Butter Chicken in Firozpur
by Shashanka Nanda
* Note from Bharath: While I have done many trips, both alone and with other friends, this one ranks as the best. Having a best friend act as a guide helps! If anyone ever gets a chance to travel in these branch lines, please grab the opportunity with both hands. There simply aren't more friendlier people in India than the Punjabis. And boy, doesn't the food rock! *
Day 1 - 13th August 2005
Punjab…. The name brings to mind tales that I have heard from my grandparents and great grandparents which told of miles upon miles of lush green fields, of buffalo milk and children splashing in canals, of lassi and makki di roti…. their stories were laced with a kilo of pure ghee here and quintal of jaggery there. Tales that would probably double one's cholesterol count by merely hearing them. Then there were tales told to me by my aunt, whose family fled from Punjab to Delhi- unable to live under the shadow of AK47s and transistor bombs. Tales that talked of Bhindrawale's Tigers and the horror that followed Operation Blue Star.
School had taught me about the Green Revolution that changed the Punjabi landscape forever. The books also taught me about the Bhakra - Nangal Dam, the Indira Gandhi canal and I had seen pictures of combine harvesters as big as a house working in the ranches of North America, but people told me Punjab had those too. India Today rates Punjab as one of the best states to live in and Its NRI sons have sent dollars and pounds by the gazillions, which have transformed the entire landscape.
Therefore it was nothing short of a disgrace that I had not been to the land of five rivers for 18 whole years!! The extended Independence Day weekend provided ample opportunity to correct that, so here I was on platform 12 of New Delhi station alongside intrepid traveller Bharath Moro watching the shiny IRY20 design rake of the New Delhi (NDLS) - Amritsar (ASR) Swarna Shatabdi being shunted in by a Shakurbasti WDS4.
As we turned back towards our coach, the unmistakable horn of a WDM2 heading made us stop and turn. The sound of that horn was simply intoxicating. It was the sound of 80s and not like the braying asses and punctured harmoniums of today. But what came across round the corner was a standard issue Ghaziabad WAP1 complete with the muck and grime that shed is famous for. Never mind that, the horn was reason enough for us to like the loco!!
As we walked back towards the rear of the train to board our coach C7, we noticed that this train had not one but 2 Executive Chair Cars, and both of them full!! The only other Shatabdi to boast 2 ECCs is the BCT-ADI Shatabdi but that is 18 coaches long. I guess we could take this as another sign of Punjabi affluence. EC1 had a distinguished (or not so distinguished if you believe the Tehelka tapes) passenger in our former Defence Minister George Fernandes who looked as if he had gotten out of bed, worn his slippers and headed straight to the station. What impressed me though, was the fact that he had only 2 (!!!) security guards trailing him. For someone who has spent an entire lifetime in Delhi watching even municipal corporators go around with an entourage that rivals Dubya's, this was a bit of a revelation.
The train started at 0721 with an intoxicating blast from the WAP1 and negotiating the complex New Delhi yard (which had hordes of donkeys roaming wild), we entered Sadar Bazar station and then curved away from the tracks leading to Delhi Jn.
Passing under the DMRC station of Pul Bangash, we curved right towards Sabzi Mandi station, which despite being a suburban halt, has 24 coach platforms as many inbound expresses to Delhi halt here. We picked up speed beyond Sabzi Mandi, but the view outside was pathetic to say the least. Endless shantytowns lined up the track on both sides. The early hour made the sight worse as most residents were squatting by the trackside. Heaps upon heaps of garbage, drains choked with plastic kicked up a foul stench that permeated even the walls of our coach! This was Delhi at its worst!!
Things improved after Azadpur as the chief upfront accelerated rapidly and soon we were rolling through the fields of Delhi rural at nearly 120kmph. Entering Haryana, we were served tea DIY style. I hate making tea or coffee for myself onboard Rajdhanis or Shatabdis. Not because I hate doing things on my own, but because of the fact that Everyday dairy whitener means horrible results!!! Vegetarian breakfast was the usual insipid cutlets, yesterday's bread, 4 boiled French fries and 12 peas, while Bharath's non-veg breakfast had a greasy omelet and 6 boiled French fries. Forget the taste, the food wasn't even enough to fill our grumbling tummies so off went Bharath in search of bearer to order for more breakfast which we washed down our throats with 'Joozy' - a mango drink promoted by the Govt. of Kerala and the European Union!?!
