On the Train of the Fish Eyed Goddess
by Mohan Bhuyan
Photos from this trip can be seen here: Trip on Meenakshi Express
Also see Bharat Vohra's report here: To Purna on the Meenakshi
Yup, I've pinched the title from William Dalrymple but it remains a mystery why the metre gauge 9769 Jaipur - Purna Express is called the Meenakshi Express. Even in its heyday, this train never even got close to Madurai's famous Meenakshi Temple, terminating well short at Secunderabad. Bharat Vohra is of the opinion that "Meenakshi" is the unofficial name because it doesn't show up in timetables or on IRCTC. On the other hand I have heard it being announced as the Meenakshi Express several months ago at Chittaurgarh, so we have a little bet of sorts.
Like everywhere else where the broad gauge has made a recent entry, the MG section of Jaipur is an outcast. But a surprisingly neat and tidy one. As we watch 9769 being shunted in tail first, the title board on the SLR has the words Meenakshi Express, along with the termini and the up and down numbers and I grin triumphantly. It seems the 9769/70 is called the Meenakshi by those who are involved with running her or travelling on her, while for the babus in HQ she is just another number.
I have been wanting to do this journey in First Class, even though it is already quite hot in Rajasthan and will be equally so in the Deccan. After a few recent journeys on 2 AC, I have begun to dislike that class. But the Meenakshi has lost her FC a while back and there is no option but to go for 2AC. But I am in for a pleasant surprise - 2AC compartments on MG have doors that can be locked from inside! By carefully selecting berths we have tricked IRCTC's reservation computer into allotting us the end compartment, one with 3 berths instead of the usual four. We hope to have the compartment to ourselves for the greater part of the journey but minutes before departure a tall man in an ill fitting suit and mismatched tie joins us. When the porter refuses to accept the proffered Rs. 10, I know he is "staff", probably fairly senior.
In the mean time a gaggle of uniformed flunkeys are fussing around in the corridor and near the doors and we are told that an RPF big shot is on board, plus one or two other relatively senior railwaymen. All leaving Jaipur for the weekend no doubt. Another "staff" joins us and without saying anything, stretches out on the lone top berth. Our compartment meant for 3 people is now accommodating 4.
We are off and Bharat points out the railway sights of Jaipur on the outgoing leg just as he had on the inbound leg by the Shatabdi from New Delhi. The BG Delhi- Ahmedabad line is going to keep us company all the way to Ajmer and provides an oncoming train every now and then - goods as well as air braked passengers. We take out our mobiles to calculate the speed - nothing spectacular, even for MG.
Our co-passenger stirs and addresses us. He is a recently retired Mechanical Officer and we discover that he once served with Bharat's father in NFR and has fond memories of him. So out comes his visiting card in a flash. On one side the words FREEDOM UNLIMITED are printed longitudinally in a bold red font next to his name. On the reverse UNLIMITED is explained as Personal Development, x-tra income (sic), more free time, financial freedom, own business, helping others, early retirement, leving a legacy (sic) and meeting new people.
We are intrigued and seeing the quizzical expression on my face he announces dramatically, "I sell freedom!" So Bharat and I peel our eyes away from our respective windows and give him our undivided attention. "Bravo IR", I am thinking, "always providing interesting characters as travelling companions!"
But he is not a suited-booted new age Guru nor a part-time motivational speaker, merely a network marketer, and an ardent one at that. I have nothing against network marketers except that they have a messianic zeal to recruit others and the unshakable conviction that they are in just the right business and the rest of us simply don't know what's good for us. So we feign polite interest, all the while darting yearning glances at the scenes outside and praying silently for Phulera Jn to deliver us from network marketing. When he excuses himself for a couple of minutes, we quickly pour ourselves an aperitif to deaden the pain.
After an uneventful, sometimes speedy run, we come to a halt outside Phulera so that a WDG 3 with a goods rake can make first use of the Diamond Crossing. The WDG3 emits a plume of smoke as it takes on the slight gradient to Jaipur and we click away furiously in full view of the RPF who have been at the door all the while. I show them the results on my borrowed digital and they are suitably impressed!
