mothers had been lax in their duties of fattening us up. If that failed and you landed in a group without any families i.e., kind aunties, you could still rely on food shops on the stations. On this journey that is when I realized my mistake. For all the way  during our slow, stately progress through Orissa and Bihar, not only was my compartment devoid of food providing aunties, but I did not see a single shop at any station. And that meant I went hungry for more than 24 hours. The amazing thing was that there weren’t even any tea sellers, who are a fixture at railway stations in India, almost as important and reliable as the railway tracks themselves. Onwards we went, while I took comfort in the thought that everything ends one day. Even this journey.

And end it did. At Howrah Railway station. Howrah was a shock for me because of the sheer number of people I saw. This was my first visit to Calcutta and coming from Hyderabad, which was still a small place, seeing crowds that resembled ants boiling out of a disturbed anthill was a shock. I stayed in Calcutta for 2 days with some friends. Each day I would walk all over the city just to get a flavor of the place. People, rickshaws, garbage, people, Chinese shoemakers, Chinese food, people, cows, Victoria Memorial, trams, yellow and black cabs, people, and more people. Calcutta has more people than anywhere on earth, I thought. I don’t think I was too far from the truth. People and noise. Car horns, hawkers calling, cows, dogs, people yelling over the din to be heard, more horns, noise washes over you.

The Metro was being built at the time, so Calcutta was dug up all over. Large signs regretted the fact that you were being inconvenienced. But then thirty-five years later I am convinced that being inconvenienced due to construction is a fact of life in all Indian cities. The price of ‘development’, I guess. The most memorable incident of these two days was my visit to the Birla Planetarium. The Birlas are famous for their temples, all called Birla Mandir and their Planetaria. Interestingly, the temple is not named after the presiding deity as is the custom in all temples. It is named after its builders, the Birla family. Why they build the former is simple enough to understand, but the latter, planetaria?? Must ask the next Birla I meet.

Whatever the reason, I am very glad that they do. The Birla Planetarium is a wonderful place. We were given 3-D glasses to wear and sat in seats that reclined almost flat. Lights were dimmed, and the auditorium went dark. And then I was transported. I was not on earth anymore. I was flying through space, weightless and ephemeral. Stars and constellations would whiz by. I would tarry at one for a while and listen to the narrator telling me about it. I would recognize some old names. And some were new. Time passed and I had no idea where it went. The memory remains and so I am very thankful to the Birla who decided to build this planetarium. It gave me much cause to wonder and marvel at the universe, and much joy.

From Calcutta I had to take a flight to Guwahati and then a bus to Shillong, which is 128 km from Guwahati. A journey that takes at least 4 hours. Each leg of my journey was a unique first experience for me. Languages I did not understand. People whose appearance was new. ‘Chinese’ looking people wearing kilts, all with huge smiles on their faces and warm, welcoming eyes. There were Nagas in their signature red and black shawls. Warm, confident, bright colors that were a window into the soul of their nation. Newspapers in ‘English’ that I could read but not understand, because only the script was English, while the language was Assamese. Hills covered with pineapple farms. Lychee trees loaded with fruit, which nobody seemed to pluck, to the extent that the ground beneath was littered with ripe fruit. Banana plantations and lush green vegetation everywhere. And then we were passing through tea gardens. Not on steep slopes as you see in South India, but on the plains, flat as a table-top, stretching as far as the eye can see. I was very tired from the train journey but forced myself to remain awake, lest I miss even one of the rapidly changing scenes flashing past the window.

Eventually, the weather started growing colder as we climbed the hills. We reached Shillong (Elevation 1496 meters above sea level). My friend was there and took me to the lovely cottage they lived in. His mother told me to ensure that I use only boiled water even to brush my teeth as the water was not safe. It was cold and misty as Shillong has this understanding with all passing clouds to tarry a bit. And they do it with great regularity. Shillong is very close to Chirapunjee, the wettest place on earth and is full of waterfalls.

