Round Trip Report
It was sometime in January 2000, when rajat, a friend of mine, who works for ZEE News, dropped into my place, when I told him about my plan to visit south India for a few days. He said that he was also planning to visit the north east of India, to visit a couple of friends.... And somehow we decided to club these together cos I hadn't seen the NE of India and he hadn't seen the South.
Out came a 6'x4' map of India which I possess and our prelim route planning was underway. Our original itinerary was Delhi-Goa-Hyderabad-Nellore-Tirupati-Madras-Bangalore-Mysore-Bangalore-Guwahati-Shillong-Delhi. However, due to time constraints, the Goa-Hyb leg was dropped and the final decision was made to travel:
New Delhi to Nellore: We departed from New Delhi in the 2616 GT express in sleeper class. Our first stop was Nellore. The train in those days was hauled by a Jhansi WAP4 as opposed to the ED loco of present. We were stocked with enough supplies to keep us in 'high spirits' all the way. We made friends with a bunch of guys in our coach... and the journey was accomplished with sessions of 'antakshari' (a game comprising of starting a song with the last letter of the previous song), fights with the train conductor over smoking on the door, arguments with 'hijras' (eunuchs) who said I reminded him of some movie star but couldn't recall his exact name (I knew he actually meant Paresh Rawal...heheh). The ghats on the ET-NGP section were spent in happy clicks of the camera and educating my friends about bankers, and gradient markers :o)
After the mandatory ice cream session at Nagpur, we settled for a nap, cos I wanted to get up at Balharshah to watch the run till Sirpur Kagaznagar by sunset. Dinner was at Warangal, before we settled in for another nap till BZA. I didn't want to miss out on the really cool fruit juice stalls of BZA. The Krishna bridge was passed with a thunderous roar with the WAP4 pulling with all its might. We somehow got an hour late between WL and BZA the crew change at BZA saw a formula 1 driver take over the GT. He regaled us till NLR and made up for 40 mins of time with some ultra fast running despite the stop at Ongole. We were only 20 mins late at NLR, but it was around 330 in the morning when we landed there. A short walk to my maternal grandparents' home and we were soon sleeping.. trying to wear off the effects of a 34 hr journey. Next morning, I showed my friend around Nellore... a place typical of small town India, trying to catch up fast with the rest of the world. Last ten years, Nellore has shown a spurt of growth unmatched in its hundreds of years of history. What with the coming of the cable TV, the internet... it turned a laid back small town of rice growers ( Nellore is famous for its rice) and Prawn farmers into big time wannabes. Showrooms selling Levis and Omegas are as common as they would be in Delhi and Bombay. I couldn't help but feel like Pankaj Mishra and his best selling book 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana'. Nellore has undergone the same change as say Kerala. in Kerala, money flew in from its expat sons in the Gulf, while small town Andhra sons have made it big in the US as IT professionals. The dollars and the attitude that these kids have sent back ( including my own cousins and a dozen other kids I knew ) has really transformed the whole place... for good.. or bad, I don't know !!!
Anyways, coming back to the point... we spent the next day on the Mypad beach, which is half an hour's drive from Nellore through lush green paddy fields, coconut groves and prawn farms. We waded across the Buckingham canal to get to the beach... and when we got there, we realized that there were only two people there. Him and me!!!!! So we had a gala time, having chilled beer sitting on some fisherman's dugout canoe and watching distant ships go on the horizon.
Nellore to Tirupati : We decided to go to Tirupati by one of the East Coast's most notorious trains... the Tirupati-Howrah Express. It's a 12 coach (???) affair... running on an awful schedule and an even awful rake composition, similar to that of the equally bad Andaman/Navyug exps./ with some coaches here, and some there, with SLRs in the middle of nowhere. Calling up the railway enquiry, we were informed that the train was 50 mins late ( no surprise ). Accordingly, we decided to move from our place for the station. We decided to walk it , and along the 1km or so stretch , the stares and the smiles we got convinced me that this STILL was small town India... where backpackers in heavy metal band t-shirts, hiking shorts and boots with baseball caps were still a novelty.
Reaching the station, I asked Rajat to go to the PF while I bought the tickets. Nellore station has an interesting layout... the tracks being a good 12-15 ft above road level... the ticket halls, booking counters etc, are on road level... while to reach PF1 ( new one, built c. 1990 on the loop line) you have to climb about 2 stories..while to reach PFs 2&3, one has to take a subway of sorts and then climb a steep incline ( no stairs ) to reach the island PFs. Its only in 2001 did a FoB spring up connecting NH5 side of NLR ( known as 2 town in local parlance ) to the station.
