Friday, February 25, 2011

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

No, this is not about the 1987 film where Steve Martin goes through a series of misadventures involving various modes of transport, with an obnoxious travel companion (which was remade as insipid ‘Due Date’ with Robert Downey Jr last year). This is about me travelling the better part of last week, using various modes of transport, to illustrate... what exactly? I don’t know. Here’s the itinerary, anyway.

February 13: Azad Hind Express. From Pune to Howrah. The scheduled departure time is 6.25 pm. However, these days it has been changed to 2.45 am the next morning. After the nexals attacked the Howrah-Mumbai Jnaneshwari Express somewhere between West Bnagal-Chattisgad border a few month’s back, all trains on the route have tried to avoid passing the area during the night. Hence, the change in timing so that we can pass the naxal-infested areas in broad daylight.

February 14: Board the train and off to sleep. Sleep the entire day. There is nothing much to do on an AC compartment. Unlike passengers on a Second Class coach, commuters travelling AC do not like to interact with each other. Fair enough. I myself is not a great talker. However, I love to look at the countryside as the train passes though the changing landscape that’s truly Indian. Where else would you find the landscape changing every hour! But in an AC compartment the view is blocked by the tinted windows. It’s no fun. No breakfast and lunch, just 15 cups of tea, each costing Rs 5. At 11 pm, egg biryani, a small portion of biryani rice and an egg covered in a silver foil, costing Rs 50, for dinner. Spent the evening reading ‘Beyond Indigo,’ an almost chick-lit by London-based Indian author Preethi Nair. A finely realised novel nonetheless.

February 15: We pass the ‘naxal infested’ danger zone without any incident. Since the train was already late, it is delayed further. I am little worried as I have a connecting train to catch at 3.55 pm at the Howrah station. Again skip breakfast, lunch. Plan to have a gourmet meal at Howrah, with fish and all.
... ... Finally, the train pulls in at Howrah. Thank God, I still have two hour to catch the other train. A nice walk from the far end of the new platform (No 21) to the far end of the old platform (No 8), which are housed at two separate buildings. No time for meal. Two egg rolls and a small pot of misti doi. Wait for the platform to be announced. As usual, the station is overcrowded. It’s quite hot even if it’s the fag end of winter. The train usually leaves from platform No 8; there’s a Patna-bound train standing there. Panic; 3.40 pm and no platform is scheduled for my train. Another five minutes and there it is, platform No 9. Crowd in front of the board displaying the reservation chart. I had an RAC (reservation against cancellation), it’s confirmed now; I need to find the coach number. It’s S9. Yes, this time I am travelling Second Class. It’s just a night’s journey.
... ... The Saraighat Express (Alludes to the battle between the Mughal, and the Ahom army led by legendary Lachit Borphukan near Guwahati). From Howrah to Guwahati. Some more sleep. It was tiring running from platform to platform dragging my bag. Wake up for dinner. This time semblance of a proper menu — rice, daal, and a dish that suspiciously looks like matar-paneer (green peas with cottage cheese). A chat with fellow travellers, a large group of youngsters from Bongaigaon who are returning after attending a wedding in a town near Kolkata.

February 16: The wedding party alights at 6 pm. I have still four more hours to go.
… … Kamakhyagate station. Now, an autorickshaw to home. The auto guy asks for Rs 120 for the approximately 10-km ride. His excuse, you don’t get any passengers in the return.
… … Home.

February 17: Have to catch the bus to Silchar, headquarters of Cachar, a district in Assam, some 12 hours journey by bus from Guwahati. The bus leaves at 6.30 pm. Leave home at 2 pm; I will be late if there’s a traffic jam on the way (Traffic jams are becoming a everyday thing in Guwahati; the numbers of vehicles are rising whereas the size of the roads remain the same.)
… … City bus to Kachari, the DC court area.
… … A cycle rickshaw from Kachari to Paltan Bazaar, as the city bus would take a turn at Guwahati club and go the other way.
… … Wait at the bus agent’s counter, who will take me to the ISBT (Inter-State Bus Terminus, located at the outskirts of the city. It was actually an outskirts a few years back when the plan was proposed, now it’s a sprawling suburb, thanks to, among other things, the growth of the city.)
… … An open-hood jeep to ISBT. A half-an-hour journey through the maddening evening traffic under the drizzling rain. Almost an unreal experience of suffocation and exhilaration.
… … A semi-luxury bus. Window seat, number 10. The full moon in the clear sky. Looking forward to great views. All set for Silchar.
… … The bumps begin, the road gets narrower, curvy, the landscape bathed in moonlight comes closer and closer, you can stretch your hands and touch the hill, the fence of the a little house, pluck a berry from the tree or ruffle the hair of the old man returning home after his quota of drinks — the road is that narrow! This is by the way National Highway No 37, which will soon branch off to NH 40 and NH 53, and things will get worse.
… … This is a national highway. My friends had told me that the journey would be a bumpy ride. That’s an understatement; here there’s no road. While we talk about eight-lane highways (I have seen such roads, the Pune-Mumbai expressway, for example), there’s no road here, just broken pathways, where two vehicles cannot pass at the same time. What’s worse, this is the only road that connects several states, like Meghalaya and Mizoram.

