Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Karimganj Via Agartala: Train Through Tripura

A Town On The Border
It’s my third trip to Karimganj, Assam. Durba, my wife, was born here. She spent her childhood and youth in Karimganj before moving to Guwahati for her university degree and then, to Kolkata. For those who are wondering where exactly is Karimganj, it is a small town on the border of India and Bangladesh, somewhere in the middle of the long winding land route between Guwahati and Agartala. I think the best way to locate it on Wikimapia is to try and find Sylhet in Bangladesh and pan eastwards. Sylhet is a pretty big place with an international airport and it’s almost across the border from Karimganj. In fact, I am told that in the confusing times just after independence, Karimganj town was part of Sylhet district, which had fallen in East Pakistan, for an entire day!
One may not find Karimganj on a tourist map of the North East. But each time I have visited, I have gone back with fond memories. Of the warmth of its people. And of the view of Bangladesh just across the river Kushiara. You see the trees and people across the stream. But you cannot cross. It’s a different country, even though the same dialect is spoken there.
The Plan
The usual way of traveling to Karimganj from Kolkata is to take a flight to Silchar and then travel by road. Or take a train to Guwahati and take an overnight bus. Or, instead of changing at Guwahati, take the train further up to Lumding and change to metre gauge for another very long journey. We had taken the first option on our first two visits. This time around, apparently because we had planed our trip during the Durga Puja vacations, we found the Silchar flights way too expensive. That too a full two and a half months before the Pujas. The other two options are too time-intensive and involve a whole lot of uncertainties in the form of bad roads, militancy etc. So we decided to explore a totally different route altogether. We would take the morning flight to Agartala, which was much cheaper than the Silchar flight. Then board the metre gauge Silchar passenger for a seven and hour's journey to Karimganj, reaching our destnation late in the evening. The tickets were booked accordingly. Finally the day arrived. We were all set to go...

View Kolkata - Karimganj Route in a larger map

View Agartala - Karimganj Route in a larger map

Getting Out
October 15. 5-30 AM. The sky is cloudless. The sun has just risen above the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. What a relief! The way it rained last evening it seemed Durga Puja was destined to be a washout this year in Kolkata. We are seeing some strange weather in Kolkata for the past year and a half. Exceptionally high temperatures in summer. A winter that set in early and left early as well, leaving behind memories of a prolonged cold wave. Monsoons without rain. And then, rains in mid-October, when the monsoons should be retreating.
Airbus to Agartala
Well, rain or sunshine, we have a flight to catch to Agartala and so, we take a taxi to Dum Dum. The sweet girl behind the IndiGo desk greets us in Bangla and then, issues us seats right in the middle of the Airbus, which means the wing is all we shall get to see below us in this fifty minute flight. This, in spite of us being the first passengers to check in for our flight! IndiGo 6E 273 arrives before time from Delhi. And so we leave before time as well. No scary turbulences this time around. 9-40 AM. Smooth landing at IXA, the fourteenth and the latest Indian airport I have touched down at. We book an auto-rickshaw from the airport Pre-paid for Rs. 140 and head off for the station which, our driver says, will take a little over half an hour. Which means that we have plenty of time in hand – our train leaves Agartala at 11-30 AM, or so we think!
11-00 AM. Agartala station. The Indian Railway station code for Agartala is AGTL. It found its way into the IR map as late as 2008. A single track metre gauge line connects it to far-off Lumding, Assam, from where one has to change for Guwahati, Kolkata, Delhi, Bengaluru, etc.. Resembling one of the city’s palaces, I am not exactly sure which one at the moment, the stark white station building stands out in the open countryside on the outskirts of Agartala. We buy water from one of the shacks in the parking lot and enter. Platform 1 is a sea of heads. Some three hundred people waiting for our train, the 863 Up Agartala – Silchar passenger, the only train scheduled at this station for the next four hours. The heat had surprised us the moment we stepped out of the aircraft – we were expecting Agartla to be a lot cooler at this time of the year. But now, it seems to be getting worse as we wait – the train is nowhere in sight. In fact, the entire landscape for miles around is absolutely bereft of any railway rolling stock! Then, an announcement. The Dharmanagar – Agartala passenger will be arriving late, around 11-45 AM. Enlightenment dawns on us. The 863 Up does not have a dedicated rake. The inbound Dharmanagar – Agartala passenger will return as the Agartala – Silchar passenger. First shock over, we settle down on the steps of the foot over bridge to wait.

The Mystery Of the Missing Chair Car
12 noon. I am perspiring profusely through my new shirt. Debarati is trying her best to keep a smiling face. Suddenly, the rumble of a diesel along with a blast of a horn in the distance. Our train chugs in. Chaos all around. People trying to disembark. Pushed back inside their coaches by the waiting crowd desperate to find a seat before it’s taken. We scan the rake for our AC Chair Car. It seems to have only unreserved second class coaches. Ten frantic minutes later the Agartala TC politely informs us that the AC Chair Car is out of order and so, has been taken off this rake for the time being. And, there are no replacements. This, with an advice to grab a seat in one of the unreserved coaches. I look over my shoulder. People are hanging out the coaches. No chance of a seat now at least. Karimganj is a good seven hours’ journey and more!