Meanwhile, much too early in the day (at least for me), a burly sardar had opened a fancy portable DVD player (no doubt imported from 'Amrika') and was watching Mr. Bean discs! What was more hilarious than watching the antics of Rowan Atkinson was the buffoonery of two people diagonally behind him. They were constantly fighting with each other and trying to get a closer look at the screen. The more the DVD guy turned his screen away, the more these two would lean over!
Our first halt was Ambala Junction where we were made to wait at the outer for a good 20 minutes. The road near Ambala Outer is under Army management and has lined with stern signs, which read 'No Loitering'!! After getting the permission to enter the station, we cut right across the yard at a measly 10kmph to halt at platform 1. Minutes later, we crawled out overtaking a Samastipur WDM2 hauled BCN/A freight. Ambala has special sidings for stabling and maintaining BCN/A rakes on the northern end. 2 rakes, including one that had just brought a gazillion tonnes of bananas were stabled there.
As we cut across the yard once again to switch to the Amritsar bound mainlines, we couldn't help but notice the fact that it had taken us a full 35 minutes just to clear Ambala (including the 20 min halt at the outer). Surely, the Shatabdi can be made to halt at platforms 2 or 3, which would require fewer crossovers over points hence the entry and exit from the station & yard can be speeded up.
Picking up speed beyond Ambala, the train entered Punjab. We stayed glued to the door as he WAP1 was making pure music with its lovely horn. Tearing down lush green countryside the Shatabdi sped towards its next halt - the hosiery hub of Ludhiana. The approach to the yard is very narrow with buildings barely a few feet away from the tracks. The yard was a fair sized one and one of the platform sidings, rested a lone Vadodara WAP4E # 22333.
Just north of Ludhiana we crossed the mighty Sutlej River. The industrial town of Phillaur lies on the northern banks and from here the branch line to Lohian Khas via Nakodar veers off. Next stop after Ludhiana was Jalandhar, where of all the locos, we saw a light Lalaguda WAP4 #22606!! Now how on earth did that get to Jalandhar? The countryside between LDH and JUC is dotted with signs of Punjabi modernity and affluence. The highway running close the track had cars of the latest make and model zipping up and down. Swanky crop harvesters were tending the fields, while a huge board on a swanky glass and steel building propped in right in the middle of farmland proclaimed 'Lovely Institute of Management '!!
Our destination Beas was the next halt in line. As we headed for the door, we crossed the famous river after which the town takes its name. The town has special significance for my family, as it is also the headquarters' for the Radha Soami Satsang movement, which my grandmother follows. As a result, millions of followers converge on this town each year. The station is very neat and clean with 2 platforms and two through lines in addition to 2 sidings on the south west side.
On the west side of the station lies a neat terminal for devotees going to the Satsang HQ. Neatly marked stands offer a variety of transport forms available right from the humble tonga to air conditioned Chevrolets. The ticket counter lies on the same side right next to a stall offering cool water for the travelers again manned by volunteers from the Satsang. The reason for our 'spiritual' visit to Beas was not the Satsang, but the quaint railbus that plies between Beas and Goindwal Sahib, a station that takes its name from a famous Gurudwara of the same name.
The blue colored railbus was parked under a huge peepul tree, while some cows grazed underneath right next to some passengers who were sitting on their luggage waiting for the driver to turn up. The whole setting was just so idyllic that we just felt like stretching on the grass in the cool shade of the peepul with a tall glass of lassi in hand. The driver arrived some 10 minutes later and started the railbus, which sounded - well just like a bus!!
After all, the whole contraption was designed around an Ashok Leyland bus chassis with body on chassis construction by BEML. There are control desks on both sides, which are simply laid out. A large notice near the gauges warn the drivers not to exceed 40 kmph and always keep an eye on the temperature gauge. The railbus is maintained by the Jalandhar DMU shed and goes back to home base every Sunday. There are 5 services each day in each direction on the 28-kilometer route with each run taking 50 minutes.
There are 3 intermediate stations - Bhalujala, Siddhpur Jalalabad & Khadoor Sahib at kilometers 7, 13 and 22 respectively from Beas. We took the 1315 service, which departed on time, joining the mainline to ASR to cross a small canal on the north end of the station. Then the line cuts sharply to the left into a rock cutting and enters farmland that stretches into the horizon and beyond.
The line primarily serves the pilgrims going to the Goindwal Sahib gurudwara. Apart from that there is little intra station traffic. The stations themselves are nothing but a leveled piece of land with a board stuck up in the middle and a small cabin serving as the ticket counter. The line runs straight as an arrow for most parts and if I remember correctly, there were only 3 or 4 curves in total on the 28km route. However, there are quite a few fully manned level crossings on the way as there is reasonable traffic on the country roads. Tractors of all shapes & sizes were spotted but my favorites were the John Deeres, which stood out in their WAG9 like green and yellow liveries.