There is Shillong peak, which is the highest point. The town is not much to speak of, but has charming cottages, albeit most are in a rather run-down condition. We did many things together but what stands out in my mind is the walk in the forest. It was the first time that I had ever been in an evergreen rain forest and the sights were many and amazing. Orchids growing on tree trunks. Massive green tree trunks bearded with moss and patchy with lichens. Shade that was almost dark while just outside the canopy was bright sunlight. Sun birds, tiny as moths, flashing about on invisible wings, flitting from flower to flower. Suddenly hovering above a flower their wings beating at an incredible speed, to dip their long needle-like beaks into its heart to drink the nectar secreted there. A magical world that I didn’t know existed, opened to me thanks to my friend and his lovely family.

Then one day it was over. The weeklong holiday came to an end. I started back for Guwahati by bus to catch my plane to Calcutta. Return journeys are always sad. But the drive down the hill road was enough to wipe out any melancholy. The bus driver was insane with a marked suicidal streak who did his best to wreck the bus and kill us all, streaking around blind hairpin bends at breakneck speed. However, he was not successful in his murderous intentions, and we survived. We reached Calcutta late that evening as it was getting dark. I decided that I could not handle the never-ending train journey back on the East Coast Express and so bought a plane ticket to Hyderabad at a princely cost of Rs. 1100.00. But the flight was the next morning. So, I took an auto rickshaw into town. The driver offered to take me to a hotel, and I agreed. He took me to a dingy joint where the ‘Front Office Manager,’ who was also the owner charged me Rs. 75 for a ‘room.’ This was the size of a large closet with one bed jammed into it and a common bathroom across the passage. Not my idea of a hotel. However, he made my money disappear instantly and it did not look like I could get it back short of an act of war, so I decided to take life as it came.

I washed my face in the not-so-clean bathroom and then decided to get something to eat. I asked the worthy Bengali gentleman where I could get some food. He said to me, “You bhill get the phood outside, but bhere are you going?”

I replied, “Tomorrow to Hyderabad.”

“How bhill you go?”

“By the Indian Airlines flight tomorrow morning.”

“How is that phossible?”

“Why is it not possible?”

“Because tomorrow is Calcutta bondh.”

Aah!! So finally, we were at the end of the mystery. I asked him what I should do, knowing that if there was to be a bandh (stoppage of all movement and business) in Calcutta I would never get to the airport.

“Go now,” he helpfully replied. But of course, there was no question of returning my money. It looked like I had paid Rs. 75 for a 10-minute stay in the hotel. Does not seem like much today but 35 years ago, for a student without an income, it was good money. Costly lesson learnt painfully.

Going to the airport sounded like the best idea that one could have had at the time. I didn’t like the ‘hotel’ in any case. I hailed a passing auto rickshaw and hungry as I was, I headed off for the airport. By the time we reached the airport, all flights for the day had left. None were to come. And the airport was shut down for the night. There was nothing to eat and no hotel or bed in sight. There was one solitary policeman at the main entrance with a zillion mosquitoes to keep him company. I spoke to him and explained my predicament and he was most understanding. Having gained access to the terminal building, I asked him where I could sleep. “Sleep anybhear,” he replied. I told you he was helpful. Anywhere, even in a Bengali accent meant sleeping on the floor in the cavernous terminal building. “Be careful bhith your luggage,” he added. I wondered who would steal my single haversack since the policeman and I were the only two people in the airport. To be on the safe side, I stuck both my legs through the haversack straps and lay down on the stone floor and tried to ignore the mosquitoes who threatened to carry me away, haversack and all. A combination of youth and tiredness ensured that I slept, despite the conditions. And next morning, aching all over, I climbed on board the Caravelle flight back to Hyderabad. Interesting ending to a wonderful trip.

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Excellent read ! Literally was transported back in time when life must have been so slow paced and much more peaceful . And of course one can’t miss the humour in describing the unmistakable Bengali Bhodrolok ! The rail journeys penned in great detail and with such loving anecdotes and instances feels like one is also experiencing it all along with the writer himself . The very fact that landing up in a big city like Kolkata with wide eyed wonder and feeling surprised with both good and not so good experiences is described with so much humane ness in… Read more »

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