Open For Light
by Bharat Moro
"Open For Light" was the inscription on the neat light lamp for my side lower berth in a spanking new 05 make 2A coach. I had just switched on the lamp and was about to start reading "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwel when a sharp sounding horn from the WCAM-3 indicated that the 6009 mail from CSTM to Chennai was on its way. The gentle rocking, lack of noise and a hard working a/c meant that I was snoring gently with a half opened book when the TTE shook me awake. I promptly showed my ticket, got it endorsed and got back to sleep ruminating on a tiring day. I was also strangely apprehensive about the coming day - a feeling similar to a young kid waiting in line for an ice-cream!
However, my journey had started in a hot, sticky and fly infested fashion some 6 hrs earlier at Valsad station. South Gujarat, like major parts of India in early June is an extremely uncomfortable place to be in (allright, the non availability of beer is a major irritant for me!). And a small, overcrowded station is even worse. As usual, never to miss a chance to visit the station, dad had agreed to see me off. Along with some uncharacteristically heavy luggage (my mom had packed mountains of various masalas and assorted powders for my brother in SBC), I shoved my way to pf 1. Behind me on the concourse, there was chaos with people trying to buy tickets for the four trains that would be departing Valsad in the next thirty minutes or so. The BL-BDTS passenger was on pf1, strangely empty. I found out in the next minute or so the reason for this. A late running Firozpur-BCT Janta express was waiting to depart from pf2. Since this train has stops that are similar to the passenger, most people just jumped across. Proper ticketing be damned!
I clambered up the FOB to get to pf3 and from top of the bridge noticed the usual line up of WCAM, WAG and WAP-4 locos. The latter ones were in full force with four of them on the farthest line. The freight lines as usual were full with the following
- WAG-5 23030 from TKD with a container rake
- WCAG-1 21973 from KYN with a tanker consist
- MGS WAG-7 27043 with another container rake
- and finally, yet another container rake hauled by WAG-5 23101 from
TKD was just pulling in. This one seemed to have been transferred from Bhilai/Tata as it had the humanoid logo hastily painted over.
It was 1645 and the FZR Janta still hadn't left. I was wondering about that when a loud announcement over the PA system let me know that the ADI bound Karnavati Exp was expected on "platefaarrm 3". Soon, WR's pride pulled in with WCAM-2p 21876 and as Pravinbhai had indicated a few days earlier, the pantry seemed to be missing. The FZR Janta started immediately and stopped suddenly. I noticed a burly man in white pyjamas with a bunch of bananas running towards his coach. Chain pulling by one of his fellow passengers, no doubt! No sooner had this cleared the block, the BDTS bound passenger was also given the clear. This wasn't good news for me. I was about to be blocked by two supercrawlers!
Finally, my train the ST-BDTS I/C pulls in with a distraught looking 21820. The paint has peeled off and one of the buffer beams is bent. A dash to my coach C1 ensues after the train stops further down the platform than expected. The seat allotment in CC coaches always keeps me on the tenterhooks. The window and aisle seats are fine, but the elbow crunching middle seats are a pain and I look around for mine, I spot my dreaded number in between two large men. Drat! There goes any railfanning plans. I heave my luggage on to the rack and sit down, only for the backrest to fall alarmingly backwards. I try the lever to push it back to "normal", but to no avail. I feel like getting up and cursing WR with some choice words, but lack energy.
Sandwiched between two giants and with a broken seat, I look forward to engaging in my soon becoming favourite "time pass" - mobile phone ring tone identification! And the Gujaratis are famous for their offbeat choices. First up was the now ubiquitous "Dhoom mache le" song from the movie Dhoom. This is by far the most abused tune, with several variants thrown in. It has become so common that it wouldn't be scandalous to replace our national anthem with this one! Then came the Airtel song followed by two of the most unusual tones - Top Of The World by The Carpenters and the Indiana Jones Theme song. I am not kidding. I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to! The rest of the journey was uneventful with my repeated attempts to get some reading done interrupted by loud snores from the guy on my left and some obnoxious comments from the guy on the right (he was speaking to someone from his office).
