It's 1:53 AM here on Sunday, January 30 2011, and I have suddenly remembered that train journey that we went through during the Durga Puja holidays in 2006. I'm pretty sure that if I go off to sleep now, I'm not going to remember any of this so vividly as I'm recollecting right now, so I'm going to write it down right now. So let's begin.
We were supposed to visit my aunt, uncle and cousin, who at that time stayed at Hyderabad, in the Monsoon of 2006. Durga Puja was held early that year, with Saptami falling on Friday the 29th of September. Monsoon was also pretty late and quite heavy that year. We got booked on the 8645 East Coast Express from Howrah to Hyderabad departing Tuesday, 26th September 2006. Our school had just hired a new principal that academic year, and part of her "crackdown on leniency by the former principal", as she called it, involved refusing early holidays to students. We were leaving on the 26th, which involved missing the last two days of pre-puja vacation school. My parents approached the principal for permission for an early holiday, and got refused in a very strict manner. Nonetheless, we had to go, since our tickets had been booked.
Cut to Friday, 22nd September, and incessant rains began, flooding the front of our house and turning it into an island. The school declared a holiday, and I got myself an extended weekend. However, even when the rains subsided on Saturday, fresh spells on Sunday only increased the water level. The school refused to declare a holiday on Monday, but I could not attend due to the waterlogging. In fact, I vaguely remember a friend telling me the attendance in Class VI-C, which ha a strength of 35, being in the single digits, something like 7, on that Monday.
Rewind back to Sunday, the heavy rains caused a landslide of sorts at Tikiapara. This shut down the entire South Eastern Railway section of Howrah Station. Most of the trains were cancelled, and some were moved to depart from Santragachi. All incoming trains were being short-terminated at Santragachi.
On Tuesday morning, I woke up at 6 AM. Looking back at those days, I'm pretty surprised at what I could do. Right now I wake up no earlier than 11 AM, and in those days, 7 AM was late by my standards. Oh, I forgot to tell you that my Dad would not be travelling with us, due to issues with his job - he would be joining us later during the weekend - and it would be just the three of us, Mom, Bro and me who would be travelling. I woke Dad up and went off to sleep again, waking up at 7. I found Dad watching the news intently, and I remember images of submerged villages, with people sitting on the roof of a hut in the middle of what looked like a fast-flowing ocean of water, being shown on the news. I think the channel was Tara News. Anyway, at about 7:30, headlines showed up telling that 8645 Up East Coast Express would be departing from Shalimar, 3 hours late at 1:45 PM.
We - the three journeymen, Dad and my maternal grandmother - took a taxi and departed for the station at about 11 AM. We descended from the Vidyasagar Setu and got confused for a while, before taking the Upper Foreshore Road until we got to a signboard showing that we needed to go left to get to Shalimar. Anyhow, we reached there somewhere 'round 1:15, because I remember we had very little time in our hands while we were stuck in the level crossing just outside the station. Shalimar station isn't very big. In fact, it has something like 20 tracks, with 18 of them being in a freight yard. There's one long island platform with Platform numbers 1 and 2. The platform has a concrete roof. There are no shops, no coolies - no nothing. Just a platform and tracks.
We got to the platform after crossing the Platform 1 track on foot - there's no over-bridge, heck, there isn't even an entrance to the station - kept our luggage somewhere in the middle of the platform and began waiting. And waiting. 1:45 came and passed. So did 2. And then 2:30. We explored many possibilities - such the train having left from Santragachi, or having been cancelled - until somewhere around 2:50, a voice on the PA system (which we didn't know even existed until that announcement came through) said that the rake had left the Tikiapara yard and would be arriving on Platform 2 in some time.
And the train did arrive, pulled by the same Jhansi-based WAM-4 electric engine that would take us all the way to Vishakapatnam. While we boarded our coach - and stormed out after keeping the luggage because the AC had not been switched on and it was stuffier than hell inside - the engine decoupled and attached to the other end of the train. We bade our goodbyes, and the train pulled out from the station at 3:45 PM, a full 4 hours behind schedule and departing from the wrong station.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. The coach was almost empty until Kharagpur, and even then we had the entire 6-birth coupe to ourselves all that day and night. I was awake all night, watching out of the window - which I always do, even nowadays, in trains - and remember the train stopping numerous times after passing the Chilka Lake station. I couldn't make out the lake itself because it was so dark, so I daydreamt about fighter planes having a dogfight in the skies above us while I communicated with them over a radio and watched them on a Radar screen in an imaginary laptop. Ahh, those innocent days.