The line from Ringus emerges from behind a grass-covered dune topped with cacti and joins us at a sharp angle as we slowly enter the Phulera yard. Metre Gauge lovers can take heart that Phulera remains predominantly a MG junction. There are 18 MG lines (half of them occupied) compared to about 7 BG lines but that hasn't prevented the latter from usurping all the prime platforms. Bharat and I head for the FOB and proceed to shoot up the yard...the many hued goods & POL rakes on both gauges make for some striking compositions.
The halt at Phulera is a scheduled 20 minutes to allow the crossing with our opposite number 9770, which is a bit late. We leave as soon as it enters and we decide to attack our substantial lunch... tandoori chicken, seekh kebab, keema, aloo and parathas. Our companion is not a vegetarian and after some prompting joins us "reluctantly" in the feast. Apart from his overzealous recruiting spiel, our man is not such a bad sort really. He does give us little nuggets from time to time on matters railway as well as things beyond. Like that strange looking tree that reminds me of the Little Prince's Boabab - all branches, no twigs and leaves growing directly out of the branches, is known as the Khejari. "Only camels can reach the leaves", he adds informatively.
We stop at Naraina, which is not a timetabled halt. Our multi faceted companion (he is also a Major in the Territorial Army) has removed his coat by now and tells us that this is to accommodate a Jain sect, the followers of a guru called Dadu Deen Dayal. I am a bit uncomfortable with religion-linked halts and stations, particularly for obscure or small sects. But then the only pilgrimages I undertake are of the kind that make other people think I am weird - nobody amongst friends and family has ever heard about Purna!
We discover that the end compartment is not without its disadvantages. It's all angled bulkheads and badly camouflaged piping, so that the blast from the AC ricochets in unlikely directions. Bharat shivers and realises that he is sitting in a draught, though the vent is nowhere near him. I decide not to offer to exchange seats, reasoning that he doesn't like travelling backwards!
We stop again at Tiloniya to accommodate the Kishangarh - Rewari Passenger or perhaps it is a goods train. Anyway, if Tiloniya rings a bell then it's all thanks to the manor born grassroots worker "Bunker" Roy, who's been running a successful NGO in the area for many years now. Years ago in carefree University days, a friend from Miranda House spent part of her holidays with Bunker's NGO. At that time I used to think she was over enthusiastic about saving the world because she read English and was unaware of the reality that we Economics undergraduates were so knowledgeable about. Maybe she is better off for the experience, and I wonder where she is now.
Meanwhile we seem to be running through the entire range of signals in IR's inventory. First LQ Semaphores after Jaipur, then at Phulera the businesslike MACL's. Not long afterwards a few stations with my favourite UQ's, but alas only briefly. Guess with the metre gauge, they throw whatever is available in its way!
Like every other train we stop briefly at Kishangarh and like every MG train, for no obvious reason at Madar. The unique horseshoe through Ajmer brings us back to the door for "train on a curve" shots. I uselessly burn up the batteries on my digital, the consequences of which I am to face the next day.
At Ajmer, the chap who has slept on the top berth all the way through, thankfully departs. The station is quiet, enjoying the lull of just one train in harness. But we are in store for a few surprises. A lone YDM 4 is shunting a mixed rake on one of the loops and as it comes nearer the name of its homing shed sends us into a tizzy. It's Mhow, hitherto thought to be a mere trip shed. "When did Mhow become a full fledged shed?" we wonder, but the answer eludes us for now. Then we see that the destination boards on our 2AC read Jaipur-Purna instead of Jaipur - Mhow like the rest of the SL and GS coaches behind us. Does the 2AC run all the way?
IRCTC only allowed us to book it till Mhow, stating that it is that least understood of all IR terminology - a sectional coach. A quick word with the incoming conductor confirms that from 8 days ago, the 2AC has become "through". We'll need to do something about this tomorrow, though we aren't planning to stay on board this coach beyond Mhow.
As we leave Ajmer and head out towards the famed workshops, we receive our third jolt - freshly POH'ed MG goods wagons, looking mint fresh in a stunning coat of red paint. I thought nobody bothered about MG wagons anymore! Bharat, who has been pondering the Mhow based loco has a eureka moment. "Of course!" he shouts, "Sabarmati Shed is now cut off at Udaipur, so Mhow is the new shed for WR's isolated MG sections!" Most of the Sabarmati locos will have been transferred, he adds.