Bandra Terminus arrival was late by 20min which was rather nice for me. I was taking the harbour line from Bandra to CST and didn't want to get into a crowded local(an oddly shaped bag also contributing here!). A gloomily lit local pulled in from ADH and soon I was on my way through the stench and trash. Some hutments are so close to the line that it's easy for someone to become a kleptomaniac! A laboured ride later, I was walking out of CST to dive into "Pancham Puriwallah" - the best puri/sabzi deal in town. After 8 puris and 2 katoris of alu-palak I headed back into the station. 2200 isn't the best time to walk into CST. There's frenetic action at this hour with many arrivals and departures. The Indrayani from Pune was just disgorging its load when the announcement was made that a late running Mandovi was pulling into one of the other platforms. The pa system sounded rather like a choir - a deep booming voice together with some music in the background.
I went over to PF9 to await the arrival of my rake. The empty Indrayani rake was soon pulled out and much to my surprise a CST-MAO Holiday special was shunted in. As if to pacify passengers of the mail, prompt announcements were made that the 6009 would be shunted in in a few more minutes. A sizeable crowd had built up, for both the trains, and I was vary about the trouble this might cause when boarding for the GS coaches started. As if on cue, a massive roar erupted when the 6009 rake was shunted. Despite some lusty lathi wielding from the GRP, people started scrambling for seats. In the GS immediately next to the 2A, four people were trying to squeeze in at one go through the middle door. Each one of them had an oddly shaped bag that made it impossible and soon there were some choice words exchanged in Telegu and Marathi. At the door nearest to the 2A was a woman in her sixties, with a rather badly tied sari trying desperately to get a foothold inside the coach.
While all this commotion was going on, WCAM-3 21945 quietly slipped in to head the train. Similarly, a few minutes later KYN WDM-2 18049 attached itself to the MAO bound holiday special. What caught my attention next was not a loco or an unusual coach, but a young boy of about four. He was standing outside one of the GS's of the 6009 and was wailing loudly. All around him were people going about their business as if they were deaf and the boy was mute. It was as if the boy was in some sort of bubble, the world speeding past him totally regardless of his plight. I couldn't stand the situation. I went, picked him up and entered the GS coach. I found the boy's mother in the second bay and instead of welcoming the boy back, she launched a vicious attack, beating him repeatedly. I protested but was promptly told that it was none of my business.
I got down and walked back to my coach. After depositing the luggage, I drew the curtains and flipped the reading light switch when I noticed the inscription..
I woke up when we came to a shuddering halt. A peep through the window revealed that Pune had been reached. I pushed the curtains apart and made a move to head out of the train when there was a loud noise at the other end of the coach. Someone boarding the coach had dropped something metal and it had the terrifying effect of waking everyone in coach! The woman whose metal box made the clang soon offered cursory apologies but I could notice that more than a few of her fellow passengers were not happy to be woken up.
Outside on the platform, the crowd was piling on into the GS coach and I wondered if anyone hadn't been trampled to death inside. A toot distracted me. It was 21945 that had uncoupled itself from the rake and was moving out. I had to wait for a whole ten more minutes before a diesel loco turned up. And wasn't it a surprise. 17175 in a blue/grey/yellow livery that GTL seems to be trying out. At first glance, it look resplendent in the fluorescent lights of the station. Action over, I headed back to my coach to catch some winks. As I passed the GS coach, my resolve to do what I had been thinking all night got stronger.
Next time I woke up, it was with a severe ringing in my ear. The chaiwallah waiter had decided to show off his tenor like voice by creeping my near my berth and exclaim "Chaaai"! Just to oblige Pavarotti junior, I bought myself a cuppa and headed out to the door. I noticed that were about 30 min from Kurduwadi and the time was 07:30. It was a fine morning, the sun peeping out behind gray clouds and a faint mist hanging just above the ground. The Daund-KWV section is a beautiful section with lovely rolling hills, sugarcane fields and nice, wide curves where the WDM2 makes it presence felt by smoking gently!