While in the line... I heard the rumble of a train pulling into the station above my head... and suddenly a guy came screaming, "bandi vacchindi, bandi vacchindi".." meaning the train has arrived, the train has arrived"... Having no clue as to which train... I somehow had a intuition and ran thru the subway, and saw Rajat standing at the top of the incline, and I screamed and asked him what train was it.... all he mouthed was "Tirupati" and I was "@##$%...... that's our train"... and I somehow ran up the 1:1 grade with my huge rucksack and climbed in to train which was already moving... and we were ticket less !! Typical of its nature, the HWH-TPTY Exp had another surprise for us. Luckily, I still possessed our GT exp. tickets, which we had booked till Madras.. And while getting down at NLR, we had break journey inscribed on them. So the tickets were valid till Gudur at least, from where the line branched towards RU and TPTY.
When the TTE came... Rajat tried to tell him in English, about the whole situation... and the TTE said " next station, train stop 40 mins.... u go buy ticket." before I could open my mouth and ask any further , he was gone. If we went literally went by what the TTE had to say, it meant. at the next station, the train will stop for 40 mins, so it shouldn't be a problem for u to buy the train tickets. But opening the timetable, we realized what he meant. He actually meant.. That the next station is 40 mins away so u can buy the tickets there. Luckily the train stopped at PF1 at Gudur and our coach was just near the ticket window, so I was able to buy the tickets easily, and the train actually stopped for 4 mins only ( the TAAG said 5 mins ).
The train was being hauled by an ancient WAM4 from BZA and never did the driver dare go beyond 80 kmph, lest the archaic vacuum brake rake, (avg. coach was built in mid 1970s). At a station near Renigunta.. I can't recall the name, though. I saw one of the most bizarre incidents I have seen on IR. The driver slowed down to a crawl (abt. 10 kmph) while passing thru the PF, to allow SCR employees to jump off. Somewhere near the SM's office an old lady with three huge gunnysacks was standing on the PF and when the loco passed her by, she waved at the driver. We were seeing this from the door.. and to our surprise, the train stopped !!!!!!
Then the lady picked up one of her sacks, trundled up all the way to the first SLR and deposited her luggage there. Then she went back and repeated the process. When all three sacks were done, the driver literally asked her if that was all. and once done.. he started the train again. Trust me, never before have I seen this in my life. I heard just heard stories that u could wave the TPTY-HWH express to a halt, but this actually came true !!!
Getting off at TPTY, we got out of the train, to be greeted by a Sardarji who seemed to have been attracted towards us by our loud and heavily Punjabi accented conversation. He literally plied on to us, with this being his first trip to Tirupati. We got out of the station and crossed out of the station to reach the TTD bus stand from where the buses departed for the shrine at Tirumala. There we got our first taste of the Hi-Tech revolution the shrine has undergone, with we being given bar-coded armbands, which specified our designated time of 'darshan'. That done, we boarded the rickety TTD bus, which wheezed its way up the twisting and turning mountain road. The road itself is an engineering marvel, and is very smooth. All along the way, u could see numerous rocks being painted in praise of Lord venkateswara with hymns and shlokas. Equally numerous was graffiti by amorous devotees who along with proclaiming their love for the Lord, could not resist proclaiming their love for their Sheila's, bindus and ritus...
All this while, the Sardarji was telling us stories from his travels around the country on his trusty TATA truck. The guy was your typical trucker, who had been all over the country in his 40 years as d river, but he had now retired with a truck company of his own, which was looked after by his sons, while he now traveled all over the land indulging in pilgrimages. Before Tirupati, he had been to Puri, Calcutta and other temple towns, he was ranting about the rampant corruption in all those places, and how the priests had made those temples into their personal fiefdoms. All these were being narrated in hardcore Punjabi replete with the choicest of abuses being hurled left right and centre at all protagonists in his stories who invariably belong to practically all ethnic groups in our country. This motormouth geriatric frankly was embarrassing us, but we were lucky that not a soul in the bus seemed to understand him.
Reaching Tirumala, we disappeared from his sight at the first chance lest he decided to park himself in our room only. We had already reserved our accommodation there and after a shower and a meal of masala dosas and filter coffee, we decided to roam around for a while, since our stipulated darshan time was still a few hours away. We bought some knick-knacks for our families and soon enough it was time for the Darshan.
Religion in India is as big an industry as any, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Tirupati. You could reach the sanctum sanctorum of the temple in two ways. One was the 'Free Darshan' where all you had to do was to stand in the line and then wait till the Gods smile down on you and depending on the time of the year you go, you can have the darshan in 4 to 24 hours. The other option (which we took) is to pay Rs. 50 and take a smaller queue to reach the Lord. So even the God's need a bit of money, if you want their blessings a bit quicker..
