Slow Train to Saurashtra
by Mohan Bhuyan
In our Ahmedabad hotel on a warm October evening, Jackie and I argue about whether this is Day 0 of our Saurashtra tour or Day 1 while sipping smuggled Old Monk Rum topped up with Thums Up. First timers in this last bastion of prohibition, we're exceedingly pleased with ourselves; along with the rum, we've also sneaked in some vodka and a Bordeaux to liven up the evenings on our whirlwind tour of Saurashtra (or the Kathiawar Peninsula). Now we're waiting for Abhijit Lokre to take us to one of the best restaurants in the city for the famed Gujarati Thali. I insist it's Day 0 because all we've done is fly in from Delhi and the real journey begins tomorrow, while Jackie thinks calling it Day 0 is just plain silly.
Jackie is an English journalist who's been working in Delhi for a little more than a year. Together with her partner Andy, we've explored some interesting parts of the city in the year gone by. Now Andy's gone back to his head office in London, while Jackie has a few more months left in India. Determined to see as much of this country as she can, she's accepted my invitation to "do" Saurashtra the hard way â€" by slow train on the remnants of its once extensive metre gauge network.
Abhijit, his wife Shelly and their infant son reach our hotel in time to prevent us from having a third drink and we leave immediately for the House of Mangaldass, a kitschy heritage hotel famed for its Gujarati Thali. Jackie and I flew in by Spice Jet so we've had nothing after an early lunch but an in-flight cookie each, which was surprisingly free. The dinner begins magnificently with the best vegetarian hors d`oeuvres that I've ever had but declines disappointingly with every subsequent course. Perhaps the H of M is having a bad day, or maybe the Gujarati Thali and its sweetness requires some getting used to. Certainly another attempt is warranted before summary judgment is passed on the cuisine.
Later Abhijit drives us around showing us the city. Expecting a grimy, overcrowded industrial sprawl, I am pleasantly surprised with modern Ahmedabad. Even the older parts of the city look smarter than their Delhi counterparts. Prosperity is evident in most neighbourhoods, especially those to the north of the Sabarmati River.
Presently, Abhijit points the car in another direction and says, "The railway line is just behind these houses and further up is a level crossing". In the backseat Jackie and Shelly glance instinctively at each other and burst out laughing. Apparently, both were independently wondering when we'd stop mucking about and hold forth on matters railway to the exclusion of all else. Abhijit and I wisely decline to accept the bait, restricting ourselves to the occasional muttered comment or question on Ahmedabad's rail geography.
He informs us that except for the first and last trains of the day, very soon all services to Botad are to begin and end from Gandhigram in the southern part of the city. Apparently the frequent movement of near empty passenger trains between Ahmedabad Jn (or Kalupur as it is known locally) and Gandhigram cause long traffic jams in the city on either side of the numerous level crossings. I've been wanting to do the loop round Sabarmati ever since I saw it in the Great Indian Railway Atlas and I am relieved that our chosen train will definitely be leaving from Kalupur and that Jackie hasn't caught on to the fact that if we catch it from Gandhigram instead, she'll get to sleep longer in the morning.
Early the next morning Jackie and I join adjacent queues at Kalupur's crowded booking office in a mock race to see who will get to the counter first. I win but when I ask for two tickets to Botad the clerk says that there aren't any trains to Botad from Kalupur any longer; "Go to Gandhigram", he says in a tone of finality and turns his attention to the man behind me in the line.
I go into shock, but just as the man behind pushes past me to the counter I manage to regain my senses and ask the clerk whether he is sure that the first train doesn't leave from Kalupur. The clerk relents, telling me to check first with the Enquiry Counter and to come back straight to him without rejoining the queue if it is indeed the case. Ten minutes later with tickets in hand and mightily relieved, we climb the footbridge to survey the station before going across to the MG side.
It's still quite dark but the station is bustling. BG expresses have come in from Bombay and Saurashtra as well as the lone MG express from Udaipur. The famous twin shaking minarets are visible and we take a few grainy shots of them in the half-light.
Every major station has its permanent residents â€" homeless, penniless and sometimes on the edge of sanity. Kalupur's footbridge has a fair share in the early hours and one of them approaches me and says in passable English that he would like to engage us in a long fruitful conversation. I demur but he is persistent so we reluctantly descend from the bridge.
Like in every other dual gauge station in the country, the MG side is grimy and smelly. But largely empty save for a gaggle of college girls back from a field trip to Udaipur who are yet to leave the station. We stop at a counter for that vital first chai of the day and to stock up on bottled water, and the friendly owner informs us that there are hardly any passengers who board from Kalupur and that the first train to Botad is usually late in leaving.
Since train is almost empty I take a long time to choose our seats (not too far from the loco, near the middle door et al) and still mess it up. For most of the journey we are going to be sitting in the sun and unfortunately (for me) without easy access to the door.
By the time our train 448 Passenger leaves about 15 minutes late the the sun is out. In our nearly empty carriage I easily commandeer the doors on both sides. Keeping an eye out for the divergence towards Himmatnagar and Udaipur, I remember the many resolutions I've made that the next time I go to Mumbai for work, I'll return by overnight train to Ahmedabad, then endure a day long trundle on an MG passenger to Udaipur just to see the hill section near Zawar, followed by another overnighter to Hazrat Nizamuddin. Perhaps this is too tough an itinerary for all but the most determined IRFCAN, because invariably I find myself at Santa Cruz quaffing a quick beer before the flight back to Delhi, trying to forget that I've funked out yet again.
The line to Udaipur curves away eastwards rather normally, what was I expecting? But the surprise comes immediately afterwards in the shape of a triangle â€" trains from Sabarmati can go towards Udaipur without having to reverse at Kalupur. However, the bypass track doesn't have the reassuring glint of a used line or perhaps it's rarely used. Certainly no passenger trains need to use it.
We're now on the last surviving double track MG section in the country but we slow down just before the Sabarmati Bridge. Peering forward I realize why; the bridge is double line for BG but single for us, though it must have been the reverse not so long ago. The river looks serene in the misty glow of the early morning sun and has apparently been rejuvenated with Narmada water from the Sardar Sarovar dam after years of being little more than a nullah.
