These days more than 95% of my travel between places more than 200 km (125 miles) apart is by flight. The remaining 5% is covered by car in the US and mostly by train in India. Growing up in India, though, the de facto mode of travel used to be a train. Most of my journeys were between my city of residence Hyderabad and my native town Kandi in Murshidabad, West Bengal, around 240 km from Calcutta (Kolkata).
Now, whatever the Communist Party of India (Marxist) might claim, West Bengal is indeed one of the most backward states in India with extremely poor infrastructure. Kandi has neither any access to trains nor a state-run bus connecting it from Kolkata. If you want to travel between Kandi and Kolkata you have 3 options:
- A direct bus run by a private operator up to Kolkata
- A long-distance cab
- A bus to Salar or Katwa or Berhampore, and then a train to Kolkata
My story begins in March 1988, when I was 9 years old. My maternal grandfather had passed away in February and my mother and brother Koke (who is 5 years younger than me) had gone to Kandi from Hyderabad for the last rites. I traveled there a couple of weeks later with my father, because of the exams that I needed to take at school in Hyderabad. Those days it was customary for me to fall sick during the last leg of my trip to Kolkata. Typically I would suffer from high fever and extreme nausea. This trip was no exception.
Anyway, given that the travel time from Kandi to Kolkata was in excess of 6 hours excluding journey breaks, things had to be timed to perfection. This invariably meant taking a bus from Kandi at around 4:00 in the night, then reaching Salar, then taking the train from there. The lag between the bus and the train was typically around 30 minutes. If your bus got delayed you ran the risk of missing the train, which would have a cascading effect since you could potentially miss the big train from Kolkata to Hyderabad.
Traveling on this trip was my family and my uncle Bablu kaku. As luck would have it, our bus to Salar got delayed. This left us with a margin of around 10 minutes to get the train. My father put me on the train with the luggage and went to fetch my mother and Koke. They had gone to get tickets. The trains plying between two towns in Bengal normally comprised of general unreserved coaches only. This meant that there would be no inspection of tickets on the train. There could be an inspection at the other end of the line, but such inspections happened only at the exit point of the station and we would be remaining within the station. In the off-chance that there is an inspection, we normally traveled with tickets.
However, given the extremely narrow margin there was no time to get tickets. Instead my father had to ensure that my mother and brother boarded. Within a minute of his leaving, though, the train started to move. Even at a young age I was termed calm and collected. So I went to the door of the coach. As the train picked up speed I desperately waited for my parents to show up. Then they came.
My father running with my brother in his arms and my mother close behind. They ran harder while I waited at the door. My father managed to get one hand on one handle of the door. My mother raised her hand to grab the other handle. And slipped. In her tumble she took down my father and brother as well. All three fell on the train platform and rolled towards the now fast moving train. This time I freaked out. And then a miracle happened. I had forgotten that my uncle was also in the coach. He was watching the action unfold from the posterior door. Sensing that something dangerous might happen he jumped out at the right moment and pushed away my parents and brother from the edge of the platform.
Nevertheless I had a full-blown panic attack, aggravated by the fact that I couldn’t see anything happening at the station beyond a point. The sad part is that the hand-brakes that exist in every compartment of a train in India failed to work in this case. After the panic subsided I started thinking. It would make sense for me to get off at a station en route to Kolkata. That way I could wait for my family. Going all the way to Kolkata wouldn’t help since it is much easier to get lost in a station as big as Howrah. Getting off the train at a small station wouldn’t help, too, since trains tended to stop for shorter periods at smaller stations. Then the answer came – Katwa. A slightly larger station, but nowhere as messed up as Kolkata.
It would be a grave omission to not mention my co-passengers, who were extremely supportive during the trip. One of them tried his best to stop the train by pulling the hand-brake. All of them kept telling me that everything would be alright and agreed with my plan to disembark at Katwa.
When the train reached Katwa there was an announcement on the PA system at the station calling out my name and asking me to get off the train. Obviously I had thought of the same thing as my father. About an hour later my parents, brother and uncle came in the next train and picked me up from Katwa. They were largely unhurt. We didn’t miss our connection in Kolkata. All was well.