In November/December 1997 I undertook a journey from New Delhi to Baroda (Vadodara, in Gujarat) through Durgapur, Kandi, Katwa and Kolkata (all in West Bengal). If you are familiar with the geography of India, New Delhi is in the North, West Bengal is in the East and Gujarat is in the West. This is an extremely weird route to take, since you can actually get from New Delhi to Baroda by train in just under 14 hours. The reason for this type of a route was:
- I was studying in New Delhi, hence the origin
- My parents and brother were in Baroda, hence the destination
- My cousin Shnaoli Didi was getting married in Katwa
- I had to also visit my native town Kandi, since it is pretty close to Katwa
- The easiest way to Kandi from Delhi was to disembark at Durgapur and take a bus
- The only way to go from Katwa to Baroda was through Kolkata
On a map this is roughly how my route looked. Note that this shows a route by road, while most of my travel was by train.
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The different points on the map are listed in the order of visit:
- A – New Delhi
- B – Durgapur, West Bengal
- C – Kandi, West Bengal
- D – Katwa, West Bengal
- E – Kolkata, West Bengal
- F – Bardoli, Gujarat
- G – Surat, Gujarat
- H – Baroda, Gujarat
First Leg: New Delhi to Durgapur
The journey started very well. It used to be a practice at IIT to try and find someone among our friends traveling in the same general direction, because we could coordinate the dates appropriately and completely cut out the boredom of traveling alone. In this case I had a pretty good friend Himanshu Khandelia going to Kolkata, so we decided to travel together. Durgapur was a stop on the way to Kolkata by train.
We were traveling by Poorva Express and looking forward to the trip. If you look at the map, you will see that the train had to pass through two states – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (well, at that time Bihar and Jharkhand used to be a single state) en route to Kolkata. As luck would have it, we had people from both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the compartment. Now, people from either of these states don’t see eye to eye with the people from the other. After a lot of simmering discontent, things came to a head when the guy from UP said, “Kanpur aane de, phir tujhe dekhe lenge” (Let Kanpur come, then we will show you). Soon enough Kanpur (in UP) came, the number of folks from UP increased and a fistfight erupted. The neutral folks (i.e. the Bongs and the Delhiites) got pretty scared and some of them covertly pulled the chain. Actually it was Khandelia and me pulling it, but that is not the point.
Anyway, after the authorities intervened things settled down, though that did not prevent the adversaries from casting dirty looks at each other. Next afternoon at around 2:30 pm I reached Durgapur.
Second Leg: Durgapur to Kandi
At the railway station in Durgapur I was received by Dutta Kaku and Kakima, old family friends. This was a brief meeting – they made sure I got something to eat and put me on a bus to Kandi. At this point I should mention that on my trips from Delhi I would inevitably have a lot of luggage. There were a couple of reasons for this:
- My journeys were during the breaks at the end of semester. I used to have a trunk and a suitcase at IIT and our rooms needed to be vacated after every semester, even if we were to return to the same room the subsequent semester. We typically used to cram as much as possible in the trunk and dump the trunk and mattress in the cloak room. This would mean that all the stuff we couldn’t fit in the trunk would have to make the trip home and back even if there was no use for it.
- During winters travel by Sleeper Class trains would mean extreme cold at nights, given the range of temperatures in North India. This meant carrying a blanket and some warm clothing, all of which added to the luggage.
Anyway, back to the story. When Dutta Kaku and Kakima were putting me on a bus we had two choices: a private operator’s bus that would start earlier and a state-operated bus that would start later. Naturally I boarded the former, since a downpour had started. About 10 minutes into the trip the bus started lurching rather violently and came to a halt. The driver and conductor announced that the gear-box had broken and that the bus wouldn’t be able to go further.
So I got off the bus and waited for the next bus, in the rain, holding on to some really heavy luggage. My wait lasted around 30 minutes, after which another bus came by. This was the same bus that I had not taken from Durgapur. The conductor gave me an appraising look that seemed to say, “I told you so”. Naturally since this bus already had passengers and we were roughly doubling the count, it was tough to get a place to stand let alone sit.