At Sabarmati Jn we draw up next to a goods train with the legend SBI-UDZ-SBI emblazoned on the BC wagons. I jump down to examine the seals; it's carrying fertilizer from the IFFCO siding at Kalol to Himmatnagar. So perhaps the bypass line to Udaipur is used after all. Otherwise with just a few BC's and tank wagons standing forlornly in the rest of the yard, it doesn't look like there is much MG freight activity in the area. On the other hand Sabarmati appears to be a fairly busy container depot for the BG and the sight of a MG medical coach on a BFR flat is an eloquent reminder of what lies in store for the latter in the not too distant future.
We pick up speed at last after clearing the points at Sabarmati, and taking leave of the BG track we pass the diesel shed, which is actually at some distance from the eponymous station. A sign on the shed informs the world that there is a Diesel Simulator Center here and I wonder if it is any easier than Microsoft's PC version, on which I still can't take a fully loaded 80 car consist down the steep gradients of the Marias Pass without losing control and derailing it!
The Mahesana â€"ADI(Ahmedabad) passenger has graciously reached Kali Road just before we do, allowing us an uninterrupted passage through the station. Yes, 448 is a Fast Passenger and won't be stopping at each and every station en route, which is just as well if we are to reach Botad in time for our connecting train. But very soon, and after passing a milestone that reads KM 777 (from where?), we slow down and stop at the famed Sabarmati D Cabin. Regular commuters know that all trains stop to pick up a token here, so quite a few of them are standing on the adjacent tracks waiting to board.
The D Cabin is at the site of an interesting convergence and divergence of lines; our track and another one from the diesel shed converge from the south while the diverging twin tracks to Mahesana in the north and the westward curving track to Botad are separated by a spur to what looks like an Indian Oil depot. This is probably the busiest metre gauge junction in the whole country today and though the lesser line is in terminal decline everywhere, here at least one can get some idea of its past glory.
We turn westward after D Cabin and then immediately southward. We are now in the semi-urban northern extremities of the city and here and there fields with standing crops make an appearance. As if to confirm that things are going to be slightly more basic now a circle on a signboard tells us that we have entered token territory though the signals are still MACL's (for now). And as if to thumb a nose at Big Brother, we soar over the tracks to Surendranagar and Abu Road at breakneck speed with the carriages swaying wildly from side to side.
That burst of speed flattered to deceive because soon we reenter the city proper and resume our slow plod to Gandhigram. We are already 45 minutes late when we finally get there and from the door I can see a big crowd waiting for the train. I beat a hasty retreat to my window seat just before all these sensible people charge in. Sensible because if one walks due east from Gandhigram more or less in a straight line, then one will in due course reach Kalupur station. So in effect we are no closer to Botad than we were an hour and a half ago!
Jackie and I are now squashed against the window seats in the first bay after the middle door of our GS coach. Most of the other people in our bay are women, who give us curious looks but refrain from either comment or query. The vestibule and the space near the door also fill up quickly, so all my plans of flitting from seat to door and back are effectively undone.
Leaving Gandhigram, the train picks its way through a field of rubbish. "How many more ways can we find to kill MG", I wonder, looking at the plastic waste that almost obliterates the track. After one more stop at Vastrapur, we are finally rid of the city and its rivers of trash and once again increase speed to 75 kph or thereabouts, which is the maximum speed allowed to a YDM 4 these days. From here on, the Driver lets it rip whenever he can but slows down very often for caution orders and is punctilious about the 15kph limit on turnouts.
At Sarkhej we meet the first train from Botad that had departed at 4.25 am. Looking at my timetable, I wonder if there are people who catch that train every day for the commute into the city and shudder at the thought. We stop again at the Moraiya Outer to let the second passenger from Botad enter the station first. On restarting we pick up speed rather smartly so that by the time we rush through the station, we are almost at top speed.
Meanwhile Jackie having yawned expansively once or twice nods off to sleep. Thus far the journey has been rather unexciting for her (not that I even tried to explain the intricacies of Sabarmati D!) and after Gandhigram, a bit uncomfortable. Looking at her snoozing I wonder if she's already regretting her decision to join me and whether she knows that the worst is yet to come!
The landscape has been flat and boring so far with the only item of interest being the highway to Rajkot, which makes an appearance now and again to the south. When the highway nears us once more, we can see a rather large and relatively new industrial estate that has sprung up next to the road with a factory or unit every 500 metres or so. And on the northern side there is nothing but acres and acres of green paddy. The contrast between the two views from the train couldn't have been greater but as far as the industrial estate is concerned, the railway line is of no consequence â€" the highway meets all its needs. Even the local station Matoda, has been abandoned.
After a brief halt at a place called Bavla we arrive at a larger station called Dholka. The station house is old style and rather appealing with red tiles on the roof, blue eaves and a resident garrison of languorous Langurs. The halt is prolonged because of our third and last crossing of our journey; ADI â€" Botad, once the mainline to Saurashtra, is still a relatively busy MG route. There are more than the usual complement of hawkers on the platform and the man sitting next to me says that Dholka is famous for its savory Bhujiya. I'm tempted, but it's too early in the day for Bhujiya. I console myself with the reminder that towns that are famous for their food never seem to have the best quality on sale at the local railway station and think of Kalakund near Mhow.
Having broken the ice with that bit about the Bhujiya, the man next to me proceeds to extract the info that everyone in our bay is no doubt dying to know. Namely where is Jackie from, does she know Hindi, what the hell are we doing on this train and where are we going to. And when I let it be known that we are headed for Palitana, there are immediate suggestions from everyone to the effect that our chosen mode of transportation is totally sub-optimal (meaning totally foolish).
After Dholka we enter a region of vast open fields of black soil interspersed with the occasional marsh. The monsoon has been good and the ponds are brimming with water, lotus blossoms and the kind of aquatic life that keep the long legged egrets interested. The fields are virtually treeless so the sense of infinite sky is immense. Individual plots are separated by cactus fencing and have standing crops of kapas (cotton) and a maize like plant that my helpful co-passenger says is called Jhar, which I suppose is some kind of millet or perhaps even fodder.