Tirupati to Chennai: We came out of the temple at around 12 AM, and went back to our room for a nap. Next morning we went to see the Papanashanam waterfalls, which lie a bit higher than the town of Tirumala. Finishing that, we decided to give lunch a by and proceeded straight for Tirupati Station to catch the Saptagiri exp. to Chennai. We reached the station well before the departure and we were practically starving. So I stayed put in the waiting room to guard our rucksacks, while Rajat attacked the refreshment room. He came back 20 minutes later with a smirk on his face, and I knew something was up? He then described the events of the last few minutes where in he practically emptied the refreshment stall's stock of Idli's and Vadas. So it was my turn to fill my tummy, and the moment the guy at the stall saw me, he knew he was in for more trouble as another six-footer in travel worn clothes and a hungry look sauntered in. After about 8-9 idlis, half a dozen vadas and half a liter Pepsi later, the poor guy heaved a sigh of relief as I paid him and nodded thanks and walked off, to share my story with Rajat.
Pretty soon the, Saptagiri arrived behind its yellow-green liveried WAM4-6PD and he hopped in the AC Chair Car to beat the heat. At RU, the train stopped to reverse and I ran off to have a look at the driver's cab, while Rajat, sick of South Indian food (already !!!!) , went in someone selling the universal IR dish : Puri and Aloo Curry (Potato Curry). On my return, I saw Rajat with a triumphant look on his face and Aloo Puri in both hands. He handed me one and started hogging the other. But one bite and his expression changed all over again.. Cos. the curry tasted like.. Sambar!!!! This is one thing where we Punjabi's are so troubled. Just can't digest anything else for long. I being half Telugu and half Punjabi... manage better
Anyways, we reached Chennai on time and after a bout of serious argument with the notorious auto-shankars (autorickshaw drivers), we managed to bargain a price for him to drop us at Alwarpet. Night was spent in the company of old friends.. and the atmosphere reminded me of a song famous between pirates of yore " fifteen men on a dead man's chest. yo ho ho and a bottle of rum... drink and the devil has done the rest.. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum."
Morning broke with the smell of aloo paratha's (something for which punjabis can die for) wafting in the air. It turned out that our friend had a cook who had worked for years in a dhaba in Punjab. It was like manna from heaven after 4 days of surviving on dosas and sambar. Noontime we spent finishing some work and shopping for kanjeevaram sari's at Nalli for our mother's and girlfriend's mothers. And on our way back, we decided to visit Elliot's beach (Adyar). I rememberd it from my college days, when I used to hop on the GT/TN Exp. Just to meet my girlfriend who was studying in Chennai and also for the ride on the mother of all trains. Then the beach used to be a quiet place, where u could just sit and watch the sun go down (behind our backs) and just talk. How utterly romantic.. Ah !! for those puppy love days..
But in the present, that quiet little place has become a clone of Marina beach, with litter all over the place, beggars, college boys with their pseudo racer bikes making a racket and polluting the world a wee bit more. I was aghast at the sight, cos I considered Chennai as the last bastion of things still old fashioned, but not anymore.. But we couldn't somehow resist the water and plunged headlong.. Formal clothes and all, and reached back home well after sunset.. Dripping from head to toe and the white ambassador ferrying us across the town was a total mess.
Chennai to Bangalore: Next morning, we woke with a major hangover, a resultant of last night's romps and rushed to Chennai Central to catch the Brindavan Exp. to Bangalore. That day it was pulled by an AJJ WAM-4. Since it was to be my first visit to Bangalore. I really didn't know if the WAP4 was employed full time or not. We got down at Bangalore Cantt. And spent the next four days including Valentine's Day pub hopping across Bangalore. The idea to go to Mysore was dropped, just because we fell in love with Bangalore so much..
16th February evening, we were in Purple Haze. Downing beers by the gallon and enjoying the music by the likes of Metallica, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne etc. At about 2300 we moved to SBC station, to embark on the longest journey of our lives. Bangalore to Guwahati on the SBC-GHY Exp., one of the most notorious trains on IR. Even before it departed, we knew why.. The rake was an absolute stinker, with water already leaking from the toilets and was all over the floor. The coach floor itself was worn off at places and had gaping holes in some parts... and as luck would have it. We had seats #1 and 2.. We had placed our rucksacks under the seats and by the time we reached BNC. The water had already seeped through and was threatening to destroy our rucksacks..