Now we are free of the broad gauge until Chittaurgarh and we proceed uneventfully to Nasirabad, the home of IRFCian Vicky. Meanwhile, our network marketer has thankfully found another victim, who joins us in our compartment. He is a former underling, currently at the Ajmer Workshop (Loco) and recounts a wonderful story of how as a quaking probationer he first encountered Bharat's father at New Jalpaiguri. The two railwaymen exchange more reminisces of old NFR days and current railway gossip, while Bharat and I eavesdrop.
A tank with its gun pointed towards us gives me a start and I learn belatedly that Nasirabad is important because of its substantial cantonment. In fact Ajmer-Nasirabad is a fairly busy suburban section of sorts with several trains a day.
The landscape outside is typical non-desert Rajasthan. Here and there a few isolated stragglers of the Aravallis make an appearance and though the land is cultivated, the fields are stony. The Khejari is prominent and so of course are the hardy Babul and Kikar that flourish in dry regions.
Since we are in the presence of a serving officer who appears to be quite knowledgeable, we interrupt the marketing spiel from time to time to ask a thousand questions. The network marketer is probably a touch annoyed but doesn't show it. So we are told that Mhow has received 40 YDM4's, though in most the shed name hasn't yet been changed. That MG freights run from the 4 cement plants at Kher, Chabutra, Chittaurgarh and Neembahera all the way to Neem ka Thana in Haryana and Shakur Basti in Delhi. That the occasional grain train also plies the route from Khandwa, although commercially speaking only the section between Chittaurgarh and Mandsaur is revenue rich. That the Jaipur -Udaipur Lake City Express has been withdrawn from service and the Chetak and the Ahmedabad Expresses now terminate at Chittaurgarh. That Ajmer-Ratlam will be BG by 2007 while Ratlam-Purna will remain as is (thank the Lord!).
Since NFR is his parent railway, we get hitherto unknown tidbits that usually never enter the public domain. Like since Guwahati - Lumding was the first gauge conversion project nobody had much idea of how to go about it. The line was closed for as much as a year and when it opened derailments were frequent. Like 50 locos had to be dispatched to soon-to-be-cut-off Lumding almost overnight, and nothing was ready - the DME didn't have a proper office for nearly two years. Like Lumding-Tinsukia gauge conversion was a breeze, since everyone knew how to go about it. The line was closed for just 50 days and there were no post-conversion derailments. Like NFR is actually the best zone to work for a genuine railwayman!
The network marketer wants to meet the workshop man's in-laws at Chittaurgarh; they will be ideal agents in his pyramid. The workshop man has been extraordinarily deferential throughout, saying "sir" instead of "yes" and trying hard not to disagree with anything the other says. Now he realises he is trapped and wriggles like a fish on a hook. Unsuccessfully.
Thus the afternoon wears on and we stop on both sides of the Khari River at the twin towns of Bijaynagar and Gulabpura. We are now in the heart of Rajasthan's synthetic textiles belt - Gulabpura is the home of Mayur Suitings, endorsed by both Sharukh Khan and Virender Sehwag in one silly commercial after another.
After Gulabpura, cultivation ends rather dramatically and we pass through an immense wasteland. Easterners are unused to this sort of thing and I am suitably stunned. In the midst of this nothingness the former Ahmedabad-Delhi Express crosses us. Near Bhilwara, home of another textile biggie BSL, the scenery thankfully reverts to normal and I can breathe again.
Bhilwara looks to be a prosperous town, with some nice looking semi-modern Marwari Havelis. Some of them have imposing wooden doors studded with brass fittings. Very martial for a non-martial people.
It is already dusk when we pull out of Bhilwara and within AC night descends even faster. We are all anxious for Chittaurgarh where the Networker and the Workshop Man are to disembark. But the train is more than half an hour late. Workshop Man is resigned to having his weekend ruined but graciously invites us to visit his workshop if we ever find ourselves in Ajmer. Chittaurgarh Cements Limited is at Chanderi and everyone stirs when the bright lights appear. Bharat and I head for the door to see how the BG line from Kota joins us, and how the line to Udaipur leaves us.
The Kota line appears out of the darkness from one side and on the other, the newly converted line from Udaipur joins us presently, looking like it is completely ready for operations to begin. Then we are across the Berach River and into Chittaurgarh proper, in the shadow of its famed fortress celebrated for the valour of its women as much as its men. In not one but three separate sieges in the middle ages, the women & children committed mass suicide or "Jauhar", while the men rode out to certain death in the hands of a vastly superior besieger. The floodlit 15th Century Vijay Stambha or Victory Column is clearly visible from the station.
