Where the Hell is Jhajha?

by Mohan Bhuyan


Folks, for many of you this will be another test of endurance. I can't help it, I seem to have the memory of an elephant when it comes to train journeys! So, take the bit between your teeth and read on....

Jhajha is a town in South Bihar, not far from the Jharkhand border. It falls on the Howrah - Mughalsarai mainline about halfway between Madhupur Jn and Kiul Jn. It is of some significance to the Railways because it marks the boundary between Eastern Railway (Asansol Division) and East Central Railway (Danapur Division). According to Bharat Vohra, it used to have a big shed in the steam era, but then that's history and the double line is now electrified. For the record, I have never been to Jhajha, nor even passed through. Neither am I really interested in going there ever. The only thing that drew my attention to Jhajha was that IR decided to run a weekly express from there to Guwahati in last year's budget, one with an interesting route.

Instead of heading northwards to Kiul and then eastwards to the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga - a far shorter route, this train first goes south to Durgapur in West Bengal, reverses, retraces its path to Andal Jn, and then turns north for Farakka via Sainthia Jn and the Barharwa bypass. Since I was travelling slap in the middle of the winter fog season, I decided it would be safest to catch this train from Durgapur as there are a couple of early arrivals from Delhi at Durgapur, that would give me a 12 hour margin.

So early on the day that the first big fog hit Northern India, I found myself at Old Delhi station waiting for the Down Kalka Mail, which was about an hour and a half late as a result. So I fortified myself with a cup of tea and a cigarette and settled down to watch the antics of the real lords of Old Delhi Station - the rats, some of the biggest you will ever see in your life!

Finally the Kalka arrived behind a Ghaziabad WAP 7 and I quickly found my berth in one of the 2A coaches. No sooner had I settled down then I was moving again, to another coach in order to accommodate an old lady who had been separated from her travelling companion by the caprices of the reservation computer. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision because throughout the journey my compartment was either empty or occupied by one other passenger, and I was able to switch to a lower berth. The coach was an old one without the plug points and other niceties but I didn't care - my cellphone was fully charged and I don't have a laptop. A sign on the bulkhead near one of the doors informed us that pest control had been carried out 3 weeks before, which meant that the cockroaches, who seemed to have the run of the coach, were tiny ones!

The Kalka has way too many halts even for a venerable Superfast Express, which it tries to make up for with some fast running, season and caution orders permitting. But on that day, we crawled to Aligarh and by the time we got to Kanpur it was already getting dark. I've been on this Delhi -Mughalsarai line too many times to be really excited about seeing things, so I slept right through the afternoon, thereby sparing myself the embarrassment of the Kalka's sorry struggle to Kanpur.

For reasons best known to IR, the Kalka's pantry car only runs between Delhi and Mughalsarai in both directions. Since we were already about three hours late at MGS, this meant there would be no breakfast for the Kolkata bound passengers the next morning, though thankfully I would be getting off at an hour too early for breakfast. I got down to watch the shunting (the pantry car is somewhere in the middle of the train) and then I went forward for what seemed like a mile to see the loco, thinking it was the same WAP 7 I had spotted in the morning. But as soon as I reached the first two coaches the starter changed to amber. Earlier that day at Ghaziabad I had got down for a smoke and wandered across to the other side of the platform. Glancing back after a while I realised with a start that the train had started moving without so much as a squeak and I had to break into a gallop in order to regain my coach. Not wanting to be left behind in MGS, I ran back another mile and reached my coach in the nick of time, so I never got to see the loco at all after New Delhi. Samit Roychoudhury swore later that when he saw the Kalka at Bardhaman the next morning, it was headed by a WAP 4, but I still refuse to believe him!

Early the next morning, at about the time the Kalka was supposed to have reached Bardhaman, it was still short of Gomoh Jn. Since this was unfamiliar territory, I remained glued to the window, noting each junction and the busy freight activity of the Coalfields region. We stopped at Gomoh, Dhanbad and Asansol and at long last reached Durgapur, about 5 hours late. I quickly found the hotel that Milan Chatterjee had told me to use and asked for a room overlooking the railway tracks, ignoring the strange looks I received as a result.