Lothal Bhurki is the rather nondescript station that serves as the railhead to the nearby Harappan era port of Lothal located at the head of the Gulf of Khambhat. Having never seen the ruins of an Indus Valley city before I briefly entertain wild notions of getting off and finding an auto or something to go and see Lothal, but better sense prevails and the train, as if reading my thoughts, resumes its journey after the briefest of halts.
After Lothal Bhurki we traverse some swampy land and cross a meandering stream on what looks like a temporary causeway. The remnants of an old style stone arch bridge serve as a reminder that this line suffered from breaches in the recently concluded monsoon and had been closed for a while. In fact as we cross this marshy area I'm surprised that the permanent way isn't on a high embankment like in the eastern parts of the country. Perhaps floods are rare in this part of the world, but when the water rises like it did this year, it leaves behind a white, crystalline, salt-like deposit before retreating, like the calling card of an unwanted salesman.
Meanwhile the highway crosses and recrosses the line a few times, mostly by way of a Level Crossing. At each LC I see long lines of frustrated motorists glowering at us and I delight in their plight. Imagine coming up to a LC with gates lowered and waiting several minutes for a slow MG Passenger to appear. The train passes by, the gates are raised and you floor the accelerator, easily overtaking said slow train. And then after a few kilometers another LC looms with barriers that are just being lowered into place, and you know that it's that plodding Passenger again!
Thus we make our way to Dhandhuka where the first person we see on the platform is an RPF constable standing alone in the burning sun (while everyone else takes advantage of the platform canopy) and noting down the serial number of each passing carriage. This arcane ritual is normally seen in big junctions or terminating stations and only the RPF knows why it is necessary to note each carriage number at Dhandhuka, which is neither.
Actually, Dhandhuka's importance lies in the fact that it is at the crossroads for Bhavnagar and other points on the Kathiawar coast. In fact many of the sensible people who boarded the train at Gandhigram get off here and head for the bus stand. Jackie and I remain determinedly train bound and we are joined by a few others including a young man sitting next to me who's had a sackful of onions for breakfast.
For a while now I've been keeping an anxious eye on the clock. 448 Passenger's scheduled arrival time at Botad Jn is 1115 while our connecting BG train the 233 Surendranagar-Bhavnagar Passenger leaves Botad at 1138. Though 448 has made up half an hour due to generous slack, we'll barely have a minute or two at Botad to catch 233.
Onion Breath is a friendly sort and engages me in small talk. After the usual explanations about where we've come from, he's happy to know that we're planning to visit Palitana and tells us that Songadh is the closest station on the main line and we'll be wise to get off there. But the onion fumes are almost overpowering and he must be wondering why I bob my head around like a deranged marionette every time he opens his mouth to say something.
Closer to Botad, the marshes recede, the ground becomes firmer with rocky outcrops here and there and cotton takes over from swamp reed as the dominant form of vegetation. It's still touch and go for our connection when we depart from Jalila Road, our last halt before the end of the line. But soon we enter a long speed restriction and I know that now our only hope of avoiding a painful bus journey is if 233 Passenger is late.
As 448 Pass enters the long curve into Botad Jn, I summon Jackie to the door in case we have to make a run for it. Leaning out I try to see if 233 Pass has reached the station, and seeing nothing I tell Jackie to relax. But as we clatter over the points I look again and there is 233 Pass standing right next to the loop line we're entering.
Relieved yet nervous at the same time, we jump down from 448 Pass on the wrong side and scurry across to 233 Pass. I have to jump in and out from the other side in order to find the booking office and buy tickets. But a young man sitting on the steps bars my way saying in his best filmy dada tone, "There is no place in this carriage, go to the front of the train". The urge to engage in brutal violence wells up suddenly and enticingly but I satisfy myself with a firm hand on his shoulder and a "Dimaag kharaab hai kya?" He promptly makes way and we clamber up.
As luck would have it, the ticket counter is directly opposite the carriage we've entered so yelling at Jackie to remain where she is I jump down, scramble to the counter, nearly falling on the way and buy two tickets to Sihor Jn. Turning around triumphantly I see that Jackie hasn't heard my instructions and has followed me to the counter, so there is another scramble back to the carriage â€" this is no time to test her ability to jump on to a moving train.
Safely inside I breathe a deep sigh of relief and find a place for us to park our bags. All this rushing about has gained us curious half-amused looks from our fellow passengers which I attribute to the sudden appearance of a foreign woman in their midst. But when a few more minutes tick by without the train having moved an inch, the realisation dawns, that just maybe 233 Pass actually has to wait at Botad until 448 comes in so that its passengers can make the connection to Bhavnagar. So all the panicky scrambling at Botad was unnecessary except as free entertainment for our fellow travelers.
When 233 Pass finally starts moving, these kind folk make room for Jackie in the first bay, while I "adjust" with a man on one of the side seats. On the broad gauge, the difference in gait and speed is immediately apparent and Jackie turns her attention to the newspaper, which wasn't so easy to focus on in MG. On the other hand I, the determined railer in virgin territory, keep a constant vigil through the windows on both sides and at Ningala (which was a junction once) I am rewarded for my pains by a container train from Pipavav Port.
The station architecture on this converted line is modern and ugly except the rather large station house at Dhola Jn, which still retains its Raj era look with a faded red tile roof and light blue eaves and wrought iron pillars. A few people get down here and I'm able to join Jackie in the bay. Sitting on the opposite seat is a young woman on a shopping trip to Bhavnagar who can't contain her curiosity any longer. This time instead of revealing Jackie's nationality straightaway (she can't be mistaken for anything but British, according to me) I ask the girl to take a guess. She promptly retorts "Japan?"
The rest of this short BG sojourn passes in pleasant conversation with our fellow passengers and though we have tickets for Sihor Jn, we get off two stops before, as Palitana is closer to Songadh by road. Outside the station we get into one of those jeep taxis that are ubiquitous in rural India. The kind that keep stopping every kilometre or so to load more and more passengers and their belongings until every inch is covered and little of the vehicle itself is visible from the outside.