A policeman is sitting in the announcement booth making announcements about the unpleasant consequences for smokers as well as other routine calls. I wonder why he's got the job and notice that the regular announcer is a visually challenged man who is taking a break. The policeman seems to be looking directly at me while making his announcements and I decide not to tempt fate and to wait for the train to depart before lighting up. After Chittaurgarh we are alone - at last! A bit late into the cocktail hour, but never mind - we have all night! It's quite dark outside, not just because of the film, and we can hardly make out the parallel BG line. Just the kind of night for spooky specters, and we are going to have as many as three separate encounters tonight...
Our first is at Neemuch, where the crew from Ajmer hands over charge to the crew from still faraway Mhow. Bharat, who has the history of steam in India on his fingertips, is at the door away from the platform looking for remains of the old steam shed. He yells for me to join him, points towards the rear of the train and says excitedly, "I think that is the steam shed!" I realise that he is completely oblivious of the three apparitions directly in front of us, 20 m away and behind a low wall - 3 YG's standing end-to-end, forsaken and forgotten. The Ghosts of Diwali Past.
We rouse ourselves from the resulting shock and get as close as possible looking for numbers and shed names. Then I remember that Bharat has a fancy camera and urge him to record the scene, and to hell with the dim light! The people in the 2nd class carriages after ours look at us curiously, but to hell with 'em too! While Bharat performs a few stunts to properly capture the old girls, I reach for a cigarette to calm the jangled nerves. I light up with a flourish not noticing the 3 RPF jawans shrewdly patrolling the wrong side of the train. As I exhale contentedly, their Sergeant walks by me at first, then pauses in mid step having thought better of it. "Why are you smoking? Don't you know it is against the law?" Not renowned for the ability to think on my feet I fail to feign ignorance and come up with something totally daft, "Because I've got down from the train."
"You are not allowed to smoke anywhere on railway property, you can be fined two hundred rupees!" he thunders. I agree and put out the offending cig, without throwing it away, thankful that the Vodka we'd been drowning since Chittore isn't as fumy as whiskey. Of course I re-light it just before we leave and after ensuring that the coast is well clear but the thought of giving up the habit does occur. Maybe this year!
Specter No. 2 is a cement plant near Neembahera, just before the Madhya Pradesh border. A dead one right next to a fully operational one. Not a single light is on in the compound, not even a chowkidar on duty. Just towers and machinery looming out of the darkness, - surreal to say the least. The Ghost of Diwali Present.
Spook No. 3 is standing right next to our train at Mandsaur. It is the fully air-conditioned luxury rake of the Royal Orient banished forever from Saurashtra like Sita from Ayodhya, for no fault of her own. The curtains are drawn tight in most of the windows but we get a glimpse of the insides through others. On a few coaches stone flinging vandals have shattered the windows, but she still looks better than the Meenakshi. I wonder why they have abandoned her in Mandsaur of all places. Shape of things to come for IR? The Ghost of Diwalis Future? God forbid!
Ratlam is tempting enough a junction to stay awake for but we are asleep long before. Way past the witching hour, there is a thumping on our door. It's a GRP Inspector packing a sidearm and a walky-talky who wants to sleep on duty! He clambers onto the top berth and remains there till Mhow.
We've set our alarms because we're going to be busy at Mhow, even though it's going to be still quite dark when we reach. The alarms also wake up the Inspector. We are at Haranya Kheri, the last station before Mhow. From here onwards we are going to be in the loco, we inform the coach attendant, so kindly look after our bags!
At Mhow the Meenakshi loses a few coaches, but not our 2AC as we had been led to believe by IRCTC. Bharat goes off to buy 2nd class tickets while our loco goes off to refuel. Another YDM 4 removes the last few coaches and reattaches the GS & SLR. Bharat returns to say that the clerk did not have tickets for Purna so he gave us two only till Akola! Sipping hot chai, we move towards the front. Mindful of yesterday's encounter I slip across the tracks to the less populated side of the station for the first smoke of the day.