After I was ushered to my room, a young Nepali waiter with earrings and kohl lined eyes arrived with a breakfast menu and an immersion rod (in lieu of a geyser). When he returned later with breakfast, he lingered and asked me where I had come from. Then he asked me if I could guess where he was from. Not wanting to be rude, I said "U.P." to which he triumphantly informed me that he was from Nepal and added that it was rare to meet a person from Delhi in these parts. Then he asked me whether I minded the fact that he was engaging me in conversation. "Not at all", I replied, whereupon he giggled coyly and said he hoped we would become really good friends while I was in Durgapur. The penny dropped - this guy was hitting on me! Flattered and amused at the same time, I said that I was expecting a friend from Kolkata and gently indicated that I should be getting on with the business of eating breakfast and dressing up - on my own! The hotel was quite basic but a delight for the railfan. Among the many freights and EMU's I also spotted the Bombay-Howrah Mail and the Toofan Express before my friend from Kolkata in the personage of Samit Roychoudhury arrived on the Poorva Express. After we had caught up with each other's news and watched a few trains go by, we decided to abandon plans of riding up and down the line on EMU's and explore Durgapur instead.

Ever since I moved to Delhi about 18 years ago, once in a while I find myself in a small town that nobody else seems to have ever visited - Kiccha, Karimganj, Akhnur, Mhow, Shahjahanpur, Dhemaji to name a few. One thing I have learnt - there is no town in India, no matter how nondescript or far from the beaten track, that has absolutely nothing to see. Even if it is only a river, a lake, a hill, a temple or a totally ruined fort, there is always something to show to an outsider. So too for Durgapur, which can boast of the Damodar River with a barrage on the outskirts of town that forms a large and pretty reservoir where cormorants and wild ducks frolic in the still waters. So Samit and I hired a cycle-rickshaw to a "resort" on the reservoir and had a decent lunch of faux Bengali fish curry (for me) and genuine Punjabi chicken tikka (for him). Afterwards we walked along the lake to the dam, took a few photographs and headed back to the hotel where Samit wanted to catch the Rajdhani whizzing by to Delhi. When the Raj didn't materialise we decamped to a really seedy bar (I love small town bars) for a beer and thence to the station to catch our respective trains.

5641 Jhajha -Guwahati Express was late by an hour so we sat on a bench round one of the platform pillars and watched the night descending on a surprisingly non-busy mainline station. After a while I got into a minor skirmish with a man who sat on my lap without waiting for me to make space for him, and I understood that it was time I got back onto a train again. At long last 5641 chugged in behind an orange liveried Howrah WDM 2, which was going to haul us all the way to Guwahati. The lone AC coach was a 3 A and I quickly found my side lower berth. Three Assamese boys occupied the inside compartment, and I wondered what had brought them to Durgapur - an exam perhaps or possibly an interview. The next compartment was empty but for two ominous looking briefcases chained to the side table. Samit and I joked that these were bombs, because nobody came to claim them (even after the train had started).

I suddenly discovered that I didn't have any water and set out to search for a bottle after persuading a nervous Samit (whose Black Diamond Express was due to arrive soon on a faraway platform) to look after my bag. Platform 1 and the station building didn't have a shop so I had to go out of the station to the shops across the parking lot to find a bottle of water. Upon returning I bade farewell to a visibly relieved Samit and after about ten minutes 5641 started moving in the direction from whence it had come to Durgapur.

Until Andal Jn, the train didn't attain any great speeds and I spent the time looking out at the various factories & what I took to be the famous Durgapur Steel Plant, much venerated by socialist era text books of economics. By the time the TTE came to check our tickets I was no longer finding the unclaimed briefcases funny, so I pointed them out to him. He laughed and said that they belonged to him and another colleague!