As we approached Siddhpur Jalalabad, we saw that there was no passenger waiting on the platform, the driver turned around and shouted to enquire if anyone wanted to get off, and when he got no reply, he simply sped through to the station with a friendly wave to the ticket clerk!! Now where else but on a branch line can one spot something like this? The conversation among the passengers was animated with the two of us being the chief topic of discussion. After all two camera wielding, rucksack toting fellows with a pure city accent are not a common sight on that line!!
We reached Goindwal in time and the railbus halted for 10 minutes before commencing the return journey. The station consists on a ticket hut and 2 loop lines, which are smack in the middle of a paddy field. In fact once couldn't make out where the line ended and where the field began!! We passed the intervening twenty minutes chatting up with the driver and clerk. The driver, with his head a blazing red due to henna was friendly fellow and he told us a lot about the line. He said that the line was not making enough money as pilgrim traffic comes only at specific times in a year. The local patronage is not good enough as buses provide better long distance connections. But he informed us of survey conducted to extend this line to join the Amritsar - Tarn Taran line, but Wahe Guru knows when would the work commence.
On our way back, the clerk and Goindwal locked up the office and boarded the railbus. He was on his way to Beas for his lunch break and would return in the evening. On the way, he sold tickets on board for passengers boarding from the intermediate stations as the clerks there were on their lunch break as well!!
We reached Beas on schedule and then headed out from the west exit towards the GT Road (NH1) to catch a bus to Amritsar, as there were no train connections at that hour. The road leading to the highway is lined with shops and stalls but my favorite was 'Pappu Burger Bhandar' (Pappu Burger Store) which actually was a cart selling fried buns stuffed with a potato patty and a thick wedge of onion and passing them off as Bombay's famous 'veg hamburgers'!!
A bus to Amritsar was found easily, but it was another matter altogether to get it moving. Private operators who dominate the route fight for each passenger as a result of which buses spend more time at bus stops than actually running on the highway. The 40km run to Amritsar was real pain, which was worsened by the unintelligible music blaring from a speaker stationed right over our head!! Nevertheless we found other interesting sights like this Maruti 800 with a sticker which read 'Overtaker - Beware of the Undertaker' and a poultry store marked ' GT Egg Center & Chick - Chick Shop'!! Brightly colored trucks sped past with graffiti like 'Buri Nazar Wale Tere Bachhe Jiyen, Bade Ho Kar Sharab Me Mila Ke Tera Khoon Piyen' (You with the evil eye - may your children prosper & mix your blood with wine and drink when they grow up)!
We reached Amritsar around 1630 and got off near the bus stand. A few policemen were manning a picket and we enquired them about means to get to the Wagah border with Pakistan - our objective being to watch the famous change of guard ceremony at the border gate. We were looking for a cab, but the cops told us that it would be stupid and highly expensive to take the cab, instead they caught hold of an auto driver and told him to take us to the border and back. Not only that, they bargained with him for the price (250 Rs.) and also noted his registration number to ensure our safety!! I was zapped at the hospitality extended to us by them, for this was the same Punjab Police which was dreaded till a few years back for its shoot first, ask later policy.
The auto ride however was a real pain the back and the backside. The seat was narrow, barely 4-5 inches and padded with perhaps 5 mm of jute. The backrest was also very low and curved inwards and hit us on the spine at every bump, which were present in plenty. The rudimentary suspension of the auto ensured that each pothole, bump and rut was amplified and transmitted up our spine; compounding our misery at each corner. Nevertheless we made it one piece to the border and were petrified for a second to see the crowd! Hordes upon hordes of fellow tourists had descended to watch the spectacle. After much jostling and pushing, we finally managed to get some seats in the arena, which was filled with nearly 8000 people from not only all parts of India but foreign tourists as well. We got chatting with a Finnish bunch while the ceremony started and tried to explain the whole thing to them.
The atmosphere was lively with some famous patriotic tunes from Manoj Kumar movies blaring over the loudspeaker. A portly fella, most likely hired by the BSF was dressed in national colors and held aloft a huge Indian flag while dancing Bollywood style to the tunes. The assembled janta clapped along and some even joined him for a dance. One over enthusiastic fellow almost broke his neck trying to go in for the Bhangra version of the head spin!! Moments later, the music stopped and a moustachioed BSF jawan started screaming patriotic slogans on the PA system and the crowd followed suit. Each slogan was matched in volume by the other side where a similar sized crowd was cheering on a man in dressed in white and green holding the Pakistani standard high.