I have come before for two short holidays in this nice cantonment town on the edge of the Malwa Plateau with its undulating landscapes, superb bazaar and period buildings. The ghat section immediately afterwards only adds to its attractiveness, though the last time I was here I foolishly took a ride in the opposite direction. The station looks bigger than last time and has certainly increased in importance with its new shed. It's still quite dark without even a telltale glow in the east and I worry that we'll cross the ghats in pitch darkness and miss everything.
Our loco is reattached and when the starter droops downwards, we board. A spectacular steep descent through the Vindhyas awaits us not far ahead. As we wend our way past the coaching lines and the diesel shed I can barely discern anything. The Assistant calls a signal that I simply cannot see. Even if it gets brighter, there will be no scope for photography.
In retrospect Patalpani - Water of Hell is misnamed. Because what we encounter immediately afterwards is nothing short of heavenly and we are told that in the monsoon even heaven finds it difficult to compete. Of course the station doesn't give the game away and miraculously there is just enough light to make out the none too impressive surroundings. But up ahead we can just about discern some broken ground and a hint of hills. Shortly after Patalpani we come to a semaphore guarded catch siding. Brake testing halt and a pointsman is waiting with a register that has to be signed. There is a temple here and the Driver asks the Assistant to take out some incense sticks from his box and hand them over to the signalman. Ever the obliging smoker, my matchbox is out in a flash and I light the incense. Having propitiated the God of Safe Descents and checked the vacuum, we emit a single blast of the horn and enter one of the least celebrated ghat sections in India.
We seem to be descending along one side of a valley, with a river at the bottom fed by several waterfalls running down from the escarpments on both sides. Late into the dry season the waterfalls are sans water but the river below (probably the Choral) seems to have enough for winter crops to flourish in any flat piece of land available adjacent to its course. The sides of the hills are steep so there aren't too many trees clinging to them. Those that are, are small and bereft of leaves.
The steepest grade is 1:41 necessitating banking in the opposite direction, though I am a bit surprised that another loco wasn't attached for extra braking power for this formidable slope. There are a couple of tunnels (one longish), one or two high girder bridges and a few narrow cuttings with high cliffs on both sides. I'm happy to see all this because it means the BG invasion will be kept at bay, perhaps forever.
Kalakund is famous for its eponymous mithai and for railfans as the starting point of the banking section. But the crew says that the Kalakund isn't as good as it once was. Sure enough when we stop, a couple of hawkers come alongside and hopefully proffer their wares. The sweets look desiccated and insipid, besides the thought of eating them that early in the morning brings forth a wave of nausea. We shake our heads and the hawkers go away disappointed. A lone YDM 4 stands powered down on one of the loops waiting for a train to bank. A string of flatcars lie derelict on the last loop. Looking back, the hills we have descended look rather high, though in reality they are not.
From what I've read on IRFCA, I assume that the ghat section ends at Kalakund. But the Vindhyas don't surrender so easily here and continue for much longer, though the permanent way doesn't have to resort to the same stiff grades or tunnels we have encountered thus far. Just some very tight curves and the odd cutting. Railfans tend to equate ghat sections with banking sections, but to our delight, this is not the case here! Unfortunately, my borrowed digital has given up though I had recharged the batteries in Delhi. Luckily I have 20 shots left on my aim & shoot, but no zoom.
We wind our way through the last remnants of the Vindhyas, now covered with thick deciduous forests. 99 % of the trees don't have leaves and their trunks and branches look chalky white in the strengthening light. The Mhow-Omkareshwar road keeps us company and we cross it a few times. This road is ideal for chasing trains and provides several good spots for photography. We cross the Choral river and stop at a station with the same name for the 474 Khandwa Chittaurgarh Fast Passenger. The sun finally breaks free form the hills and slips into the eastern sky as we wait.
After Choral, the low hills with their forest of bare branches close in tightly. Looking back on curves the last few maroon coaches seem to disappear into the now golden hued trees, as if the forest is devouring them. I point my aim & shoot and hope for the best.
The Meenakshi is a bit of a passenger between Mhow and Khandwa, stopping at half of the 12 stations en route, four of these in a row. Barwaha is the first of these, being the railhead for the temple town of Maheshwar on the Narmada, about 40 km away to the west. The Khandwa-Ujjain FP/Exp. is waiting for us here so the halt is the regulation two minutes, which suits us fine because we are anxious for the Narmada crossing.