Palitana is typical of the scruffy towns that all our pilgrimage centers seem to metamorphose into and I'm glad that our hotel is a few km away in the village of Adpur, which is itself at the foot of the hill known as Shetrunjaya atop which are scores of Jain temples that have made Palitana the leading attraction of Saurashtra.
The Vijay Vilas Palace, where we're staying, is a crumbling though partially restored Zamindar's haveli set amidst verdant croplands, and within an hour of our arrival it moves to the top of my "nice places to stay" list. Besides being homely and ridiculously cheap, the biggest surprise is in the form of terrific non-veg food, though we are literally in the shadow of an important center of Jain pilgrimage where even leather wallets, belts and shoes are not permitted entry.
After a sumptuous lunch and having armed ourselves with plenty of water and discarded all our leather items, a little girl called Mamta guides us through the village to the beginning of the path that will take us to the top of the hill. The route from Adpur is shorter than the one from Palitana proper but much steeper and we soon feel the effects. Actually Jackie does, more than I.
The path to the top is basically one long staircase and after about a third of the way up she starts falling back. This allows me to go far ahead and then have a longer rest while she catches up. At one such meeting, she gasps, "My lungs are burning and I think my heart is going to explode!" Though I maintain a sympathetic air, I am secretly pleased because in her youth Jackie was an international level rower and she's probably never known the meaning of the word overweight. Yet here she is gasping loudly like a goldfish that has been evicted from its bowl when I had thought I would be the one who would want to lie down and die first! Little do I know that the tables are going to be turned on the way down.
We reach the top with half and hour left to see the sights as no one is allowed to remain on the hill after 5 pm. And half an hour isn't enough for this incredible place, which is a surprisingly harmonious mix of ancient and modern shrines, stone and cement, whitewash and natural colours, intricate sculpture on walls and marble tiles on floors. The views are stunning, especially to the south where a dam on the Shetrunji River has created a large lake and to the North, where Palitana's railway station is clearly visible on the edge of town. Since it's not pilgrimage season we have the place to ourselves, apart from artisans doing repair work on a few of the shrines or making new carvings at others, and we are able to wander around undisturbed until the guards shoo us away at closing time.
A guard going off duty accompanies us on the descent and he says that there are a few wild animals that reside in the wooded slopes like deer, langurs and incredulously: two lions transferred by the Forest Dept. from the Gir Sanctuary! But now I don't have the slightest interest in lions or anything else because I've discovered that my knees have stopped functioning on account of my unnecessarily macho ascent.
Pretty soon the pain is intense and I have to stop frequently and wonder whether my mediclaim policy covers knee replacement surgery too. Jackie is of course skipping along gaily now and trying to look concerned. Our progress is so slow that by the time we regain the Vijay Vilas Palace it is pitch dark. Immediately we begin proper ministrations on knees, hearts and lungs â€" three bottles of water to replace fluid lost, a cold shower, a dinner of excellent chicken curry and Jackie's bottle of Bordeaux!
From Palitana, to reach the nearest MG railhead at Dhasa Jn, we have to take the 225 Bhavnagar - Mahuva BG Passenger. Diligent IRFCANs would have risen early and caught the first train from town at 8 am for Sihor Jn or perhaps all the way to Bhavnagar in time for 225's departure at 9.50 am. But yesterday's assault on heart, lung, knee and ego has put paid to such energetic plans and we decide to catch 225 Pass at Songadh at the wholly decent 10.32 am.
We leave the Vijay Vilas well in time hoping to catch one of the motor cycle powered three wheelers or Phatphatiyas that ply between Adpur and Palitana. But each contraption that comes along is full to the brim with at least a dozen villagers squeezed in, if not more. After slowing down to absorb Jackie's height and my girth, all of them whizz off with rueful grins on every face. Just when things are about to get desperate, a little boy on a cycle comes to our rescue by summoning his phatphatiya owning father from a nearby hut.
With the phatphatiya to ourselves, we enjoy a breezy albeit bumpy ride to Palitana. On the way the Driver stops at what looks like a school and with a smile nods at us to take a good look at the inhabitants. With a start we realize that he's showing off the local asylum, as if it was Palitana's greatest attraction! But at heart he's a decent man, because when we get off he tells me that I'm paying him too much for the ride into town.
We make it to Songadh station with five minutes to spare after changing to a jeep at Palitana and then to an auto for the last mile from the main road. I ask the friendly station master if he can issue us tickets for Delvada but he regrets that he can only accommodate us up to Talala Jn, which will at least save us the hassle of scrambling for tickets at Dhasa Jn. Now a word on how WR runs trains in Saurashtra â€" very thoughtfully and local people friendlily, completely unlike the treatment meted out to stopping passenger trains in other zones.
One can blithely travel from one end of Saurashtra to the other by making multiple connections on both gauges, even if the timetable shows that there are only 5 minutes between the arrival of one train and the departure of its connection. Like today â€" 225 Passenger will deposit us at Dhasa Jn just 5 minutes before 302 Dhasa - Veraval Passenger leaves at noon, which will in turn take us to Talala Jn just in time for the 313 Veraval-Delvada Passenger. And even if any one of these trains is late, we can be confident of meeting all subsequent connections, gauge changes notwithstanding. We've already benefited from this largesse yesterday at Botad and the rest of this narrative is going to be sprinkled with more instances of these quite superb connections.
225 Pass is slightly late but we find seats easily. Opposite me is an RMS mailman who uses the opportunity to practice his English (perhaps thinking I am a NRI). He's on his daily commute home to Dhola Jn from Bhavnagar and says that his shift is from 4 am to noon. Seeing me steal a glance at my watch, he says he left work early because there was nothing to do!
We reach Dhola on time a little after 11 am and the WDM 2 changes ends for the run southwards to Mahuva, but our halt extends far beyond the scheduled time. We are told that the wait is for the Bandra - Bhavnagar Superfast Exp which ought to have passed at 1038 but is more than an hour late. We're waiting just in case there are people on board the express who have to make the connection to Mahuva and stations en route, who would want to quibble with that?