So you had a thoroughly drenched person holding heavy luggage, waiting for a seat to get vacant. My wait wasn’t very long, though. I got a place to sit and had the wind dry me out. Soon enough I reached Kandi.
Third Leg: Stay at Kandi and Trip to Katwa
Kandi is where more than 80% of my extended family used to live, from my father’s side as well as my mother’s. Given that I was just an occasional visitor, most of my relatives were really thrilled about inviting me to have lunch or dinner with them. Given a Bengali’s propensity to cook, most of such meals were quite rich and heavy. Combined with my rinse and dry experience on the trip from Durgapur it all contrived to serve me with a 102oF fever and a rather upset stomach. Ouch.
However, living in a hostel provides you with an exceptional quality – resilience. I had to accompany my grandfather to Katwa for the wedding and he was really excited about it. So my resilience convinced my fever and stomach to stay quiet and I started the trip to Katwa as scheduled. This was a trip by bus.
Again I had no place to sit, since I ensured that my grandfather took the available seat. Luckily though, I found a place to stash my luggage and more critically, I was dry this time. Unluckily my fever started kicking in.
Fourth Leg: Stay at Katwa and Trip to Kolkata
By the time I reached Katwa my fever kicked in in earnest. With the wedding on the next day, I found the situation frankly embarrassing – this was not the time to fall sick. By sheer force of will, a healthy dose of paracetamol and the charming company of my cousin Tista I found that I was cured by the afternoon of the marriage.
That put me at tremendous ease and I was able to indulge in the customary contest of gluttony involving chicken and Bengali sweets. Thankfully there were no side-effects and I was able to leave with the Borjatri bus the next morning.
Typically a bus ride from Katwa to Kolkata used to take around 5 hours. That day it took us 10. I fail to recollect the exact reasons, but the unruliness of the driver did have something to do with it. Added to that some members of our traveling party fell quite ill. Fortunately I had medicines enough for a small third-world country, a fact that both reassured and terrified my Doctor Aunt Santha Kakima. We were able to keep the ill in manageable health without having to invest more effort into finding a pharmacy.
Finally after all the grime and a metabolically inadequate 4 puris throughout the day we reached Kolkata at around 6:00 in the evening. We were staying at Kakima‘s (and Tista’s) house. The first course of action was to open a large handi (earthen utensil) of rosogollas and eat as many as we could. Dinner was seen to later.
Fifth Leg: Stay at Kolkata and Starting of the Trip to Baroda
My stay at Kolkata was excellent in the sense that it was as uneventful as it could be. I did a city tour as the sole Bengali in the group, I paid a visit to the then wonderful Science City and made my first trip by the rather well-constructed Metro. There was also the small matter of Shnaoli Didi‘s Boubhat – another occasion where we enjoyed ourselves.
The day before leaving I went to my Mama‘s place, with the plan being that he would see me off at the station the next evening. And so we set off for Howrah by cab. The cab broke down some distance away from the station. Somehow the driver managed to get us to the Hooghly river. We caught a steamer and cross the river, landing right in front of the Howrah station.
Sixth Leg: Trip to Baroda
The two of us entered the station, where I asked my uncle to wait and went up to the inquiry counter to see which platform the train (2834 Howrah-Ahmedabad Express) would depart from. The lady politely informed me that the train had been canceled. Upon a little prodding she told me that there was a special train arranged with unreserved compartments, a First Class coach and an AC 2-tier coach. She also said that I could travel on this train using my ticket.
I retreated from the counter to gather my thoughts. Upon being informed my uncle started hyperventilating. A shifty-looking character came by and volunteered to sell me tickets for the two coaches requiring reservation at a significant markup. To give an estimate, my ticket was worth around Rs. 340/- and a first class ticket would cost around twice this amount and an AC ticket would cost around 3 times this amount. This gentleman naturally asked me for Rs. 1400/- for the First Class and Rs. 1600/- for the AC. As a student of limited means I refused his selfless offer and decided to take my chance with an unreserved coach. To accentuate my limited means I canceled my reserved ticket and purchased a general class ticket for Rs. 235/-, saving myself Rs. 105/- (equivalent to US $2.80 those days).