Soon, a hush fell over the crowd as a bunch of 6-foot tall BSF soldiers lined up and started the elaborate ceremony. Clicking heels in unison, the soldiers strutted around like promiscuous cockatoos, but the way their moves matched those on the other side, the whole ceremony seemed to be carefully coordinated and rehearsed and designed more for the gallery than for any historical significance. Frankly, the whole thing was a big disappointment and looking at the roaring business the BSF canteen was doing, and the number of kids selling of 'professionally shot' VCDs and DVDs on the cover, we were left wondering if it was patriotism or jingoism?
Tired and feeling empty, we found our auto and headed back towards Amritsar in another bone jarring ride. The autowala left us outside some swank colonial style hotel and upon enquiring from the reception, we were told that only 2 rooms were empty, we wished to have a look at them before we checked in and to our amazement we were shown rooms in what would have been the bloody servant quarters of some burra sahib!! Looking at the guests around us it seemed as if Indians were relegated to one corner of the hotel while foreigners were getting the best seats in the house. Shocked at this near racist treatment in our own country, we simply walked out. We found a brand new hotel (Sundew) right next to the Amritsar station entrance. For 700 rupees we got a modern room with all the amenities and none of the attitude. Along with that came a fridge full of soda and coke bottles and quick showers later, we were digging into hot tandoori chicken legs with the old monk for company and another hour or so later, the snores of two tired but content men would have kept the rest of the hotel awake for remainder of the night.
Day 2 - 14th August 2005
Our plan that day was the head to Bathinda. After much deliberation we decided to take the DMU from Amritsar to Khem Karan near the Pakistan border. From there we were to travel by road to Ferozepur (about 40 km as the crow flies) and then on to Bathinda. But before we did any of that, there remained the task of finding breakfast. We headed out on to the street to find it deserted!! At 845 in the morning outside one of the busiest stations in the country one would expect a fair crowd but none of that here. For a scene on the street brought back grainy images from TV of Punjab in the late 80s, when terrorism was at its peak and firings, bomb blasts and curfews ensured that people kept indoors. However, none of that happens anymore and the only reason we could think off was - "it's Sunday Morning."
After some hunting we did manage to find a hole in the wall, which was selling some kulchas (a kind of bread found in north India) and paneer curry. The paneer curry was about the worst I have ever had in my life with the paneer that could have been better described as rubber!! Not wanting to embarrass the owner by throwing up in his shop, we scooted as fast as our queasy stomachs allowed and crossed the road into the station.
The reason was the deserted state of the station was apparent as soon as we entered. Almost all the Mumbai bound trains (The Paschim, Frontier Mail and the Dadar Express via CR) had been cancelled amongst others due to heavy floods in Maharashtra. Scores of rakes were lying around the yard and a solitary WDS4 could be seen shunting what looked like a good 30 coach long rake comprising 2 portions of an ASR-DR Exp rake!!
We bought ourselves some hot but sickly sweet tea and bought tickets to Khem Karan from a counter manned entirely by pigtailed girls barely out of school!! One of them was pretty cute and I tried my best 'Pindu' Punjabi (village dialect) on her. For a second she looked at me with amazement and then probably dismissed me as another one of those NRI types trying to impress her:o(Heartbroken, I turned around to see Bharath looking as if I had probably conversed in Klingon with the lady. So I had to explain the difference between the various dialects of Punjabi spoken around the various districts including the nuances of some, which when spoken - sound more like a Gatling gun in full chat.
We headed back to the platform to see a HHPDMU pull into platform #1. Punjab is really the DMU country. The state is criss-crossed by railway lines, which interconnect with each other paving the way for a mind-boggling network of branch lines. I don't think you can travel more than 50km in any direction without crossing a railway line in this state!! All the DMUs operating here are based at the Jalandhar depot, which is also the home for the Goindwal Railbus. It is perhaps the biggest DMU depot in the country with over 90 units and 2 Railbuses in operation. The stock is mostly ICF built and has regular DEMUs along with the High power HHPDEMUs as well.
But the most striking feature about the shed is the variety of liveries it has. DMUs in red, blue, purple and various other combinations were spotted by us during our visit and were a refreshing change from the grey-red Ludhiana diesels which were seen a dime a dozen..