Somehow we managed to save our luggage, but from then on. Any person going to the loo or back, had to negotiate puddles on the floor, risk falling of the train through one of the holes.. All in all, it made taking a leak, an adventure. Dwan broke at Chennai, with the first of the train's reversals (3) and loco changes (5). The WAG5 from AJJ which had brought us till MAS, gave way to a WAM4 from BZA. I was surprised and thanked the almighty that at least there was a pantry on the train. It was serving egg curry and rice as standard fare. And we survived on that all the way till GHY. At BZA, a VSKP WDM2 took over.. And another WDM2 (KGP) from VSKP after another reversal. We were traveling through Orissa just a few months after the devastating cyclone which had ripped the entire sTTE to tatters. All around me, I saw life slowly limping back to normal. And in a weird way, I felt proud of my nation... that in the face of all sorts of adversities. We still manage to smile. You could hear the people sing.. While the rebuilt the thatched roofs of their huts. Li'l kids, playing cricket in the ruins, of what was once probably their school. This resilient nature of my country, the ability to adjust is probably what makes our country so great.
I was excited to reach Kharagpur, and come face to face with the longest railway platform in the world. Stuff, about which I had only read or heard. I wondered what did anyone do with such a long PF, when u never could find a train that long. I was shocked to see that we were pulling into a PF where there was already a train standing.. Only on closer inspection did I realize, that KGP solved it's problems lengthways ;o)
Reaching Calcutta was another experience, with the quad lines starting way before HWH, and the maze of lines leading into and off the mainlines. And there was the inbound Geetanjali exp. which ran neck to neck with my train for a good 20 km or more. It was a sort of a race.. With sometimes we leading and sometimes the Geetaanjali. And the passengers one both sides standing on the doors, were hooting at each other as if it was a chariot race egging on the drivers.. a good 10-12 coaches away, to drive faster. Pulling into HWH, I was disappointed. Not being familiar with the layout of the railways in that part, was expecting to cross the famed Howrah Bridge across the Hooghly river. Again a reversal and again a loco change, and this time we managed to convince the TTE in giving us a better seat, away from the stinking loos. By now, the train was half empty , so it wasn't really a problem. Under the fading light, we pulled out of HWH, and I managed to catch a glimpse of the Howrah Bridge from the train..
At night, I was told to watch out for the Farakka Barrage, which I was told, looked almost like a sea, with water stretching as far as I could see. Sadly, it was a moonless night, and I could make out anything at all from the window. So I just decided to hit the sack.
Waking up at New Jalpaiguri, I saw the NG lines of the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan railway), but sadly no loco or rolling stock was there, except a few decrepit freight wagons. NJP onwards, what transpired was really amazing. You would have read recent reports on rampant smuggling in this very train. Well I was witness to guys walking up and down the aisles loaded with stuff, which would put shops at Burma Bazar, Hira Panna and Ghaffar Market to shame !!! These guys were loaded with stuff like shoes, mobile phones, toys, clothes, sunglasses, music systems and god knows what else, and all this on their person !!!!! All of it was smuggled through the porous borders of Nepal and was for sale at rock bottom process. At New Bongaigaon, a lad of about 15-16 walked up the aisle with pockets stuffed with suspicious objects, and what he whispered into my ears confirmed it. He asked me if I was interested in buying some rum ????? and if that wasn't all, at new alipurduar, there were hordes of travel agents who descended on the train, promising to book bus tickets for onward journeys from GHY !!!!
My earlier experience with such 'agents' in Gorakhpur, while traveling to Nepal, were lesson enough to stay away from them. We reached Guwhati after an agonizing 72 hrs 40 mins., just 8 hours late covering approx. 3011 Km. All along the way, we ran parallel to the MG line, and on occasions overtook many an train hauled by a wheezing YDM4, and many of them had a speed limit of 40 kmph stenciled under the drivers cab. It was Suffer rather than Safar (journey). We reached our friend's place, and after a shower we sat down on the dinner table. still shaking from the inside.. All we longed for was a bed and seeing one. we just crashed into it.
We were takes on a guided tour of Guwahati the next day. We saw the Kamakhya temple. and the view of the trainline coming into the city across the mighty Bramhaputra was absolutely stunning, as was the sheer width of the river, so far upstream!!! Evening we went for a ride in Jolpori ( Jalpari or Mermaid ) which was a floating restaurant... with live music and amazing food, while the boat was all lit up and looking a pretty sight in the waters of the river Bramhaputra......