I take the opportunity to roam around the yard and shoot the handsome old station house from the footbridge. I've decided to be very circumspect about what I shoot while on a train on this trip and this is only my third picture of anything connected to the railways. The express from Mumbai arrives after a long wait and then it's just a hop, skip and a jump away to Dhasa Jn, where once again we are reunited with the metre gauge in the form of the 4 carriage 302 Pass to Veraval.
Dhasa's MG terminus is a simple 3-line affair. Since it's the nearest MG railhead to div hq at Bhavnagar, the last track is occupied by a saloon. Alas no saloon like comforts await us in 302 Pass, not even rexine padding on the benches. Thankfully the little train is not at all crowded and we find seats quite easily.
225 and 302 depart simultaneously from Dhasa along two arms of a "V", making it possible to indulge in a race of sorts and for passengers in both trains to grin and wave at each other. I remain at the door until Khijadiya, which announces its junction status with a 4-signal gantry. Hoppers and BC's, that perhaps stir only occasionally as part of a departmental rake, stand on one of the loops, and only the ASM, a keyman holding the token and the obligatory in-house mongrel are present on the platform to greet 302 Pass. Never seen a junction so lifeless!
From Khijadiya, the mainline (if it can be called that) carries on westwards to Jetalsar and Wansjaliya while we take a southwesterly tack. We are in the peanut growing heartland of Saurashtra and in fact all the on-board hawkers I've seen till now have only tiny packets of salted peanuts to sell, which they call "Seeng". It is just after the peanut harvest season and men and women are busy in the fields collecting the now pod less plants, which are fed to livestock. The fruit of their labour must be well on their way to thousands of stations and bus-stands all over the country, and soon Seeng will be called other names "Mumphali" in most places or "Badaam" in the non-discriminating east and even "Timepass" in Delhi's bus stands.
Presently the fields give way to a sizable town, which turns out to be Amreli the headquarters of the eponymous district we are crossing. Hoping the stop will be longer than the standard 2 minutes I get down to buy water and seeing nothing on the platform, boldly head out of the station. But the guard's shrill whistle followed by a blast from the loco sends me scurrying back, to the amusement of some onlookers (why do they appear when you least want them to?).
Amreli stands on a small river called the Thiba but a little later we cross the Shetrunji. This is one of Saurashtra's major rivers though its width will hardly impress any one who comes from the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin or even the Deccan. What it lacks in size it supposedly makes up for in ferocity (during the occasional flood) and in beauty (as seen from Palitana for example, though not here).
After Amreli we enter a stretch of long block sections and a quick look in the Great Indian Railway Atlas shows why; a few of the old stations have been abandoned. From Khijadiya onwards the speed hasn't been great, even by MG standards and this means that it's hot in the train, though not unbearably so.
No doubt fed up of the slow, hot trundle through unremarkable countryside, Jackie finally gives up on MG travel, clambers up to the top berth and falls asleep(normal). Ironically, within minutes we pass through the best scenery of the day thus far as the line runs along a ridge between Chalala and Dhari.
The ground on either side is rocky and unsuitable for agriculture. Thorn bushes and the cactus like Thor dominate, while hardy fig trees make the occasional appearance. The line alternately climbs and descends and I spot gradient markers of 1:100 and 1:200. In each trough we have to cross a stone filled stream while from the crests a line of hills is discernible to the south â€" the Gir range. Finally tiring of the gradients, the line plunges into a cutting that is a mile long and crosses the Shetrunji again, this time flowing in the opposite direction.
At Dhari station our opposite number, 301 Passenger from Veraval is waiting. Thanks to the LIFO system of Standard 1 Interlocking we are away almost immediately and proceed to Bhader, which has a huge fig tree on the grassy platform dripping with tendrils and aerial roots, rather like a Rasta's dreadlocks. The quaint stone block station is manned only by the ASM, who steps out for the token exchange and then rushes back in to issue tickets to a couple of latecomers.
As we near Visavadar Jn, the hills to the south become more prominent and appear to be forested while to the northwest the pointy crags of the famous Girnar Hill are faintly discernible. Closer to the track, the ground is rolling and reminds me of the Mysore Plateau. In spite of the speed limit of 50 kph, 302 Pass has had a decent run from Dhasa and it looks like we may even reach Visavadar on time. But a 20 km long speed restriction puts paid to that and we arrive ten minutes late, meeting the line from Junagadh just before the station.
Visavadar must have had some importance in the past because it has a turntable (disused), crossovers in the form of an "X" that allow two trains to berth on the main platform at the same time, and, a somewhat larger yard than I have seen so far. The train crew grabs a quick chai and I take the opportunity to have a chat and something to munch, while Jackie continues to sleep blissfully. The Driver is surly but the Guard willingly answers my questions about the line. Apparently the 47 km run to Talala Jn is going to be even slower at a max of 30 kph!
After Visavadar we turn towards the rolling Gir hills. Simultaneously the sun disappears behind some dark clouds and it is perceptibly cooler immediately. Soon we cross a river called Ambaghar, which has a small check dam built on it and make a brief stop at Santadhar. One can sense that the Gir Sanctuary is near because the fields have raised machans where farmers (or most likely their sons) can sit at night to scare away deer and other crop stealing wild animals and yet be secure from the attentions of potential man-eaters, such as Gir's celebrated Asiatic Lions.
Having seen a surfeit of documentaries on lions in the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, I was expecting the Gir Sanctuary to be a savannah interspersed with the occasional scrub. Well, Gir is a dense piece of typically Indian jungle and all hopes of spotting a pride lions lounging on the grass under a solitary tree in "Born Free" style are quickly dashed. While no animals are visible, the railway scene suddenly perks up when we arrive at Kansiya Nes a pretty little station surrounded by the forest; a crossing with 309 Dhasa-Veraval Passenger and its impatient passengers, who then have to endure the ignominy of seeing us depart first!