Our DMU was waiting at the north end of platform 3 and was a 6-coach affair. It pulled out of the station right on time and curved to the left leaving the lines going towards Atari and onwards to Lahore in Pakistan. We were in the lead coach right behind the driver and I chose the emergency window, which allowed me to tape the journey without the irritating window grilles.
The train snaked out of the city leaving behind the ubiquitous factories making the air a wee bit less fit to breathe and into the fields that are the real deal.
The train snaked out of the city leaving behind the ubiquitous factories making the air a wee bit less fit to breathe and into the fields that are the real deal. The line passed through miles and miles of fields. It being paddy season, you could spot the occasional lady bent over with her sickle transferring the saplings - bringing to mind those famous lines, "Behold her, single in the field, yon solitary highland lass! Reaping and singing by herself, stop here or gently pass! Alone she cuts and binds the grain, and sings a melancholy strain…" Every now and then we rumbled over a canal where naked kids could be seen splashing around with the buffaloes, while tiny little stations cropped out of nowhere with romantic names like 'Dukhnawaran', 'Gohlwar Varpal', 'Jandoke' etc
We made friends with the granthi (priest) of a gurudwara (sikh temple) who was traveling to Rattoke Gurdwara just before Khem Karan. While chatting with him, we told him of our plans to head to Ferozepur via Khem Karan. But our plans were grounded when he told us that there was no road connection from Khem Karan to Ferozepur. Khem Karan station is barely a few kms from the Pakistan border and on the other side the town is hemmed in the by the mighty Sutlej river. The only road crossing which would allow us to head to Ferozepur was at the Harike Barrage. The nearest railhead to Harike would be Patti from where we could get a bus to Ferozepur.
Patti was also one of the few crossing stations on this line with a few sidings that allowed the loading of grain. Getting off at Patti we walked through the town towards the Bus stand which was about a mile away.
Walking through the bustling bylanes and the busy bazaar, we got the usual stares, which a backpacker often gets in rural India. We were certainly a novelty for the town, which we noticed, had a large number of shoemakers crafting exquisite examples of the Punjabi Jutti (chappal / slip on). Reaching the bus stand, we had another brainwave and instead of taking a bus, we decided to hire a car and travel to Ferozpur by a long winded route that took us off the highway and through a lot of back country roads.
After much haggling we managed to hire a Hyundai Santro for 700 rupees and off we were to the beat of the deadliest music Punjab could throw at us. The first few kilometers were on the state highway, which led to the famous Harike Barrage over the Sutlej, which is the start point of the famous Indira Gandhi Canal project. A project, which has turned parts of the Thar desert to the south into a verdant patch of green bringing hope and joy to the rain-starved farmers. As we approached the barrage, we spotted pickets manned by CISF to protect the barrage after all Pakistan is but a few miles to the west. Busy clicking pictures of the barrage I almost missed the fat board screaming the usual "Photography Strictly Prohibited"!
Quickly, I hid my camera as our car pulled into the hallowed compound of the famous Ishardham Nanaksar Gurudwara, which is built on the banks of the Sutlej. The Gurudwara is part of the Nanaksar branch of Sikhism and does not fly the traditional Khalsa flag that one normally associates with any Gurudwara, which is a symbol of its apolitical stance. We parked the car and covered our head as is mandatory before entering any Gurudwara. There were hardly any devotees present at that time and we paid are respects in front of the holy Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs which contains the teachings of Guru Nanak. Apart from the Prasad, which consisted of 'Mishri' (crystallized sugar) we were also treated to a sumptuous 'halwa' prepared in pure Ghee was offered to us by a devotee. The taste of Ghee in rural Punjab tells you how fake is the Pure Ghee that we get in the cities.
Despite the fact that we make our own Ghee at home from milk that comes from my relative's own dairy farm fresh from the buffalo's udders, the taste and richness of the milk in Punjab has to be tasted to be believed. A week's stay here could give you all the calcium you need for the rest of your lives!! After roaming for a while in the peaceful environs of the Gurudwara we set off again and left the highway and onto a bumpy back country road which cut across a lush paddy field.
The next 15 minutes were a stomach churning ride buffalo stables and brick kilns while and as if that was not enough, we had to contend with buses teetering at Newton defying angles hurtled towards us at scary speeds and covering us in a cloud of dust as they passed. Then there were the 'Marutas' also called as 'Jugaad' in certain parts, which for the uninitiated are locally made contraptions fashioned out of an old Willy's Jeep chassis fitted with a Greaves diesel engine normally found in tube wells. These are mated to a rudimentary steering & suspension setup and depending on the kind of body you want (designed by the Pininfarinas, Gandinis & Giugiaros of Punjab) you can choose between a passenger only model, a load only model or a mixed body. It is another matter thought that all 3 body styles can are used for all 3 duties. If nothing else, the Maruta is a living example of Punjabi ingenuity. At a cost of just 12-15 paise per kilometer, the Maruta can carry 15-20 passengers or nearly 1.5 tonnes of cargo. What else can a farmer want?