Infuriatingly we halted at Andal for a long time; no doubt the train had stopped here once already on its inbound run from Jhajha. After we restarted we turned slowly northwards bidding a final goodbye to electrified lines. After a short distance we came to a junction cabin where a pair of lines headed off westwards, possibly to Tapasi Jn and beyond. Then I departed to the door for a smoke (eastbound from Delhi nobody really cares unless you're smoking inside the AC portion) and saw the Grand Trunk Road (now part of the Golden Quad) soar over us by means of a massive flyover. The signaling was lower quadrant semaphore and one or two of the wayside stations appeared to have their loop lines beyond platform limits. On one such, a WDM 2 headed passenger was waiting but as we whizzed past, I couldn't see the destination boards. When I became chilled to the bone I returned to my seat and for a while eavesdropped on the Assamese boys' conversation, noting the new slang that had been imported from Hindi. When this had run its course, I pulled out the side table and reverted to my favourite pastime during night journeys in AC - poring over timetables and maps.

We stopped briefly at Siuri and again at Sainthia Jn where we joined the Sahibganj Loop that runs from Khana Jn near Bardhaman to Kiul Jn on the mainline. I got down to hunt for dinner (no pantry car on 5641) and ate a semi cold bread-omelet. On returning I found that a big group had boarded our 3A and were milling around deciding who should sit where. They were all from the Fine Arts Faculty of Vishwabharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore in nearby Shanti Niketan, and included a few foreigners in the party. A pretty lady who looked to be in her late 30's had taken my seat. She had the side upper and asked me whether I would exchange berths. She looked healthy enough and I have a horror of side uppers, so I politely refused citing a "bad back". She threw me a look of utter disbelief, left my presence without another word, found a lower berth somewhere else and sent back a Bhutanese student (male) as her replacement.

The Fine Arts Faculty (FAF) was headed for Kokrajhar in Bodoland to attend an art seminar. Our coach had been a quiet one until they boarded; now it was noisy and busy. Indeed, the TTE said to me that he had served on all the runs of 564I since its inauguration, but this was the first time it was running to full capacity. The FAF was having a great time and it dominated all conversation in the coach until it disembarked the next day.

I tried to read, but it was impossible to read in that hubbub so I escaped once more to the door. A succession of green signals on the down line kept me at the door for a while till another nameless passenger train crossed us behind a Bardhaman WDM2. When I returned things had quietened so I resumed reading. After a short while the Bhutanese student dismounted from his side upper, turned off the light and quickly apologised when he saw I was still reading. Knowing he must be bearing the full brunt of the ceiling light I decided to call it a day.

The raucous cries of vendors roused me and I saw that it was early in the morning and we had reached New Jalpaiguri. For me the fun part of the journey began here, so I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes and prepared to wash up. 5641 left NJP before I was quite ready and headed slowly eastwards to loop around the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway shed, forsaking the converted (from MG) line to Siliguri. I had to finish washing up and keep an eye out at the same time so I selfishly hogged both the wash basin in the passage as well as the open door!

The first surprise came when we were abreast of the DHR shed & coaching line - it was empty and abandoned! As we left the mainline and traced a beautiful curve northward the NG line joined us and I could see that it was unused. Further confirmation came near Siliguri Town; part of the line was dug up and it looked like NJP had bid a final farewell to the DHR. The old station building at Siliguri Town survives, albeit with a new BG platform and it seems it too had seen the last of the DHR. I wondered why NJP was set to lose the DHR - few trains go on to Siliguri, but couldn't think of a plausible explanation.