February 18: … … Midnight. Shillong. I can touch the sleeping city from the window of my bus, the tiny houses plastered on the hill (I want to live in a house like that), churches, schools...
… … 3 am. A halt for an hour. Pee break. Traffic jam; probably some small car had tried to overtake a truck and is struck. It may take another hour.
… … 3.30 am. The bus moves at a snail’s pace. You look out of the window and see the truck drivers on the other side. You can count them, the line is endless — you can stare at their faces as they stare at yours. Unreal.
… … 6.30 am. A halt. It’s a narrow valley between two hill. In between is a river. There was a bridge once, probably built by the British, you can see the broken columns on the either side. The middle part has vanished. Next to it is an iron bridge, one of those emergency bridges that army make. Only one vehicle can pass at one time. So you wait till your turn comes, the wait can be endless.
… … 9.30 am. Silchar city. Autorickhaw to Assam University, on a hillock outside the city for Rs 200. The richshaw driver has the same excuse, no passenger in the return. On the way, he picks up passengers for short distances, an old man back from the vegetable market, a woman taking her three daughters to school, a man visiting someone at the medical college, all for small changes, Rs 5 or 10.
… … 4.45 pm. Assam University. The Assam University bus. It’s a facility I wish the university I studied had. The university runs a bus service that shuttles between the university and the centre of the city, on a scheduled time, for the students, whereas others are allowed to avail the facilities. Unlike other public transport facility, the fair is a minimal Rs 4 for everyone, for any distance. (I gave the conductor Rs 5 and he did not return me the change.) I sit in the cabin, next to the driver. He is a chatty old fellow and I become quite pally with him. Perhaps he gets a chance to speak to me in Assamese. Though the place is a part of the state of Assam, the dominant language here is Bengali, since the land was once part of what is now Bangladesh. And, the Bengali spoken here isn’t the same as the Bengali spoken in West Bengal. I understand and speak Bengali, but I could not understand much of what the local residents here spoke. They spoke with a twang and they ate most of their words. Anyways, when the chatty driver learns that I am on my way back to Guwahati, he wonders if I would get a bus. The last bus to Guwahati leaves the city at 6.30 pm. I have some time.
… … 5.50 pm. We reach the city. Our chatty driver stops the bus in the middle of the road to point to me a bus agency on the other side of the road. Then he shouts at one of the men standing there to help me find a bus to Guwahati. I tell him thank you in a huff and jump from the bus and meet the man. The man takes me to a young boy on the bus counter who picks up the phone and calls someone up. Then he tells me that the bus leaves in 20 minutes from another part of the city and there’s no way I can reach there in 20 minutes. What do I do? He and the other man suggest that I go to the office of another service provider at the next junction. Their last bus may still be there. The man hails an auto for me, and fixes a price with the driver, Rs 50. And what if the bus has left from there too? The man then tells the rickshawalla to take me to Rampur, located outside the city where the Silchar ISBT stands.
… … 6.10 pm. Office of the Capital transport, which is eerily empty. The woman on the counter tells me that all buses have left. The last chance is the ISBT, that too if I reach there on time. I ask the rickshaw driver to take me to Rampur. He says it would cost me Rs 200, including the earlier Rs 50.
… … 6.30 pm. Still in the rickshaw. We have left the city, as our vehicle navigates though lots of large trucks. I am not sure where I am going. I think of Plan B, what I would do if I don’t get the bus. I will have to ask my rickshaw driver to take me to a hotel. Another Rs 100 for sure.
… … 6.44 pm. The ISBT. As we enter, we see the lone bus getting ready to leave the bus terminus. The rickshaw driver goes ahead and parks his vehicle right in front of the bus, and I shout, Guwahati, Guwahati.
… … 6.50 pm. I pay the rickshaw driver. There’s is one last seat, near the window. Fare Rs 380. While coming I had paid Rs 350. It’s gonna be a really bumpy ride.

February 19: Shillong. 6.30 am. The sleeping city comes to life.
… … 8.30 am. Two kilometres away from Shilling.
… … 10.00 am. Jorabat. Another hour’s journey to Guwahati. Usually the journey from Shillong to Guwahati takes three hours. Rush hour traffic jam, and endless waiting. I snooze.
… … 11.00 am. Still at Jorabat.
… … 11.45 am. Finally, the ISBT.
… … 11.50 am. A open-hood jeep to Jalukbari.
… … 12.10 pm. A city bus from Jalukbari.
… … 12.40 pm. Home.

February 20: Home.

February 21: My brother drops me at the airport on his bike. It takes 15 minutes from my home to reach the Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi international airport. The flight is at 2.45 pm.
… … 3.45 pm. Agartala, the capital of Tripura, one of the seven North Eastern states.
… … 6.00 pm. The Subhash Chnadra Bose airport in Kolkata.
… … 8.40 pm. The Mumbai airport.
… … 9.10 pm. The highway outside the Mumbai airport. As I reach there, there’s a Maruti Esteem waiting for passengers to Pune. How much? Rs 300. Quote reasonable, considering that the AC bus costs Rs 350. The bus stand is at Dadar, quite a distance from Santacruz. Taxi will take at least Rs 50. So I settle for the car. But it won’t move till it gets three more passengers.
… 9.40 pm. Finally, the required number. And we are off to Pune.
… 1.30 am. Pune. Now, I will have to walk home for at least 15 minutes, braving the menacing street dogs, who become king of the road post-midnight.
1.50 am. My flat in Pune. Home Sweet Home.

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