Since the crossing of the Gir forest is supposed to be one of the highlights of our rail odyssey, it's time to rouse Jackie from her coma. She's delighted with the change of scenery and I allow myself a measure of relief for thus far there's really been nothing to convince this non-enthusiast that the train journeys have been worth it. And as if by magic good things begin to happen one after the other â€" it begins to rain, the air cools, the forest glistens, we spot three small herds of deer as well as a few peacocks at different places and Jackie looks cheerful at last.
The presence of the deer close to the track and the fact that they don't bolt show that the animals of Gir are quite used to the railway. No doubt the 30-kph speed limit and the absence of night trains help. Still, one can't help feel a twinge of guilt each time there is a blast from the horn and when the loco growls loudly and emits black smoke because of a gradient. I guess the line was built in a more insensitive era when local Nawabs and British officers were still hunting for big game in these parts, today's environmentalism wouldn't have ever allowed it.
Alas the run through the forest isn't very long and on its outer edges we come to the picturesque Sasangir station, which is built on a curve and has a lovely old station building. The loop line on the far side has an overhead water filling system and I can't fathom why - surely Sasangir isn't a TXR post.
The forest thins out rapidly after Sasangir to be replaced by groves of coconut and mango. As we cross the Hiran River and draw closer to Talala Jn, I notice that the vegetation and the crops are completely un-Gujarat like. Along with the coconut and the mango (Kesari Amli says a helpful co-passenger) I can see Sagwan (Teak) and astoundingly - the water guzzling sugarcane. "This is the fertile belt of Saurashtra", says the same co-passenger, "from Gir right down to the coast".
We arrive at Talala Jn during the rural rush hour with as many as four trains coming and going around the same time, including our late running one. Two trains are already in the station before us; the 315 Delvada-Junagadh Pass and our connection the 313 Veraval-Delvada Pass. Like ours, all these trains are also 4 carriages long, which seem to be the standard configuration for this particular MG network. I rush off to buy tickets for Delvada but I could have taken my time because we are made to wait further for the 317 Kodinar - Veraval to come in on the line we have to use. At Talala too, an outlying loop is equipped with an overhead water filling system and a tank wagon is placed under each tap(normal). The penny drops â€" Sasangir and Talala supply water to the less fortunate areas of the region.
At Jambusar a young African couple in Indian dress, board the train and squat in the passage next to the door, though many bays in the carriage are empty. I realise they are Siddis, descendants of East African slaves gifted to the Nawab of Junagadh by the Portuguese about 300 years ago, and I wonder if their position at the bottom of the caste hierarchy prevents them from occupying a seat in the near empty carriage.
Throughout the journey our co-passengers have been intrigued by Jackie's presence in the train and invariably they all want to know where she comes from (apart from what the hell is she doing here!) I have devised a little game by replying "Delhi" (not totally untruthfully) every time the question is asked just to see the reactions that such a reply will evoke â€" usually bemusement, occasionally irritation. But unlike all the people we have encountered thus far, the Siddis show not the slightest interest in Jackie (or for that matter me). Perhaps long inured to being stared at and pointed out or even mocked, curiosity about strangers is something they can entirely do without.
Prachi Road is the last junction on our daylong plod across southern Saurashtra. It has a large goods shed on a raised platform (now abandoned and empty) and a couple of floodlight towers that speak of busier days in the not too distant past. Inquiries with fellow passengers reveal that Prachi Road used to be the loading point for the products of the nearby Sidhee Cements Ltd. Cement loading ended five or six years ago because of (what else?) gauge conversion of the main line south of Rajkot. Perhaps the loading has shifted to Veraval â€" there is also the very large Gujarat Ambuja plant at Kodinar, which is at the terminus of one of the branch lines from this junction.
We proceed along the other branch and soon we are once again skirting the Gir hills, this time from the south and from a distance. In effect we've made a sweeping semi circle around the range and its forests for if a crow was to take off from these parts and take it into its head to fly due north, it would reach Dhari which is on the Amreli-Visavadar section. One co-passenger an elderly gent, tells me that the part of the Gir that we are seeing now is known as the Madhya (Central) Gir, an area renowned for its medicinal plants. Another man says that he worked for a number of years as a photographer for the Forest Dept. and has seen parts of Gir (like the interiors of the Madhya) not seen by tourists and other lesser mortals. He kindly invites us to visit again and get in touch with him, when we do.
As darkness descends, we reel off the remaining stations one by one â€" Jamwala, Hadmariya, Gir Gadhada â€" all of them single line stations including Una on the Bhavnagar-Veraval highway, the major town in this region and gateway to the former Portuguese enclave of Diu. Strange that it's namesake should be in impossibly distant Himachal!
It's quite dark by the time we reach Una and I briefly ponder getting off here like most of the other passengers, not being sure of the exact position of Delvada at the end of the line vis-Ã -vis Diu, our ultimate destination. Since we are not planning to return this way, the urge to see Delvada (mine) is strong, so we remain on board.
Naturally Delvada is a bit of an anti climax â€" a solitary loop for the loco to run around, no platform, poorly lit though well provisioned with defunct tube lights, and no public transport waiting in the foreyard. We quickly follow the few remaining passengers along an unlit path and reach the main road after a few minutes. At a roadside dhaba we are told that a bus for Diu, which is about 8 or 10 km away, will be along soon.
The minutes tick by, no bus appears. An elderly man driving a tractor hitched to a water tanker stops next to us and inquires cheerily if we'd like a ride into Diu. I hesitate at first but the dhaba owner urges me to go ahead, saying he's a well-known man of these parts and "is very wealthy too, but drives around on his tractor"! It will be fun to ride a tractor into town and the man looks harmless, so we clamber up to sit sideways on the huge wheel casings.
Bad choice because the man is a lunatic, who drives full tilt into potholes (at speeds I didn't know a tractor was capable of) and aims straight for oncoming vehicles (that sashay away in the last nano second before a certain head-on). To top it all, every time he wants to say something to me he simply turns completely around, unmindful if the tractor-trailer threatens to veer off the road in the mean time. Every time we hit a pothole I sail into thin air because I'm holding our bags and am not anchored to anything, and it's only by sheer luck that I land back on approximately the same spot every time. Jackie quickly loses all the jollity with which she climbed into the tractor and clings to the supports for dear life, looking as nervous as the Station Master of Patna, when Laloo's in town.