Muscling my way through the crowd I managed to grab an upper berth in the train and promptly captured it. The first night I slept well. The next day was uneventful and lonely since I wasn’t getting off my seat. Becalmed in the knowledge that I would reach home the next day I went to sleep the second night. At around 3:00 in the night some enthusiastic devotees started a series of Kirtans. Though I am not an atheist I have never been a willing member of an audience for a kirtan. Added to that these people neither sang in beat nor in tune. To make matters worse, none could tell them to shut up because that would be blasphemous and moreover, this was an unreserved coach. So I endured the cacophony for the remainder of the night.
As the day dawned I came to know that the train was running behind schedule by around 3 hours. To make matters worse there was an announcement at one of the stations that there had been an accident further up the line and this train wouldn’t proceed beyond Bardoli. Those days the expected time of arrival at Bardoli was around 10:00 am. If all was well I would reach Bardoli by 1:00 pm and Baroda by 4:00 pm. Not bad.
Things started deteriorating from then on. After a series of interminable delays the train reached Bardoli at around 5:00 pm. To our good fortune there was an announcement saying that the train would go up to Surat. The more optimistic of the people, like me started hoping that by the time the train reached Surat they might actually announce that the train would go right up to Baroda. But I had no such luck. We reached Surat at around 7:00 pm and that is where the train stopped. There was another announcement saying that Indian Railways had arranged for buses to Baroda and Ahmedabad. Mentally blessing Indian Railways I stepped out of the station to take a bus. That is when I received my next shock – there was ONE bus for Baroda and ONE bus for Ahmedabad for the entire train.
By now my patience was wearing thin. I decided to arrange my own transportation. After making a few enquiries I found that the easiest way to get from Surat to Baroda was by bus. Naturally I had to get to the bus stand. I asked some bystanders for the directions and they said, “Just go straight”. After walking a good distance and seeing no signs of the bus I enquired again. This person said, “Oh, you have to go about a kilometre more”. Even if my mind had been willing, the incredible bulk of luggage in my hands was a definite obstacle. So I took an auto and reached the bus stand. There I got a ticket for Rs. 80/-. This was, obviously an opportunistic price – tickets normally cost around Rs. 35/-. Too tired to care I boarded the bus.
The bus started punctually at 8:00 pm. With halts I was anticipating reaching home by midnight. When the bus reached Bharuch and took a break, I decided to call home. I received no response. Remember that this was in an era that predated mobile phones. So my next recourse was to call my neighbour’s home. As it turned out, my mother had dropped in there for a chat. I requested her to pick me up at the bus stop at around 11:00-11:30 pm. To my dismay she said that since my father was out of town this would not be possible. Luckily my neighbours volunteered to help.
At around 10:30, on the cusp on entering Baroda the bus suddenly halted. There was an enormously long queue of trucks at an octroi station and the bus was stuck behind them. I helplessly watched the seconds and then the minutes tick by. By the time the mess was resolved and I reached the bus stop in Baroda, it was 1:30 am. My neighbours and mother had waited for a good while and left. Murphy finally decided he had done enough and I found an autorickshaw. The benevolent soul was content with charging twice the regular fare to take me home. Little did he know that at that point of time I would have cut out a slice of my liver if he had asked.
At 2:00 am I reached home, roughly 56 hours after starting from my uncle’s house, having traveled by a cab, a steamer, an unreserved train, two autorickshaws and a bus, about 13 hours behind schedule. This trip, for all its travails, has instilled a weird sense of adventure and I have gotten some perverse masochistic delight in traveling by unreserved trains, or standing on the trailer of a milk van to get from one city to another.
As I sign off, this needs mentioning – I have thanked Murphy endlessly for not drowning the steamer on the journey to the Howrah station. If that had happened I might have swum to the shore, but that shore would probably be near the Sunderbans rather than Howrah.