Another thing we noticed, or rather did not notice was the presence of oxen for tilling the fields. The image of a pair of bullocks yoked together to a plough is perhaps the most common scene in rural India and yet, we didn't see any such thing in Punjab. Perplexed, we asked our driver who told us that almost all of the cultivation in Punjab is now mechanized with tractors and harvesters ruling supreme. "But not everyone would be rich enough to buy a tractor?" we countered, to which he replied that farming equipment is mostly rented and that it is really hard to come by bullock ploughed fields these days. Just then, we came across a Tata Sumo running dangerously parallel to a maroon Maruti Esteem bedecked with flowers. As we drew close, we saw a video camera sticking out of the Sumo trying to capture the first journey of a newly wedded bride to her husband's place.
The driver of the Sumo was literally drawing circles around the Esteem while both the vehicles were in motion with the cameraman leaning precariously out of the vehicle trying to capture this epic journey from every angle possible! It took a liberal dose of honking and some choicest Punjabi abuses to get the cavorting pair of vehicles out of the way and we cruised along merrily to the tunes of Surjeet Bindrakhiya and his ilk. Word here about Punjabi expletives; while cuss words in other languages are direct and to the point, Punjabis don't believe in any such thing. Try pissing off any true blue Punjabi and be prepared for a deluge of invective directed at you, grandpa, the village dog and a whole bunch of relations you never knew existed.
On the other hand Punjab is also full of idyllic scenes for the railfan. Lush green fields lined by eucalyptus trees provide a perfect backdrop to the railway lines. Smoky Alcos bring back memories of the 'Ghar Aaja Pardesi' song from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. One lovely Alco from Bhagat Ki Kothi greeted us as we neared Ferozepur where the line coming from Jalandhar joined us.
Entering the city, we took a flyover that crossed the line and dropped us in front of Ferozpur Cantt. Station. Getting off, we thanked the driver for such a wonderful ride and began our search for suitable place to eat as our tummies had begun growling. The sultry weather however necessitated the intake of a cold beer before lunch and we hailed an auto and asked him to take us to a place where we could get some food and drink.
Our auto, an ancient Lambretta chassis powered by a hand cranked diesel engine topping out at 600rpm shook violently with every turn of the cranky and 500 meters into the ride we were wondering if we'd be Parkinson's patients by the end of the ride. A few minutes later, the auto halted in front of 'Dharma Hotel', which in fact was the traditional north Indian Halwai (Sweet Shop) with a backroom housing a clump of rickety chairs and benches. A shiny steel counter showcased typical north Indian sweets such as Burfis, Gulab Jumans, Jalebis and some radioactive looking Yellow laddoos!! The shop owner, an enormous man with moustaches as wide as his shoulders sat in a dirty white singlet and dhoti boiling milk on a huge tawa. Punjabis love drinking milk, which is slowly boiled for hours over a slightly concave tawa, rather than in a bowl.
Unfortunately that wasn't what we were looking for. We explained to the driver that we wanted to go to a place where we could get some alcohol along with some decent food rather than munch on a burfi!! Instead he pointed to a local liquor shop (country brew) and a shady looking hole in the wall joint serving some weird chicken dishes!! Exasperated; we told him to take us to some BIG hotel and after much coaxing we were shuttled to Ferozepur city's past Shaheed Udham Singh Chowk and dropped outside 'Hotel International Beer Bar & Restaurant'. Not having the energy to consider and further options, we paid the autowallah and staggered inside to find ourselves in a dimly lit dining area, which had certainly seen better days. The place was almost empty and even before we had taken our rucksacks off, a couple of Thunderbolts had been ordered for.
For those who have had one, there is nothing quite like Thunderbolt, stronger than most lagers with a near 12% alcohol content, it is surprisingly smooth and a first timer may commit the mistake of having one too many. After a bottle or two, we ordered that famous Punjabi dish, Butter Chicken. Having eaten nearly 24 million varieties of this dish across the country, I hoped that at least an eatery in Punjab would live up to expectation and produce an example that was true to the original recipe. In a couple a minutes a huge bowl filled to the brim was plonked on the table along with hot tandoori rotis and fresh onions. The already dead chicken didn't stand a chance; it was devoured within minutes along with heaps of delectable curry. The Butter Chicken was by far the best ever I have had in my entire life and you can take my word for it.
