I found this piece of writing in my inbox – something that I had done last year. It never made it to any publication because it was rejected for reasons best known to numerous editors. I honestly do not know what to make of it, so here it is.
Back in 1999, I spent about 3 years looking for the slightest excuse to travel from Indore to my home at Goa. I was doing my graduation, away from family.
When deciding on the best route home, my friend Deepak, who hailed for a small town in Bihar, told me that the nearest rail-head where we could catch trains (Bhagalpur express and Mangala express), to our respective homes in Purnia and Madgaon, was a place called Khandwa, a small town roughly 150 Kms south of Indore. The road to Khandwa lay in tatters but there was a meter gauge railway track that connected the two cities. During our first of those journeys, we realized that traveling in a meter gauge train was an experience we weren’t really prepared for. I was usually equipped with a John Grisham novel, a walkman, a few tapes and a set of batteries that barely lasted the journey.
At Mhow, an army cantonment town just out of Indore, we ate stale kachoris sold by a man outside the railway platform, while our train had a scheduled stop of 45 minutes. To us, fickle-minded and hurried boys, a 45 minute stop at a station that had virtually nothing to offer while the unrelenting sun baked the steel coach, made no sense. Then, a few hours later, a village unimaginatively named “Kalakund” where they sold only one thing – a sweet by the same name (“Kalakand”), cut into imperfect squares and served on thin newspaper sheets (now oily but a closer look revealed on them stories of places we had never heard of). The train then chugged to a station called “Omkareshwar Road”. Omkareshwar, we were told, was a place of legends, stories and of worship, alongside the Narmada river; The railway station itself almost appeared in trance – with sadhus and pilgrims scattered everywhere. A notice on the station asked us to “get down here for the Omkareshwar pilgrimage”. But what were we to make of it? We just wanted to go home and this thing stopped everywhere. An hour or so before Khandwa, it was usual for a group of villagers to stop the train (“a wave of the hand usually works“, someone once remarked), attach an array of milk cans and logs of wood by the hook, to the windows. I vividly remember, once our coach smelled of fresh coriander.
The first time we reached Khandwa, that place whose once famous resident was one Kishore Kumar, our train, despite all the time it had in the world, managed to delay itself by 45 minutes. Deepak was worried because his connecting train was to depart around that time. Later, we realized that his fears were unwarranted – his onward journey was further delayed because the connecting train coming from Bombay was running late. When inquired around, two men, idly playing cards on the platform with a steel trunk by their side, laughed at us. We were told that the Dadar-Bhagalpur express that was supposed to come the day before, had not yet reached Khandwa — what were we doing here looking around for the train that was merely a couple of hours late? My friend was stunned. To his relief, he boarded his Bhagalpur express eventually, 3 hours after we had reached Khandwa.
The year after that, on the same voyage, Deepak reached Khandwa, this time, 30 minutes late — quietly assured that his onward train to Bhagalpur must be, as always, running late. This time though, he changed the platform hurriedly (he was still in a hurry though it was the “unworried” kind of hurrying), crossing from the medium gauge platform to the broad gauge platforms. On the over-bridge between platforms, as he stepped on the stairs to come down, he saw what he believed was the back of the train that he intended to board, slowly slide by. Slowly — but fast enough for him to catch the red light, constantly blinking at the back of the tail coach as it rain into the distance. A woefully tired and breathless Deepak then asked, in sheer hopelessness, a fruit vendor on the platform – “Oh bhaiya, yeh Bhagalpur express kahan hai?” (“so, where is this Bhagalpur express”).
Meanwhile, keeping up with the overall set mood, my onward journeys to Madgaon were a mix of uncertainty and adventure. The train arrived usually at midnight. Hours were spent at Khandwa, learning patience on a railway platform. Strange city, this place, I used to think. What to make of a city whose most important landmark is its railway station itself? At least, that was what we knew of it then. As my patience grew thin and the journey took its toll in the form of tiredness, it was between 11:30 pm and 12:00 midnight that Mangala express arrived. In fact, sometimes not one, but two. Yes – going in opposite directions. One towards Ernakulam and the other towards New Delhi. You could pick which one to board and you did not want to be wrong then.
So the first time on the Mangala express, a railway snack vendor, Selva, became a friend. My cash starved wallet could always afford his banana bajjis – the Kerala snack. Then, another time, with an unconfirmed ticket, I stood at the door of the coach. As the train entered Maharashtra in the thick of the night, an elderly man offered me half of his seat. Tired as I was, I could not refuse the offer. Then God arrived — in the form of a ticket examiner who searched the manifest and allocated me a berth for the night. During the day, as we entered the Konkan route after Panvel, I was delighted to meet Selva again. Quite sure that he remembered me, this time I spent a few hours in the pantry car, wide-eyed and amused at the fluency of how Selva and his friends reduced a sack of onions to salad.
Those wanderings – where you thought you were alone. Maybe not.
With the sun setting along the Konkan, the train arrived at Ratnagiri – a stop I eagerly awaited. By then starved and exhausted, it almost became a custom to treat myself with vada-pavs and a bottle of coke. It occurred to me years later — I passed through Ratnagiri for those three years, an ignorant being oblivious to this town of great historical significance. Instead what did I associate it with? Nothing more than a stale bun and a potato patty. But little did I know then, that years down the line, inspired by Amitav Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace”, I would set forth on a trip to this town again, at the heart of Konkan, to visit a dead Burmese king’s palace. Maybe it came as a singular act of atonement, but I am glad it happened. This is what good books make you do – look back in wonder and try and make you travel.
Meanwhile, eating my vada-pavs, I used to think about Deepak and take a guess that by now, he would have reached Bhagalpur, waiting for the bus to his town – that last leg of his journey. He used to later tell me that his train ran late, inevitably. He reached the morning after.
Back then, we were boys in a hurry. But we learnt to wait.