Just after Barwaha we leave the last of the Vindhyas, and through the trees I get a glimpse of water and the broad Plain of Nimar. The Narmada is especially beautiful in the early morning sun, and we shoot the scene furiously. Next to us but at a much lower height is the charming old stone-arch road bridge, still in use. Its replacement is a tall RCC monster about a km upstream, all straight lines and spindly legs. The big new dam is further upstream, out of sight, but I am glad to see that the river continues to be well watered.
Immediately after the river we come to the pilgrim station of Omkareshwar Road, which I am delighted to see has a Retiring Room - ideal for future visits. Omkareshwar is an island shaped liked the Hindu Om about 12 km upstream at the confluence with the Kaveri River. It is the abode of one of the 12 Jyotirlingas scattered around the country, hence much revered. A fact confirmed by the crowded station, with many people getting off our train.
There are two more stops one after the other Sanawad and Nimarkheri and now that we have left the hills behind I concentrate on the railroad, crouching in the small space behind the Driver. We are going much faster now, at times reaching 75 kph or thereabouts. On one occasion when the speedometer needle creeps up to an undesired level the Driver reaches for the A9, thinks better of it and uses the Dynamic Brake instead, much to my delight. At one or two of the more important stations like Nimarkheri there is a gantry for the two home signals, while for the others, one has to stare hard at the facing point to see if we're going to be turned into the loop. I would make a lousy Assistant, I decide.
At Ajanti, the last station before Khandwa, we come to a halt. I can never understand the cackle over the radio, but we are told that a goods train is coming. Bharat and I are delighted, we weren't expecting to see any south of Ratlam. The wait is a long one and it's getting quite hot. We dismount to survey the surroundings and look for good places to shoot. I notice that the rails on the middle line were made in 1896 and get unduly excited because I think that's the main line. Bharat calms me down by pointing out that our train is on the main line and not on the rightward loop. The mainline is thick at the base - obviously a former broad gauge rail re-laid here.
An hour later the goods train has still not showed up. Our Driver returns from the ASM's office and says that actually the Goods train has derailed just south of Khandwa and we've been told to wait at Khandwa!
At Khandwa, a tatty town with a tatty station 2/3 of which is electrified BG, we come upon 581 Ajmer-Purna Fast Passenger that should have left here by 6 am. That means the goods train derailed in the wee hours, and we were told to expect a crossing with it at Ajanti! Section Controllers love playing Chinese Whispers!
There are two goods rakes also parked at Khandwa, and only one loop is free now. The Sulabh Shauchalaya has an interesting painting on the wall. A girl in an orange & red salwaar kameez sitting forlornly by a railway track, head hidden in despair. On the track a very English steam hauled express is approaching, the countryside is very Home Counties. And at the bottom is the caption - "Tum Kab Aaoge" (When will you come).
The halt at Khandwa drags on. I put forth our options to Bharat because we have to make it to Manmad the next morning. "If the train leaves by noon, we can make it to Purna in time for our connection, if it leaves at one o' clock we should get down at Akola, any time after 2 p.m., we go no farther." Bharat says he has a good gut feel about this one and wants to stay on the train even if it leaves after two. I concur. We also decide that it's too hot to footplate and inform the incoming conductor that we'd like to reclaim our berths in 2AC. He concurs too.
After almost two hours the ART comes in signaling our imminent departure from forgettable Khandwa (not at all surprising that the Kumar brothers fled to Bollywood when they could). We are now close to 3 hours late but we "overtake" the hapless 581 Passenger, presumably her passengers have changed trains. The MG line having entered Khandwa from the East now turns northwards in order to loop back over the BG mainline. This is done at a super crawl because of the accident side near the goods siding, where there is some evidence of MG loading (foodgrains).
After we have crossed the BG lines and picked up a little speed the conductor comes in to endorse our tickets. He calculates the fare, tells us what it is and asks for our old tickets. Bharat gives him our GS tickets from Mhow to Akola and he shakes his head. "These, won't do. I thought you were holding Sleeper Class Tickets. As per new rules, I cannot convert GS tickets to AC!" We tell him that we've come all the way from Jaipur in the very same compartment but he is adamant. "Things have changed after those two people got shot on the Rajdhani in Bihar. At best I can give you Sleeper Class Tickets and you will have to travel in that class from the next station Tukaithad!" We suggest several emergency measures from the plausible ("What if we get a Guard's Certificate?") to the simply insane ("What if we rush to the booking office at the next crossing station and buy new sleeper class tickets?"). He remains unmoved and I wonder why such ardent fans of IR can be so luckless.