The after effects of the lunch soon made their presence felt and even moving an inch required considerable amount of effort and willpower. However, the clock was ticking and our connection to Bathinda was just about to arrive. Slowly we tumbled out into the harsh sunlight after thanking the cook profusely for what was perhaps one of the best meals we had ever had and hailed another Parkinson's inducing auto down which dropped us at the cantonment station a few minutes later.
Buying second-class tickets to Bathinda, we made our way to the platform waiting for the Jammu - Ahemdabad Express to turn up. The slightly late train arrived behind a Bhagat ki Kothi based WDM2 which detached itself immediately as the train undergoes a reversal at Ferozpur. We found an empty TTE's seat in one of the sleeper class coaches and decided to call that place home for the next couple of hours. Crossing several points to take the line towards Bathinda, we couldn't help but notice the lovely setting of the station with an impressive semaphore gantry guarding the exits from the station.
Curving out, the Alco settled into a nice throaty rhythm as the chief notched up and soon we were on the wrong side of 75kmph hurtling through the picture postcard fields, tall eucalyptus trees and over the occasional canal. The chief feature of this line is length of its straights. So much so that each time the train entered a curve, it was reason for us to celebrate!! The line plays host to some lovely and exotic sounding stations such as Romana Albel Singh, Pipli Pakhi Kalan & also to the late Indian President's native village called Giani Zail Singh Sandhwan. At Faridkot which is one of the bigger towns on this route, we crossed the Ferozpur bound Punjab Mail running way behind schedule.
Faridkot station resembled a small cantonment in itself. A battery of cops and soldiers from every conceivable unit and descended onto the station with their Kalashnikovs, mine sweepers and sniffer dogs. The only things that were perhaps missing were a bunch of T-72s and BMP infantry carriers. Maybe they were outside in the parking but boy did they swarm over the train the moment it stopped? Every coach, every toilet was checked from every angle possible. Many people, including yours truly were summoned and questioned about our antecedents and then let go. The next day was the Independence Day and the cops weren't taking any chances.
Eerily enough though, the whole scene was reminiscent of the dark days of terrorism when this part of Punjab lived under the ominous shadow of the gun. Everyone in the train had suddenly gone quiet and those speaking were doing so in hushed tones. Co-passengers who had minutes back been backslapping the guy next to them were suddenly suspicious of each other and we too for no apparent reason were trying to avoid the gaze of the cops. However, all this ended the moment the semaphore dropped and the 16 pistons at the helm of the train roared into life, belched huge amounts of black smoke into the sky and lurched forward. The cool breeze that flew into the coach dispersed the clouds of uncertainty in an instant and things were back to normal again.
Sharing the space near the door with us was an old lady with intricate tattoos on her body that would have put even the baddest Harley rider to shame.
Alongside were a few banjara women who traveled on this route selling trinkets and the ubiquitous water bottle / buttermilk seller. The crowd in the train was predominantly Gujarati, but hearing every second conversation start with "Motabhai" right in the heart of Punjab was quite an experience in itself. Kot kapura was the next halt on our route where the local population had set up water counters for the passengers in the absence of potable water from the platform taps. Locals volunteered to serve water and refused any compensation saying that 'Wahe Guru' will provide for all. It was so typical of the Punjabi nature and it brought a pleasant smile on everybody's face.
We had plenty of crossings on this route, including a pretty long wait at Gangsar Jaito for Delhi - Firozpur passenger that rumbled in behind a WDP1. This rake along with many others we saw NR is still vacuum braked. Judging by what we saw, NR perhaps operates the largest number of VB rakes on its network to this date. On electrified routes, most of these VB rakes are in fact hauled by WAP1 locos, as very few WAM4 locos on NR are VB or DB capable.
Gangsar Jaito to Bathinda was one fast run and we approached the massive Bathinda junction just as the sun was setting beautifully over the enormous cooling towers of the Guru Nanak Dev Thermal power station, which straddles the yard.
Getting off at Bathinda, we set off in search for suitable lodgings for the night and found a railfan's delight in Hotel Apsara right outside the station. Walking in, we requested for rooms overlooking the yard which was met by a curious stare from the manager but instead asked us if we wanted an air conditioned or an air cooled room. We wanted to have a look at the options before we decided and we were shown a cosy little room with an air conditioner and an air cooler both!! Investigation revealed that the standard configuration of the room allows the use of the cooler only. Only when one pays the extra for the A/C does the manager flip a switch near his desk downstairs, does the A/C comes alive!! Another prime example of Punjabi ingenuity!!