The crowded suburbs of Siliguri were looking better than they did from memory and soon we were across the Mahananda River and into Siliguri Jn - an old childhood haunt of mine. The halt was for 10 minutes so I got down for a chai and to survey the scene. Unusually for Siliguri, the station was spick and span, a sign perhaps that its glory days were back with the advent of broad gauge. MG, which had once lorded over this key junction, had been unceremoniously consigned to the western extremity of the station, though NG remained where it had always been (alas without a train). Beyond the MG lines I could see what had once been a vast freight area that had led up to a big shed for NFR's YDM4's, now looking strangely empty. Looking around it struck me that the station and the yard were not as big as I had once thought them to be. Funny, how notions of space and size seem to compress with age!

As we left Siliguri I commandeered the door once again, wanting a glimpse of the old Hill Cart Road and the railway to Darjeeling, which run parallel to the Assam line for a short distance. But Siliguri has grown big and seemed to have swallowed the paddy fields that once lay in between, so all I got to see were houses. And in an instant we were clattering through a tea estate and Pashwashraya station, and I knew there would be no further sighting of the Darjeeling road.

One of the FAF, who I took to be an Irishman, joined me at the door. A part of my heart lies forever in that part of North Bengal so I described the scenery to him - how we were heading straight for the Darjeeling hills, how we would veer to the East just when it looked like we were going to run full tilt into them, and how we would cross the Sevok Reserved Forest to come up to the Teesta River.

Normally during that time of the year one should get a clear view of the Darjeeling Hills and later of the Bhutan Hills, perhaps even a glimpse of the snow capped High Himalayas. But on that day the hills were wreathed in mist and the sun was finding it difficult to break through. Still the Sevok R.F was surprisingly untouched by the depredations of timber smugglers and looking lovely, so I lingered at the door even as the Irishman fled from the chill (and my rambling commentary).

The new BG line is well laid out and we sped along at 85 to 90 kph, no doubt aided by the light load of just 14 coaches. Signaling is MACL and no tokens are required. At one or two places in the forest there are signboards warning of Elephant Crossing Zones - a sure sign that I was back in the Northeast again.

After Sevok station at the edge of the eponymous forest, we crossed the Sevok Road (or NH 31 A to Kalimpong and Gangtok, Sikkim) and then immediately afterwards the wide and swift flowing Teesta River, the westernmost Indian tributary of the Brahmaputra. This is the point where the river finally breaks free from the hills and therefore spreads out a bit leaving sandbanks and boulders in the middle, to be gratefully collected by real estate developers & road builders. A km upstream I could discern the graceful arch of the Coronation Bridge, arguably the most aesthetic road bridge in India, one that spans the river without any support from below.

A TTE paused briefly at the door and I asked him if the two tunnels at Pilanshat still existed. He nodded and added that the station was now closed. And so it was - two short tunnels, though without a hill on top (making me wonder why they needed tunnels there in the first place) and an abandoned Pilanshat, which was really too close to Sevok to be of any use to BG.

In the MG days, it used to take an hour or more from Siliguri to New Mal Jn, the first stop for any express. On BG it took just 40 minutes and I had a quick breakfast of oily Samosas (called Singharas in the east) and chai. The MG branch to Changrabandha and Ramshaihat was still there though the sight of a level crossing barrier laid across the track instead of being suspended over the road, signified that all ops had come to an end. In fact there is no longer any MG activity to be seen between Siliguri and New Bongaigaon, not even the usual remnants like condemned goods wagons. Just the rusting tracks of branches from junctions like New Mal, Alipurduar and Fakiragram to long forgotten towns on the Bangladesh border that had once been on direct routes to Kolkata.

Our next stop was at Carron, an unscheduled halt to let the Intercity Express from Alipurduar to NJP go by. A hawker who had had enough of us wanted to change trains and asked the ASM if the Intercity would stop. The ASM's reply was remarkably economical and effective; "Through", was all he said!

The Duars of North Bengal is one of my favourite corners of India. Visualise this: fast, boulder strewn rivers with unlikely names; the Teesta, the Torsa, the Diana, the Jaldhaka. Raging streams that require at least two spans for the railway to cross. Lush forests interspersed with beautifully manicured tea gardens. Stations with evocative names Chalsa, Damdim, Hamiltonganj, Kalchini, Hasimara.some with eponymous tea estates where our friends once lived and worked. And always within sight to the north, the towering hills of the lower Himalayas.