It was drizzling at KWV when we pulled in. The Solapur-Pune Hutatma express was one of the other lines waiting to depart. A customary ED WDM-2 18533 was at the head. On on far side, I could notice that a KWV-Latur NG passenger was ready to depart as well. People were everywhere on that train, including the roof! We departed soon after and a sudden thunderstorm immediately after forced me head back inside the coach. This gave me a chance to get a glimpse of my co-passengers. Across the aisle all four seats were occupied while the SUB above me was empty! The oldest of them was a man who looked startlingly similar to the former Tamil Nadu CM/actor MG Ramachandran. His curly mop of hair was supported by a rotund face and he had those big dark "blind man" glasses wrapped around his eyes. I would also notice that throughout the entire journey, he would remove those glasses only very occasionally! His sense of dress also seemed theatrical. He wore a loose, white khadi shirt which was tucked into his sparklingly white "veshti". P Chidambaram would have been proud of the whiteness! This along with his rotund build gave an impression, at least when he was sitting upright, that a big pot had been placed on a berth J
Opposite him, were twin sisters. Quite contrary to beliefs that twins are some of most beautiful people these two were almost - how to put it politely - plain looking. Both of them had a permanent frown on their faces and never during the entire journey did they exchange even a cursory smile. They seemed to live a grumpy world. Every now and then one would get up and observe herself in the mirror. Towards the evening, one of them even put on lipstick!! To top it all off, both of them in the afternoon opened a Mills and Boon book and started reading!
The fourth person was the most "normal" of them all. He looked like a overworked medical representative who had been stripped of all his luxuries. He was the only person who attempted to strike a conversation with me and in due course let me know that he was indeed a medical rep for an ayurvedic medicine company and was on his way to Guntakal for a meeting. I prodded him a couple of times about his company but he preferred to let it remain a mystery.
Around the same time, I finished drawing these people in my head, the breakfast landed on my berth. As usual, the omlette was oily and flat with too many green chillies for my liking. After eating the best omlette in IR recently on the Deccan Queen, this was a positive letdown. I wanted to protest, but decided that lunch might give me a better opportunity. With nothing better to do, I opened my half read book from the night before and started to read. I kept to my book until we entered Solapur. Sounds of garam vada, idli, puri and chai greeted me as soon as I got of coach. I had made up my mind on what I needed to do next. I quickly located the TTE and told him that I was a journalist writing some articles on travel in IR and that I needed to get into the GS in order to do that. I requested him not give away my berth to anyone else! He shot me a incredulous look which soon turned crestfallen. He seemed sad that a person who forsake luxurious air-conditioning to dusty, sweaty and hot GS. But I was determined to take a first hand look at what it meant to travel in such a manner in the middle of summer. The sight of the little boy crying in CST kept flooding my thoughts.
The question now was how to get into the GS coach. The crowd had thinned somewhat, but there was simply no room inside and people were queuing up to enter the coach. I somehow managed to scramble myself in to the line. It was funny to be led into the coach this way. A burly GRP constable directing the line with constant lathi twirling. I felt more like a person led into a prison than one boarding a railway coach. But in hindsight, the prison analogy seems apt. I was going to get locked up in a tiny space and I was quite scared as how I might cope.
Luckily for me, a typical looking local saw the distress on my face and offered some space beside him. It was icing on the cake for me - the seat was near the door and if no more crowd got in, I could atleast stand. Around me and above me were people. A family of eight and their belongings occupied the berth above me - bundles of clothes and a huge trunk which I think contained their cooking utensils. On the opposite berth above, were stacks of cartons. No idea who put them there and no one claimed it, atleast until I got off the coach. Surprisingly, no one protested that the cartons occupied valuable sitting space!
Some enterprising boys had managed to clear some space on the tiny luggage rake running the length of the coach and were blissfully asleep. Either they were drugged or simply used to it, but sleep in such humid, sticky and smelly conditions was the farthest thing on my mind. I was getting impatient that we hadn't departed yet when the reason presented itself. A late running Bijapur-Hyderbad passenger pulled in with MLY WDM2 16474. No sooner did the passenger stop, we were off. The Siddeshwar rake was stabled in the maintenance lines just outside the station. In addition, there were coaches marked "Bangalore-Solapur" which I presumed to be from the Udyan. We picked up speed soon after this and I started to pay more attention to passengers and their belongings.