And then the magic words of defeat, "Alright, we'll do as you say and change coaches at the next station". He leaves us to ponder our next move. I pack my bag, Bharat wants to stay and argue.
I head for the door because we have entered the Satpuras. Not the high crags of the western and eastern parts of the range but the low hills of the Burhanpur Gap that prevent the Tapti from flowing into the Narmada. The same dry, deciduous forest that had covered the Vindhyas greets us again, though the Palas tree that blooms just in time for Holi is ubiquitous. The hills become higher the farther south we go, and soon we are in a genuine ghat section with gradients approaching 1:100.
I realise that the Conductor has left his clipboard in our compartment, and seeing him at the other door I sign language him. Just after Amala Khurd Halt we come up to the Tapti, slightly more than half the width of the Narmada and with that much less water. There is a tinge of green on its banks that has been sorely absent all the way from Khandwa. Women are washing sarees in the shoals beneath the bridge and I shoot the scene for the myriad colours
As we wait in dread for Tukaithad, the Conductor reappears and says, "Alright, I'll let you stay till Purna, but you will have to pay for extra sleeper class tickets which I'll then convert to AC." We agree, instantly! And he doesn't even hint at a bribe.
After he leaves with our thanks ringing in his ears, it's time for a much-needed aperitif to be followed by lunch. In the distance we can see a range of higher hills, which take over from the "Low Satpuras" almost without a break. These are the Gawilgarh Hills, also know as the Melghat Range, basically part of the Satpura. Somewhere up ahead is the famed spiral, perhaps the only one on the MG network in India, though there are some in Burma. But before all that, a timely reminder why ghat sections are difficult - a derailed YDM 4 along with 2 or 3 coaches, all lying on their sides next to a sharp curve that must have been negotiated with more than the usual aplomb on that fateful day.
At the Dhulghat Outer we come to a halt to wait for the up Meenakshi Express to enter the station, so that we can pass through without stopping. As we wait by the side of the train I realise what's been bugging me about Central Indian forests ever since the Satpura trip in Feb - there is no undergrowth worth the name and all the tress are of the same species. As if humans have replanted the forest after clearing the brush.
The spiral is closer to Dhulghat and not to Wan Road, as I had originally believed. The first sign of it is the long bridge on the upper portion that sails over the ascending track at a right angle. We pass beneath the bridge and go beyond it for several hundred metres, round a hill in an ever ascending 1:100 curve, straighten out a bit for the bridge, then continue turning till we resume the original southerly heading that we were on before the spiral. The circumference of the spiral is approximately a km, maybe more. It's nothing like the DHR's tight loops of course, but an impressive piece of engineering nevertheless. From the bridge I attempt a long shot of the spiral, after which the camera starts whirring signaling the end of my roll. Now Bharat is the only photographer left on board.
The loop is behind us but the Gawilgarh Hills are not so easily conquered. With scarcely a warning, we are into a tunnel and then immediately another much longer one. I wasn't expecting them, so I am even more impressed with the Gawilgarhs, which extend for a good 20 km more, forest covered and largely unpopulated.
Near Adgaon Buzurg, the green Purna River Valley provides a welcome contrast to the Gawilgarhs, where it was difficult to spot a single evergreen tree. Now we are greeted by banana & papaya groves and cotton and potato fields. And in the midst of this fertile valley is the town of Akot where 582 Passenger to Ajmer is waiting for us. At this point we are only 30 km due west of the Murtajapur - Achalpur NG line, which also makes a foray into the Gawilgarhs, but a feeble one.
We proceed at a steady pace through this verdant plain till Akola Jn, which we enter from the West. The MG part contains an Accident Relief Train and many derelict wagons, while the BG part is strangely empty. A little way away from us a family of migrant labourers is preparing it's gruel directly under the blazing sun. Grandfather, father, mother and 5 children, all of the last have been on Earth for less than six years. The old man is fed first, then the children. I wonder what will happen if I give them a box of sweets, but our train restarts and the moment passes.