The FAF was equally entranced. Being as they were from South Bengal, they wondered aloud at the neat stations we passed, sans crowds of waiting passengers. I wondered if they knew that the people of the area were actually fed up with the rest of West Bengal and are now demanding a separate state for themselves to be called Kamatapur, with the underground part of the movement some times resorting to violence. The FAF probably did, but they were heading for an even more insurgency prone area so I kept these thoughts to myself!

Binnaguri and Hasimara, the former with a Divisional HQ (Army) and the latter with an air force base (besides being the gateway to Phuntsholing and Thimphu) have always been important halts on this line. But 5641 halted at neither, opting for an in-between station called Dalgaon instead. Perhaps as a kind of compromise between two equal claimants. In Hasimara we were at the edge of the Jaldapara wildlife sanctuary, famed for its one-horned rhinos and other animals like the Tiger. For the railway there were more elephant crossing signs and I wondered if I would get a glimpse of the pachyderms (trains have been known to collide with them on occasion). But the forest stretch was a short one and we turned southwards for Alipurduar Jn and beyond to the mainline.

Alipurduar used to be a bustling junction in the old days guaranteed to have a few YGs and MAWDs shunting about. Now that the MG branch to Coochbehar and Bamanhat is closed, it's no longer a junction really, but still retains some importance as a divisional h.q. of NFR, and a crew changeover point. As the train approached APD, I could see a huge new shed like structure on the other side of the freight lines and a TTE on the platform confirmed that it was a new diesel shed. But the only other locos in the yard were a couple from the unlikeliest of sheds - Katni and Abu Road! Both were attached to eastbound freights and were waiting for us to pass.

Beyond Alipurduar we continued southwards to rejoin the mainline, which has its own station called New Alipurduar. Thinking we would now be on a new double line section till New Bongaigaon (NBQ), I set myself up for some train spotting as quite a few expresses leave Guwahati in the morning, starting with the Rajdhani. But at Jorai, just short of the Assam border we halted and I found out from the station staff that the double line ended here. The second or up line was laid out all the way to New Bongaigaon, but for a few bridges. The double section would extend to Chautara by Jan 2005 they said, and to NBQ by the end of the financial year (fingers crossed). They had stopped us at Jorai for the Delhi bound Rajdhani, which was going to take a while longer to speed through.

Using the time to chat with the crew, I found out that the section we had just come through was rated for 100 kph but nobody drove that fast and that they were going to be relieved at NBQ. When the Raj appeared in the distance, I positioned myself on the FOB and managed to shoot off two frames as it passed under me, behind a Mughalsarai loco.

Until a year or two ago, the mainline between NJP and NBQ had been governed by UQ Semaphores, now it was all MACL, as had been the Siliguri- Alipurduar loop. At least on the signaling front, NFR seems to be making good progress compared to the other zones, lagging behind as it does on every other parameter!

As we crossed the Assam border at Srirampur, I looked across a kilometre's length of paddy fields as I always do, to the border on the sole highway linking the Northeast to the rest of the country. A long queue of trucks waiting to get in showed that the uniformed guardians of the border were making good on their plum postings! Nothing unusual, freight companies will deprive you of an extra dollop of cash (unbilled) if ever you want to send goods to the Northeast, for the police and sales tax folks at Srirampur and the numerous checkgates afterwards.

At the next station Gossaigaon Hat we stopped again to let the NBQ-NJP passenger pass. I doubt if NFR assigns much priority to express trains or displays any flexibility for crossings- once on the Raj, we were even made to wait outside Guwahati for the super crawler to Dadar. It's a question of which train is going to reach the designated crossing station first. Since this is usually the express, it waits.