There were big jute and straw baskets, a army type metal box and assorted bundles wrapped in big white sheets. I even spotted a stove and few woks on one passenger sitting across the aisle on the single seats. As I was glancing around, a sudden conscious feeling that I was being watched came over me. This was true. The other passengers were doing the same thing I was doing. After all, I am sure they wouldn't have encountered a smelly guy wearing a t-shirt that said "Snakes are us" every day. And I have hairy legs too!!
We were at Hotgi now and "kaka" made the first move. He asked me who I was and what I was doing in a coach like this. I strained for a second and wanted to tell the real reason, but realized that it would condesceding and immature. Instead, I told him that I had to get Gulbarga for some immediate work and this was the most convinient train. It was my turn to quiz him. He was reluctant first, but opened up slowly. He was on his way to a village near Akkalkot where he was a headmaster. Talk soon diverted to how difficult it was to make ends for him - he had a wife and two daughters to support. He lamented that he hadn't received his measly salary of Rs.2200 for the last three months. That statement hit me. To put some perspective, my ticket from Valsad to Chennai cost Rs. 1600. Both of us became quiet after that exchange, as if all energy had been sapped some overpowering force.
The uneasy silence was broken by sudden braking. There was chaos in the coach as Akkalkot Rd soon came into view where we were diverted onto the extreme right platform. With 15 sec almost half the coach emptied itself with process bringout out the worst in people! There were jute basket fights, choice absuses and even a slipper throwing incident. The reason for this sudden emptying was made known to me a few minutes later. Apparently, a godman was going to make an appearance in one of the nearby villages and he had called upon everyone to visit him!
The near emptying of the coach gave me an opportunity to head back to my seat in 2A, grab the camera and take a few shots of the Udyan entering. I was mighty tempted to stay back in the cosy confines of the a/c but decided against it. When I returned to the GS, I found my seat not surprisingly occupied. I politely told the gentleman who was sitting there that it was mine. Much to my delight, he moved slightly and allowed me sit. Talk about magnanimity! This is what separates folks from small towns from the city cousins and here was a shining example. We were on our way now. The WDM2 ahead puffing and straining to get upto speed on a slighty graded section. The horn though was a disaster - it was sounding as if someone had stuffed paper down the trumpets. Muted donkey bray was what it was!
With the train never reaching speeds beyond 60 and the sun already high and hot, the only distraction was more conversation. Opposite me were a family of 5. They were dressed in a typically rural India style - bright, shiny and tight polyester clothes. The head of the family had a huge flowing beard and was reciting verses from the Quran almost from the minute we started from Akkalkot. His wife was busy admonishing the kids who were trampling the luggage and her burqa. As soon as he finished his readings, I asked the man where he was travelling. He said he was going to Wadi. I asked why? He replied in a slightly sarcastic tone that it was the place where he lived. He also let me know that he used for work for the Rajshri cement factory in Seram. Used to, I asked? Yes, he was a part of a contract labour force that the company no longer needed. I don't know what overcomes me when I encounter such situations, but I bottle up and don't carry the conversation forward.
Silence was broken only at Gangapur Rd, where the wife insisted that I share some food with them. I initially declined, but she persisted and I gave in. I was glad that I did. It was the best mutton paya and roti I have ever tasted. All washed down with some delicious kokum juice! The great food numbed us all for a while. I kept starting outside the window, hoping to catch some crossings while the family slept. Soon Gulbarga was reached where the coach once again emptied itself. I decided that my little adventure had reached its conclusion and after waving goodbye to the family, made my way back to the coach. I slumped immediately on my berth, exhausted. GS travel, especially for city boys in the summer is hard, very hard. Physically and mentally.
I slept for the next 45 minutes or so to Wadi where an absolutely tortous, blazing sun greeted me on the platform. We were about 15 minutes early, which allowed me to take a tour of the station. A large bcna rake headed by WDG4 12004 was making its way from the Chittapur side. A Pune WDG3a was cooling its heals under some shade inside a what looked like a temporary shed. There were lots of boxn wagons scattered throughout the yard lines. They looked lost! The VLR stall was busy hawking lunch which some unsuspecting people bought. Wadi, as Sridhar Joshi rightly pointed out has probably the worst base kitchen on IR. The only edible thing that can be consumed are the hot vadas early in the morning. Back inside the coach, lunch was being served. I had ordered veg-curry and chapatis. The curry turned out to be the most pathetic stuff I have ever tasted. Semi raw okra in a extremely spicy gravy. I had to throw the entire package out after one bite.