After Akola, we take a beautiful southward curve to cross over the BG, perfect for photography. Bharat takes full advantage and blazes away, while I curse my lousy luck. We are now in a huge industrial estate that seems to go on for miles, with factories and warehouses hundreds of yards apart from each other. It's not for nothing that Maharashtra is the most industrialised state in the country.
It's past 5 p.m. now and we are more than two hours late with at least 5 hours to go before Purna. Akola was the last chance to abandon the Meenakshi and flee to Manmad for our connection back to Delhi. Now we are firmly in the hands of the Meenakshi and her namesake in Madurai!
Between Mhow and Purna, this great MG route has to overcome no less than 5 hill ranges. Some of course are easier than the others, and now we are into one of the easy ones known as the Sahyadri Parvat. Or to better distinguish it from the more celebrated Western Ghats where it originates, the Ajanta Range. Somewhere to the West are the marvels of Ajanta and Ellora, and I remind myself that I am yet to lay my eyes on them.
The Ajanta Range is more undulating than steep and the train wends its way through without too much fuss. Of course there are some grades, curves and speed restrictions, but it's a breeze compared to the Gawilgarhs or the Vindhyas. The sun is now quite low and will sink rapidly. Already it's much cooler and I stand at the door right through the Ajantas. Agriculture here is of the hardscrabble variety, wherever the hills offer a flat patch. The few villages have an unusual layout. All the houses are in two or three straight rows with each structure almost joined to the one adjacent, and not in the usual untidy jumble. About 50 m away from the main rows is another shorter one, presumably where the Harijans live.
By the time we reach Washim, the night has almost taken over and the green lamp in the signal cabin at the far end of the station glows brightly. Here we endure the last crossing of our journey with 584 Passenger to Khandwa. It's time to sit back and have a drink. As we talk I tell Bharat that I want to see the Penganga River that is to come up shortly. Interrupting him in mid flow I rush to the door when I sense an approaching bridge. It is the Penganga but there is not a drop of water in it. Bharat laughs when I tell him about it.
From time to time we look at our watches. Our connection to Manmad leaves Purna at 2210. It's nearly 8 p.m. and we haven't even reached Hingoli. There is a generous 1 hour slack for the last 22 km between Basmet and Purna, and we take comfort from that. Suddenly the brakes are applied and the loco emits a familiar alarm. Emergency Chain Pull. The erstwhile passengers of 581 are now making their presence felt! This is going to be a regular affair from here on.
At Hingoli Deccan, the northernmost terminus of the old Nizam's Guaranteed State Railway, we get a surprisingly good veg meal from the pantry car that we have ignored thus far. After dinner we resume looking at our watches while 581's passengers continue with their mayhem. Nandapur, Bolda and Sirlli are all chain pulled halts. At one such forced halt I meet our Conductor at the door. I ask him, if we'll make it in time for our connection to Manmad. "No chance at this rate!" he says, but then offers a ray of hope. The 3 coach Purna-Parbhani Express does not leave before the Meenakshi comes in. Apparently many passengers are booked through to Secunderabad and the 3 coach express joins up with the Manmad-Secunderabad Express at Parbhani. If we can reach Parbhani before 2 am, then we can make it to Manmad before 10 am, in time for the Goa Express back to Delhi. Collective sigh of relief in the last compartment of the 2AC coach! There is no more talk of hiring a taxi at Purna.
The last of the hills in our epic journey is the Nirmal Range that comes up after Hingoli. Remembering the Penganga episode, I keep an eye out for the Nirmals without telling Bharat. Just as well, because the Nirmals turn out to be isolated hillocks with enough space between them to let a 4 track BG trunk route through unhindered, let alone a lone metre gauge line!
When I think we can make it to Purna by 22.05, the chain is pulled yet again. And just as we are about to sweep into the Purna yard from the east (the old Meenakshi would have reversed here) the chain is pulled for the last time. "Always at this spot", says our Conductor who lives here but keeps his family at Akola. When we finally draw into the platform it is 2220. The 3 coach joker is waiting on Platform 1 but there is no sign of the 1064 Nanded-Manmad-Daund Passenger. Defeated, I kick the platform in mock dismay. Then the long wail of a WDM 2 horn from the Nanded side... we've made it!