Now we were deep into Bodo territory and pretty women in colourful sarongs contrasted sharply with army & police patrols comprising of foot soldiers in full combat gear. Things have been quiet for a while because agreement has been reached with the main parties in the agitation for an autonomous area within Assam, but one or two of the extremist factions are still fighting, hence the soldiers on patrol.

We halted again at Fakiragram; another junction recently made redundant because of the demise of MG, for no apparent reason. Seeing this the FAF stirred, they were headed for Kokrajhar the next station, but were booked up to NBQ, as 5641 does not have a scheduled halt at the former. This was strange because even the Raj halts at Kokrajhar, as a gesture towards Bodoland. I told the FAF's leader that if the train slowed and moved on to one of the loop lines then it would certainly stop. And that's exactly what happened; we stopped at Kokrajhar for a minute, the FAF scrambled out, the train restarted and those remaining heaved a sigh of relief as peace returned to our coach.

We made slow progress to NBQ where the MG network resumes again, stopping once for a crossing and twice more for nothing at all. I was getting bored so at NBQ I thought it would be rather more fun if I found a perch towards the front of the train. From my new position I got clear views of the road ahead more often than not, and that suited me fine because we were going to veer off into another new branch line, one I had not seen before.

So from NBQ we left the mainline again and headed southwards making for the Brahmaputra and the double-decker bridge at Jogighopa. Leaving NBQ, we threaded our way easily through a range of low hills called the North Salmara and passed through Abhayapuri, which was a one-gun salute kingdom during the Raj. As we passed I looked vainly for the town but there was nothing in the vicinity of the station. As the afternoon wore on I discovered that this is a feature of the line - all the stations are quite far away from the towns they are supposed to represent, and most were empty save the staff.

The only station that had any activity was Jogighopa on the Brahmaputra, which used to be the BG railhead for goods traffic till 1984, when the rest of Assam was still on MG. Cement and coal used to be unloaded here and that was the case on the day I passed through, with two rakes being worked upon in the yard.

Immediately after Jogighopa we were on the Nar Narayan Setu (bridge) over the Brahmaputra, an impressive 2.5 km (or thereabouts) affair, with a road running above the railway line. The river itself was as beautiful and imposing as ever, though one or two sandbanks were visible, it being the dry season. IRFCA's Rajeev Shrivastava has lived through some daring escapades on this bridge while it was under construction and he a mere trainee, and an incident on the bridge while we were on it gave me further cause to remember him!

Far ahead a man was walking towards us in the middle of the track though the bridge has walkways on both sides. At 50 m intervals there are gangways to allow maintenance workers to cross from one side to the other. As 5641 came nearer, the man realised he would not make it to safety on the next gangway and began running away from us. Just as the unequal race was about to come to its obvious conclusion, I felt the gentle application of brakes, giving the man a few extra seconds to scramble to safety on a gangway. As he looked up sheepishly at the passing loco, I could hear the crew shouting, telling us exactly what they thought about the whole thing!

The bridge is fairly new so we were able to regain speed by the time we came off at the southern end and curved round a hill, easily overtaking the trucks that had also just come off the bridge. As we resumed our eastward tack I took a good look around; this was a part of Assam I hadn't ever been to.

We were in Goalpara District; a narrow plain wedged between the Brahmaputra and the Garo Hills of Meghalaya to the south. Underdeveloped compared to the rest of the state, we were in village territory - extremely neat ones with each house set in a grove of trees, and each compound having an outhouse at the edge (there are no bare bottoms on display in the northeast, making train travel rather more enjoyable!). There are a couple of medium sized rivers in the region the Dudhnoi and Krishnai, but they aren't as wide as the snow fed rivers that the mainline has to traverse on the north bank. The lack of big rivers was more than compensated for by the presence of countless trackside ponds and wetlands, many with women scouring the waist deep waters with hand-held bamboo fishing nets. There are no tea gardens in that part of Assam but the rice had been harvested and the straw that still lay in the fields combined well with the western sun to give a lovely golden hue to the area.