Hungry, tired and extremely sleepy, I hit the sack as soon as we left Wadi. I heard a loud EMD horn just outside the stn, but the last thing on mind was loco spotting. I must have snored for quite a while because when I woke up we were pulling into Adoni. The only excitement offered at this hot, dusty and two-bit station was the departure towards Wadi of mu'ed GOC WDM2's 16858 and 16884 hauling a long BCNA rake. Immediately following the freighter was a light KJM WDM3a 17994. The typical 'R' was missing. I think KJM's the only shed that leaves this out when it repaints locos.
We took off very fast from Adoni and sustained the run till Nagarur where we were made to stop for a good 20min. I knew we were running way ahead of schedule (GTL arr 1830). Nagarur to Guntakal is hardly 10km and it was 1725 when we left. A gingerly ride later, I could spot the line from Bellary curving towards GTL. An enormous BOXN freight with twin WDG-4 was waiting for us to enter the station first. Time was 1750 and GTL pf 5 greeted us. We were 40min early which meant that the halt would be a staggering 80min! I took full advantage of this.
- First, I climbed FOB that links the MG and BG lines. From a nice vantage point saw a few MG rakes shunted by a hard working YDM4 6298.
- The same blue liveried loco later took charge of the Dharmavaram passenger
- I walked down the FOB to the entrance of the MG loco shed. Outside were parked blue GTL YDM4's 6161 and 6169. Also standing were YDM4's from Maula Ali - 6469 and 6358. Wonder how these got here
- Lots of light WDM2's moving about - 17308, 18983, 17611, 18914 and 17585. All these were from GTL
- At around 1830, another huge coal laden BOXN rake with twin DG4's 12031 and 12009 passed towards Wadi without stopping. A little while later another DG4 12049 came charging in. Only to halt and get a crew change. The loco was with a fairly long rake of flats with steel coils as cargo.
- After spotting this, I headed over to the excellent veg. refreshment stall. Two delicious vadas and uthappams later, it was time to get back to railfanning.
- The Vasco-Vijaywada Amravati exp came in lead by WDP4 20001. A dead GY WDM3a 14035 was behind it. A few minutes later the DP4 was detached and the DM3a was fired up to lead the train further. Wonder what was wrong with the DP4!
We got going soon after. The Amravati also left with us and it was quite a sight to see it climb the ramp and veer sharply left towards Guntur. I got back to my berth and started taking stock of the day so far. Most of my thoughts centered around people traveling in the GS. What also hit me was that the family and "kaka" despite lack of income traveled with valid tickets. There was no ticketless travel that much of North India practices. Also, the people's magnanimity. There was no need for "kaka" to offer me a seat and there was equally no reason for the family to share their food. But they did. How many city based co-passengers have done that? I also realized that unlike other classes, there is much more camaraderie in the GS coaches. People talk freely, air their views openly and there is none of that snooty arrogance found elsewhere.
It was getting dark outside and I didn't even make an attempt to get out at Gooty. Diesels seem to pale compared to people's struggles! For the first time in two nights, I slept well and it wasn't until AJJ that I got up. The humid air outside promptly pushed me back inside, but before that I drank a nice cup of fresh, filter, southern coffee. 0415 and we left AJJ maintaining a steady clip till Tiruvallur where we pulled in for a scheduled halt. The running became a stop-start-stop affair after that and by the time we got BBQ outer the sun was peeping out. After waiting for what seemed to be an eternity, we finally entered pf2 at MAS. I doubled up quick to catch the driver but he had disappeared by then. The loco was a freshly painted AJJ WAM4 20663.
After making my way through a crowded and smelly stn, I caught a local to Vandalur. On the way, saw my favourite green loco GOC 18555R hauling the Kanyakumari Exp towards MAS. After an hour's ride, I stepped inside Granny's house. She promptly asked how the journey had been. Summing up my philosophical best, I replied "There's so much distance to be traveled between the places I have already been".