12-15 PM. We are wondering what to do – shall we seek a refund and book afresh on the Express which leaves later in the afternoon? Apparently that one too will leave way behind schedule. I take a chance and ask the TC if there’s a way we can travel in the guard’s cabin. This elicits an interesting response from the gentleman, following which I find myself sprinting towards the engine, that has now reversed and is now ready to haul our train back out in five minutes. No, we are not travelling on the engine, though that is what I would have dearly liked to have done, but there’s a chance of finding seated accommodation alongside the Railway Mail on the SLR, the first coach trailing the engine. It’s now or never. The deal has to be sealed, if we intend to reach Karimganj by tonight that is!
Railway Mail Service
12-20 PM. Three sacks. Two RPSF jawans. One railwayman (or mailman, or whatever – I didn’t care to find out). And the two of us. There’s plenty of room in this coach. In fact, we have an entire seating enclosure to ourselves. The toilets are usable. There’s water in the taps. It’s like traveling non-AC First Class in the old days. Except for the fact that we have wooden benches for seats. And the fans are out of order. In this heat. The train has just left AGTL. We wait for it to pick up speed. The wind rushing in through the open windows can bring some relief. There seems little hope of securing a decent lunch in this journey. So we bring out the cake Debarati baked the day before. The two litre bottle of water purchased at AGTL is fast depleting as we try to rehydrate ourselves. We take small gulps as we are not sure about the availability of water with our small company of co-travellers or anywhere en route.

After about an hour of chugging along at metre gauge speed, we start climbing. The engine, which is just ahead of us, starts to emit a deep-throated growl under the effort. This is a seventeen coach rake. And loaded to the brim. It takes some climbing with this. The terrain has started to change. Rock faces on either sides of the track and lush vegetation on the slopes. No human habitation. We reach a station. At last, a water seller. Some food as well in the form of jhal muri. We move on. As we ride a curve, a line of low hills come into view in the distance. Before long, we are winding our way through the hills. The forests of West Tripura and Dhalai engulf us completely. The cool breath of the jungle soothes us. We rumble through a long tunnel. Then, again, the jungle.

Soldiers Are Like Me And You
As we pull out of a station located in the middle of the forests, we are joined by a couple more RPSF jawans. The new entrants decide to share our enclosure and settle down in the bench opposite us with their semi-automatics after taking off their bullet-proofs. Debarati seems slightly uncomfortable as the duo keep glancing at us. I decide to break the ice. These boys look pretty young. I ask them, “Which part of India are you from?” Bhagalpur, Bihar and Dausa, Rajasthan, they reply. “Is militancy a major threat in these parts of Tripura now?” Not a huge threat, they reply. But serious enough for their headquarters to issue an order making bullet-proofs compulsory for them on this stretch. The trickle of words soon turns into a gush of emotions. The boys share stories about training, life on duty, family. Our friend from Rajasthan has just married. There is a hint of longing and sadness in his voice as he speaks of his wife who stays with his mother back in Dausa. I tell him he looks a bit like Abhishek Bachhan in his first movie. His face brightens up. His companion from Bihar wants to get married soon. But it’s difficult to get leave. I sympathise with him. From which laptop and digicam models to buy to where to go for a memorable honeymoon, the boys listen attentively as I hold forth. Time flies as we curve through the forests. It’s Ashtami today. For these two young soldiers, it’s another long day on duty. Their presence makes a difference for people like us. At the end of the day, we are all humans. As evening falls, the sun plays hide and seek through the canopy of trees and the low hillocks. These men are just as tired as we are.

The Last Leg
5-45 PM. We chug out of Dharmanagar. Darkness has consumed us entirely. Our paramilitary friends have parted way at Dharmanagar, to escort the 864 Dn Silchar-Agartala passenger back through the forests. The train is traveling pretty fast now, as if it is determined to get us into Karimganj by 8-30 PM, a mere one and half hour behind schedule. The incandescent lamps in our coach glow dully, dimming away totally each time the train slows down slightly, leaving us to enjoy the moonlit landscape outside. Eventually exhaustion gets the better of us and we doze off. To be woken up every now and then by violent jerks. The springs must be worn out. The entire rake is second-hand stuff, having served other parts of the country for the past few decades. One has experienced turbulence on board an aeroplane many a times and learnt to cope with it. But turbulence on board a train? Well, that’s certainly a new experience!
9-00 PM. We arrive at Karimganj finally. We walk out of the station and become a part of the crowd that will stay up till late tonight in this otherwise sleepy town – it’s Ashtami, remember?

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