When the man turns around for the umpteenth time to say something to me, I finally get the whiff of alcohol on his breath and thoughts of a grisly death quickly flood the mind â€" "Tourists hitch ride on tractor, crushed by trailer". I resolve to focus all my energies on keeping the man's attention firmly on the road ahead and my bottom on the makeshift seat.
After a few more minutes of terror the bus to Diu (for which we were waiting) comes up behind us and makes several attempts to overtake, finally succeeding only when our man uncharacteristically swerves to avoid a pothole instead of crashing through it. At last we sail through the Gujarat-Diu border (with a cheery wave to the astonished cops lounging around on folding chairs), cross the straits on a smart looking bridge (after nearly plunging into the dark waters at one point) and come to a jerky halt outside the bus station on Diu Island.
We thank our man for nearly killing us for free and gratefully get into an auto, ready to pay anything so long as he drives slowly to the Govt. Circuit House where we are booked. After some trouble finding the right circuit house and then having to prove that we indeed have bookings, we are shown to our rooms, which are actually adjacent cottages in duplex style. Later I discover that Diu, which would find it hard to qualify as a subdivision or taluk hq in any other part of India, has at least 6 circuit houses perhaps more. All for civil servants and their families (and excess baggage like Jackie and I) to enjoy a seaside holiday for less than 100 rupees a day!
The caretaker's behaviour (cockily dismissive at first, smarmily obsequious later) and the condition of the cottages (smart from the outside, unkempt inside) freaks Jackie out a bit and she says she wants to stay elsewhere tomorrow. Having sampled circuit houses and Inspection Bungalow's a few times before, I smile my "didn't I tell you" smile and quietly prepare the best cure I know for the culture shock that grabs hold of first time beneficiaries of "gormint" hospitality â€" a large rum and coke.
The next morning Jackie falls sick; the ascent of Shetrunjaya, the long hot train journeys and last night's dodgy dinner from the circuit house caretaker's favourite restaurant no doubt responsible for her plight. I am left to my own devices and on an impulse hire a Scooty Pep, the kind that have pretty college girls riding around in all the TV commercials. It takes a while for me to start the damn thing and feeling conspicuous and slightly silly, I head into town. But soon I realize that it's the most popular vehicle here and I have a terrific time zipping around the island seeing the sights and looking for isolated beaches.
Diu naturally played second fiddle to Goa when they were joined administratively, but is a great destination in its own right. It has good beaches (most of which are devoid of tourists), marshes teeming with birds, eclectic cuisine (a combination of Gujarati and Portuguese), "wet" laws (that attract mainlanders by the hordes on weekends) and an interesting old town at one end of the island, which is a maze of alleys and by lanes.
The Portuguese past is preserved in the form of a jail on a small island in the bay (disused), a well kept fort (where one can have splendid views from the top of the lighthouse for a small fee), several churches (one with exquisitely carved wooden pulpits) and the seedy old Hotel Mozambique reminiscent of a whisky sodden Graham Greene novel set in the tropics.
The only thing that jars in Diu is the legacy of one of its recent administrators, whose belief in his own refined aesthetic sense must be quite touching; all the dustbins in the territory are giant cement teacups painted in vivid colours, placed on matching giant cement saucers!
In the afternoon I ride off in search of a beach that I can claim all for myself, and find one on the western end of the island, beyond the airport. After half an hour, a large wave catches me unawares as I look shore wards to see if the scooter and my belongings are safe, and sends me tumbling. As I expel seawater and sand from my mouth it strikes me that there is no one around to even notice (let alone help me) if I were to be swept out to the open sea.
With that happy thought I get hurriedly back onto the scooter and head for Nagoa beach, which is in a sheltered bay and is popular with domestic tourists. There amidst the filmy music blaring from the dhabas on the beach, buzzing speedboats & jet skis that charge a small fortune for a 5 minute ride, screaming kids, aunties bathing in saris and uncles romping about in their chaddis; I feel totally at home.
We had elaborate plans for our final day in Saurashtra; an early bus to Somnath and its famous shore temple. Then on to Veraval, which is said to have the largest fishing fleet in the country (and consequently the smelliest!). From here we are to catch the Veraval-Jabalpur Express and spend the rest of the day at the former princely state of Junagadh, whose Nawab wanted to accede to Pakistan in 1947. Then at night we have to catch the Somnath Express for an early morning arrival at Ahmedabad and our flight back to Delhi.
But Jackie hasn't recovered fully and hasn't seen anything in Diu other than the charm less Circuit House. Moreover the main attractions of Junagadh are a bunch of Jain shrines and an Ashokan edict on the top of Girnar Hill, which is even higher than Shetrunjaya at Palitana and has 10,000 steps! Both Jackie and I are through with mountaineering for now so missing out on Junagadh isn't such a tough call. We'll spend the morning doing a quick tour of Diu on my trusty Scooty and take the afternoon slow train to Junagadh with the pleasant prospect of another run through Gir, reaching in time for a quick dinner and the Somnath Express back to Ahmedabad.
Delvada Station by day is as unprepossessing as it is by night, tiny and hidden behind trees and thorn bushes. The station house is old style but crumbling, with faded red tiles on the roof and a verandah fronting the grass "platform". A better version of Farukhnagar near Delhi, I tell myself.
Our train # 315 Passenger, another 4 carriage wonder, is ready and waiting with a Sabarmati YDM 4 in a fading purple livery that makes it look rather like an aging pastry in the display of a small town bakery; unappealing and probably inedible.
We have plenty of time before departure to check out Delvada and as the SM doesn't look too busy I decide to make small talk and ask him a couple of things. Most railwaymen are only too happy to talk about their work, others will just about tolerate you and a few are downright suspicious. But this ASM in Delvada is in a class of his own. When I ask him why the Guard's SLR is placed in the middle of the rake instead of the end, he replies in a world weary manner as if thousands of people troop down to the station every day to ask him such questions. "The Railway Carriage & Wagon Manual runs into 2 or 3 volumes each of them this thick", he says indicating with his hands, "it will take me all day to explain to you". Just as I sheepishly turn around to walk away, he supplies the answer; "so that the passengers don't have to go to the end of the train to buy tickets at halt stations".