5641's only halt in the region is at the district h.q. Goalpara (another station sans a town) where I got an opportunity to speak to the Driver at length. He said the line was rated for 100 kph but with numerous speed restrictions (including a couple for elephant crossings). The highest speed he had attained thus far was 95 kph on a couple of down gradients. The light load enabled him to gallop along on notches 3 & 4 and he was enjoying that. This is basically a goods line he said, but was surprised that we hadn't encountered any freight trains on the way thus far. The track was a good one for the most part though floods in the rainy season had weakened a few bridges and culverts imposing severe speed restrictions.

He was right - every time we came to a bridge, we slowed down drastically. On one occasion we came to a dead halt and a gangman held out a book to the Assistant, which I think he signed. Before the Assistant had finished the train had restarted leaving the gangman behind so he dropped the book on the ballast on the other side of the bridge for that hapless man to retrieve later!

Interestingly, every other station on this line is a halt station and besides Jogighopa, no station had more than two loop lines, besides the running line. Signaling is MACL and the train working system seems to be non-manual tokenless absolute block (there are no signal cabins at either end of a station). Except a passenger train that was waiting for us at Abhayapuri, no other train crossed us that day, so we had a clear run through.

As we passed Mirza outriders of the Khasi Hills came close to the line. Up ahead an aircraft looped around these hills and descended slowly over the line and I knew we were close to Guwahati's airport, confirmed a little later by the appearance of the residential colony of the IAF base that shares the runway. After the final station called Azara, a few brick kilns and sundry warehouses signified that Guwahati proper was at hand, but the permanent way took a sudden turn southward, towards the Khasi Hills.

For good reason. A huge and absolutely stunning wetland called Deepor Beel teeming with waterfowl lay between the city and us. The original survey for this line had it cut right through the heart of the Beel causing Guwahati's environmentalists to rise up in arms. Thankfully they had had some effect because the line now hugs the hills and skirts around most of the Beel, merely cutting through its southernmost extremity.

We crossed Guwahati's new 6 laned bypass to join the mainline and its MG partner coming in from Rangiya over the Saraighat Bridge and stopped at the last halt - Kamakhya Jn. The minutes dragged on, as is the norm at Kamakhya and I got a chance to chat briefly with the Assistant. When I asked him about the MG (Kamakhya is the starting point for MG trains) he said that no trains were running beyond Rangiya currently because of a "problem in the track." A closer inspection of the MG tracks revealed the lack of a glint that signifies a track in use. The wholesale abandonment of MG without any heed to existing links is very depressing and I had seen rather too much on that one day.

The stop at Kamakhya was a long one because we were waiting for the Shifung Passenger to Fakiragram to come in from Guwahati. I decided that it was time to go back to my coach and see whether my bag was still there - it was! Kamakhya to Guwahati is a double line but seems to operate as twin single lines, because we were on the down track while a goods train went by on the up track. Besides, the up track is also gauntleted, possibly to allow MG freight trains to reach the goods yard at New Guwahati on the eastern edge of the city. There are numerous level crossings as the train enters the heart of the city so it's always a stop and start affair from Kamakhya, and so it was on that day. The other inescapable feature all along the city line is the most dismal slum that you will ever see on encroached railway land. Not for the first time I wondered whose bright idea it was to run the Brahmaputra Steam Safari here.

Finally at Guwahati, about an hour and a half late, we entered platform 1 and came to a halt with our 3 AC perfectly positioned opposite the exit. My father was supposed to pick me up from the station but he was nowhere to be seen. As I took out my cellphone to see whether it would work in Assam, I saw him rush into the platform (through the exit gate), look left and right (but not straight at me) and march off (on an easterly heading). I had to yell at the top of my voice to be heard over the hubbub that usually rises around a just-arrived train in India. After we had embraced and greeted each other, my father asked a question, variants of which were flung at me by several people for days afterwards - "But where the hell is this Jhajha?"

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