A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

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:

  1. I was studying in New Delhi, hence the origin
  2. My parents and brother were in Baroda, hence the destination
  3. My cousin Shnaoli Didi was getting married in Katwa
  4. I had to also visit my native town Kandi, since it is pretty close to Katwa
  5. The easiest way to Kandi from Delhi was to disembark at Durgapur and take a bus
  6. 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.

View Larger Map

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Continue reading A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

A Unique Journey

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:

  1. A direct bus run by a private operator up to Kolkata
  2. A long-distance cab
  3. 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.