Falsely encouraged, I hang around for a couple of minutes while he issues a ticket to somebody and hazard another question â€" "is it a One Train Only section between here and Prachi Road"? But he's set me up nicely for the kill; with a very exasperated and audible sigh he says, "Where do I begin, why don't YOU tell me why it should be a one train only section!"
I flee, to find that Jackie has found an old weighing machine under a sign saying "LUGGAGE WEITGHT HERE". English speakers love to photograph signs with dodgy spelling and/or unintended idiom and then flood the Internet with them, so Jackie poses on the machine while I obligingly shoot her.
There are barely a handful of passengers from Delvada but a few more board at Una including two policemen who sit with us in the last coach with the initials JGD on their shoulder epaulettes. It seems in Gujarat the police wear their district's name on their shoulders so instead of GP for Gujarat Police it's JGD for Junagadh. They are carrying the vintage but ubiquitous.303 rifles and one of them lays his weapon lengthwise on the seat with the business end pointing straight at Jackie. She hasn't noticed and I decide to wait a bit and see her reaction when she finally does. But to make himself more comfortable, the cop shifts his rifle slightly and now it's pointing at me, or rather at that part of the anatomy that I would like to preserve till doddering old age does its worst!
Suddenly feeling vulnerable, I request the cop to point the rifle upwards and he laughs and says that the rifle is unloaded and tries to move it away from me (and back towards Jackie). "What about the round that is always accidentally left in the chamber", I wonder, and as if reading my thoughts he picks up the offending weapon and places it on the overhead rack.
At Prachi Road Jn we witness the best example of WR's enlightened connections policy. We arrive first and wait for # 317 from Kodinar to come in from behind us. After sufficient time elapses for all Junagadh and Veraval bound passengers to exchange trains, # 315 departs first. After we have cleared the next block section, 317 follows us all the way to Talala Jn, where our paths will diverge again. p(normal). This time there is no congregation of trains at Talala and we proceed northward as soon as the loco is reversed and reach Sasangir to find it overrun by a horde of Langurs in search of supper. We're to wait here for the Dhasa-Veraval train, the one we came on two days ago and picturesque Sasangir is the perfect place to wait for a crossing.
The sun is about to set and the entire station is suffused in a golden glow â€" even the faded and chipped maroon carriages manage to look spiffy. Jackie (who has again slept most of the way) and I stroll around the platform watching the Langurs beg for handouts. Meanwhile the Assistant Driver and a Khalasi examine the undercarriage of one of the carriages, while a cow stands close by and watches them, like a supervisor who doesn't like to get her hands dirty. The whole scene at Sasangir is Indian Railways at its charming, bucolic best.
As if to make up for the excessive wildlife at Sasangir Station, the run through Gir yields no animal sightings this time except for a peacock sitting on the tracks, oblivious of the approaching train until it is almost too late. As it flies off in the nick of time squawking loudly, the Driver looks back at his unintended victim and I can see a look on his face that is a mixture of amusement and relief. We remain at the door throughout the forest run watching the sun go down behind the trees, not wanting the scenery to change.
It's dark well before Visavadar and we can clearly see the twinkling lights of the shrines atop Junagadh's Girnar Hill. But as we near Visavadar, we seem to be leaving the lights farther and farther to one side. A co-passenger who commutes to Talala every day says that the railway approaches Junagadh on a rather circuitous route and it will be quite a while before we even get close to town. There's no moon and it's pitch dark outside and the lights in our bay don't work so it's quite dark inside as well. With nothing to do or see it's time to examine the contents of my second hip flask â€" vodka. Jackie, who is much better now but still slightly off thinks it's just the right tonic for her and we take turns to put it away - neat.
The line from Visavadar to Junagadh thankfully has a higher speed limit than the 30 kph we've been maintaining since Talala and the crew don't waste any time at the intervening stations. The approach to Junagadh looks like an attractive one because we skirt around the base of Girnar Hill and then cut through the town next to one of its main roads before joining up with the BG line from Veraval just outside the station. The metre gauge ends in a terminus platform, which is staggered and away from the main platforms â€" a final insult to add to the injury of gauge conversion of the once extensive MG network!
We leave the station quickly in search of food and find the nearby Geeta Lodge. After some hesitation we order Gujarati Thalis and sample each ingredient rather tentatively. "Superb!" is the unanimous verdict and memories of the House of Mangaldass soon fade away as we eat till we are ready to burst
Back at the station the Somnath Express is late and the platform crowded. A young woman spots us and without any semblance of discretion points, whispers and giggles with her companions. This crassness irritates me and I scowl at them, ready for a confrontation. But Jackie, sensible as ever about such things, holds me back. Still seething I head off to a quieter part of the platform, away from prying eyes dressed in khaki, to spike my bottle of Sprite with the remaining Vodka.
As soon as the Somnath Express arrives, Jackie sinks into her AC Sleeper berth with unconcealed glee only to cry out in dismay when the attendant gives her damp and stained sheets with the bedding. My sheets look slightly cleaner, so I gallantly offer them to Jackie, who accepts with alacrity and exchanges the pillow too for good measure!
We reach Jetalsar Jn just before I decide to turn in for the night and I step down for a look-see. Just as well because I spot the Trip Shed for the Sabarmati YDM4's operating in this isolated network that begins at Dhasa. I had thought the locos were serviced at Veraval and would have reported it as such.
As we arrive at Kalupur early the next morning, Jackie asks me if I had witnessed "the row last night". Apparently some people had boarded late at night (perhaps at Rajkot) and argued over berths at the top of their voices right outside our bay. Until Jackie roared at them in a very English way, like Margaret Thatcher confronting rebellious Tories. Suitably stunned, they had fled to the end of the corridor where they resumed their argument, but in whispers.
I didn't hear a thing â€" thanks to all that Vodka!