Being the hot muggy day that it was, it was natural for us to prefer the A/c and soon the hotel boy was dispatched to procure alcohol and grub. All this while, a Ludhiana jumbo was bust traveling up and down the yard trying to dismantle a rake of BCN wagons, while sundry freights and passengers appeared every now and then with locos belonging to a variety of sheds. Dinner and drinks were devoured with gusto while poring over the photographs from the journey thus far and it wasn't long that our snores were drowning the horns of the locos blaring across the road.
Day 3 - 15th August 2005
Independence Day, and the first sight that greeted us at the station was that of a pair of boys being caught by a Punjab Police constable for clicking pictures at the station. What he didn't know that a far nastier pair of camera wielding 'terrorists' was right behind his back. This pair spent the next hour or so clicking all 'strategic' things at Bathinda station like a lovely Ludhiana WDM2 with a sunrise pattern windshield grille, a pair of blue and cream WDP1s parked under the shade of a huge peepul tree in the sidings and a whole lot of vacuum braked trains!! .
This pair spent the next hour or so clicking all 'strategic' things at Bathinda station like a lovely Ludhiana WDM2 with a sunrise pattern windshield grille, a pair of blue and cream WDP1s parked under the shade of a huge peepul tree in the sidings and a whole lot of vacuum braked trains!!
Bathinda station has a lovely layout. It is one of the largest junctions in the country, which sees 6 routes converging (from Abohar, Ferozpur, Dhuri, Jakhal, Sirsa and Suratgarh. The western side of the station plays home to the freight sidings after which are the main set of platforms. Platform 1&2 is home to a lovely white building which houses various staff offices and the ubiquitous RPF outpost as well. The chief feature of this building is a lovely control tower, which is the nerve center of the yard operations. The view from the tower would be a rail fan's delight given the enormous amount of traffic that passes through here. Bathinda also has a set of bypass lines, which allows trains from the Dhuri side proceed towards Jakhal, Sirsa, Suratgarh & Abohar without having to touch the station and reverse or vice versa.
After roaming around the station quite a bit, we decided to relax a bit and found nice benches in a corridor on the platform buildings. Freshly whitewashed arches framed our view of the track as railway men went on with their routines.
A DMU towards the Ferozpur side departed, bursting at its seams reminding us of Andheri station in the evenings. Presently, the PA system announced the impending arrival of our train, the 4722 Sri Ganganagar - New Delhi Intercity. As we made our way to the platform a ridiculously painted WDM2 from Ludhiana turned up with the 4722. Painted in Neon Green, with splashes of jarring pinks, blues and oranges on the sides, the 16662 looked as if its painter was tripping on LSD while conjuring up the livery!!
We found our way into the sole AC Chair Car in the train and after depositing our luggage, I ran to the front to click a photo of the psychedelic Alco as it refueled. Pretty soon, it was time to depart and with a lovely toot of its horn 16662 jerked forward, negotiating the turnouts towards the Jakhal exit. As we picked up speed, we spotted the 9111 ADI-JAT enter the yard from the Hanumangarh side while we curved to the left and onward.
Our route was to take us to Delhi via Jakhal, Narwana, Jind and Rohtak passing through the verdant countryside of Haryana. This territory too is dominated by WDP1 locos and we saw many examples of these Bo-Bo diesels hauling all sorts of trains.
At every station there was signs of extra security with stengun wielding constables turning up everywhere. The countryside was predominantly agricultural till Rohtak but signs of industrialization and the accompanying filth and pollution becoming prominent as we rumbled closer to Delhi. Bahadurgarh and beyond, the of rubbish, non-degradable plastic and stagnant pools of water..
Entering Delhi, the filth was all the more unbearable but soon we reached Shakurbasti, where the Ferozpur bound Punjab Mail crossed us, running late yet again. A sizable crowd got off here, presumably bound for the northern and western suburbs of the city, which are better served by this station. Moving on, we bypassed the Sarai Rohilla yard and met the lines coming in from Ambala at Delhi Kishenganj and nearing New Delhi, we were made to halt for a long time at Sabzi Mandi while the Amritsar - Nanded Sachkhand Express overtook us. Finally, we too got the starter and after an interminable 5kmph crawl to the platform and New Delhi, we got off to be greeted by IRFCA's most famous writer carrying a bottle of vodka and a mischievous grin on his face.