Guwahati to Shillong : We left for Shillong by a rented Tata Sumo. It was the only road journey of our entire trip. Shillong was a pretty place.. But sadly due to tribal feuding, it is very unsafe to move around after sundown. We spent 4 days there gorging on wonderful Momos ( steamed or fried dumplings, filled with chicken , mutton or mixed vegetable), a visit to the wonderful Barapani lake. We were probably the tallest dudes in entire Shillong, 2 days into our stay, our friends came giggling upto us saying that their neighbours were under the impression that they had hired two body guards :o) our close cropped hair and physique somehow gave them the impression..
We were sad to leave Shillong, as it as the last leg of our journey. From Guwahati, only the return trip to Delhi remained.
Guwahati to New Delhi: We were due to take the North East Express back to New Delhi, and inspite of my Herculean efforts to wake Mr. Rajat, he woke up only at 0800, while the departure was scheduled at 0830. By the time we made it to the station.the NE had already pulled out, and we were left to stare at the LV board dangling from its SLR.
Our driver told us that we still had a chance of catching it at Kamakhyaguri station, but we ran out of fuel on the way, and then got stuck in a major traffic jam at the level crossing before the station. I still was convinced that I could run and catch the train from where we were, but inspite of my best efforts, we didn't make it.
Now we had another predicament to face.. How to get back to Delhi. Our biggest problem was cash. We just had Rs. 1200/- left in our pocket, which we thought was enough to take us back. And even though we were to get some refund on the NE tickets.. We were unable to avail it as our tickets were booked on a credit card.
Enquiries for an ATM proved futile, there was no ATM in Guwahati, and inspite of having 5 credit cards and 2 debit cards, we were stranded. So much for Visa power !!! Somehow, we were guided to the one GOOD bank in GHY, which turned out to be an ANZ Grindlays. Where the teller listened patiently to our story and asked : " So what do you want ????", we were like " Excuse me.. We want cash !!" and he was like " do you have a credit card ?? " We simply laid all on the counter and told him to use the one he liked the most. Anyways, we got cash and after a major round of argument at the reservation counter at GHY station over the validity of my university identity card (as per rules, it bore my photo, signature, a serial number and was laminated), still the clerk refused to give me a ticket. I threatened him and his entire department in choicest Punjabi, and after half an hour, we managed Tatkal tickets for the next days Raj back home.
Hitting the streets of GHY again, the effects of our last 19 days of journey somehow hit us. And we just burst out laughing. I'm sure we were quite a sight, standing in the middle of the intersection, backpacks piled high, unshaven and laughing like madmen. Rajat was scared of oversleeping again, and forced me to spend the night on the station itself. It wasn't much of a trouble, with trains puring in from all over the country and each one, at least 4-5 hours late.
Guwahati to New Delhi : Next morning, we boarded the Dibrugarh-NDLS Raj. Somehow it was fitting that such a monstrous journey be ended in the comfort of a Raj. It was our first Raj Journey and we were excited by it. After the recorded announcement about the journey details, piped music blaring devotional songs to Mata Vaishno Devi sung by some stupid ass took over. At about 10 in the morning it gave way to Sad songs from 60s hindi movies, which somehow dulled the mood. The constant feeding by the enthusiastic catering staff was also getting on my nerves, and the train never went beyond 60kmph. I was really getting bugged. So I settled down for a nap. We reached I woke up in the evening to find myself in Bihar and wherever we stopped, the whole place was abuzz with gossip, as the results of the Assembly elections weer to announced that day. As luck would have it, Laloo's party won again. And his supporters whooping with joy had blocked trains at Patna Jn. which left our train stranded for more than 2 hours at Patna outer.
Strange are our politicians, who stop trains when they are angry, and stop trains even when they are happy !!! Anyways, from Patna, a WAP1 from GZB took over, and boy did he enjoy himself. All night long, the Raj rattled along merrily at top speeds, and dawn saw us somewhere in UP. I wanted to open the door and stand there and enjoy some high speed wind, but the chilly weather outside laid to rest all such plans. We reached Ghaziabad 10 mins. before time and made it to New Delhi on time.
Getting out from the station on the Pahargunj side, it was a kind of a welcome relief to be back home. Even though all around me there were buses, trucks, rickshaws, horse carriages and all sorts of other vehicles jostling for space in the narrow road there. Some hot butter toast and chai later, we tried to hitch an autorickshaw ride home.. I flagged one done and just said "Janak Puri (i.e. my locality in Delhi) and the guy nonchalantly uttered, "Give me two hundred". I was shocked because normal fare is about 60 Rs. Then it hit me, even the Delhi auto-wallah got fooled by our appearance.. to my hometown folk, I looked like a foreigner !!!!! Waah re India Waah…