I must have dozed off around 3 or so, and woke up at 6, just as the train arrived at Srikakulam Road. One glance outside and I was captivated by the scenery of the eastern coastal plains. I have traveled along many routes in the Indian Railways, and trust me, you will not see a more scenic mainline route than the Srikakulam Road - Rajahmundry stretch. I quickly took a look at the time and calculated that we were running 8 hours late, and concluded that we would not be reaching Hyderabad until 2AM that night. Resignedly, I took my toothbrush and went off to brush my teeth, while Mom inventoried our food and water supplies. We concluded we had enough biscuits and cake to last us till the evening, and that we had to buy a couple of bottles of water. We also called up Mashimoni and Mesho, giving them our progress report.
We reached Vishakapatnam around 9, where the train stopped for around 40 minutes. Mom went down and bought a couple of bottles of water. The train got a new engine (which I later saw was a rusty old WAG-5) which was slow as hell. Our coupe got another passenger, bringing the total to four. The train finally started off, in the opposite direction, branching out into another line just before a station called Duvvada. We got our breakfast of Idli and Chutney from a vendor with a bucketful of that stuff. After that, we rolled about on our berths and I read a Famous Five book until we reached Rajahmundry, sometime around 2 in the afternoon. We ordered lunch from the Pantry Car, and waited until it arrived.
It arrived just as the train departed. The train picked up speed very slowly, but then slowed down again as it climbed on top of the bridge over the Godavari. The first two spans of the cantilever bridge are curved, meaning the train curved almost through 75 degrees while over water. It was breathtaking, watching the train curve on a bridge, out of the window.
The scenery changed after crossing the river, and got very boring. I went back to my book, and finished that before climbing up to the upper berth, turning the AC vent towards me and dozing off until I suddenly woke up, found that the train was moving along very slowly, came down and found that it was entering Vijayawada. The train waited for 20 minutes, getting a new engine. Mom bought some stuff from an IRCTC vendor who'd come on the train, and paid him with a 100 rupee note for a bill amounting to 34 rupees. The vendor got off the train, telling us he was going to get change. Anyway, the train departed, again in the reverse direction, five minutes later, and the vendor never returned with the change. Two coupes up front, another family had been duped, this time of a 500 rupee note.
As the train curved to the left to enter the branch line towards Kazipet, I got a good look at the engine, which was a new WAP-4 painted in flaming red. Then things got very interesting. When the train had departed Vijayawada, it was 7 hours late, with a projected arrival time of 1:30 AM. The train suddenly picked up some frightening speed, with the coaches shaking so much that water bottles kept falling off the center table. I looked out of the window and I could see the train skipping one red signal after another. We again had the coupe to ourselves, since the other occupant had left at Vijayawada, and we munched on our cakes and biscuits, not daring to stand up lest we fall down due to the coach's swinging.
We stopped along the route at Khammam and Warangal, when we decided to call up Mashimoni to give them the latest progress report. It was then that we decided to get off the train at Secunderabad itself, rather than go all the way to Nampally (Hyderabad Station). That way it'd be easier for them to pick us up, and we could get off the train earlier. They told us to call them when the train reached Kazipet, so that they could then leave their house for the station.
We reached Kazipet just half an hour later, sometime around 8. We called them up to inform them of the progress. After the train left Kazipet, it began going even faster. The time it normally takes for the train to get from Kazipet to Secunderabad is four hours. That day, we did it in two and a half.
We reached Secunderabad around 10:45 or so. The train was now running, down from seven hours, five hours late, having made up for two hours along the Vijayawada-Secunderabad stretch. In fact, it had made up for so much time in between Kazipet and Secunderabad that Mashimoni and Mesho didn't have enough time to get to the station. We had to wait.
Anyway, the train attendant, a young Bengali fellow with a cheery face who'd been very helpful all through the journey, helped us down with our luggage and set us down on the platform. The train left ten minutes after it arrived, for its final stop at Hyderabad. We waited around until 11, until Mashimoni and Mesho showed up and asked us to exit the station and come up to the car park where they were waiting.
We did the meet and greet, and hopped onto Mesho's car. Mesho was driving, since the driver had gone home as it was so late. We left the station talking nineteen to the dozen, supposedly driving towards their home at Banjara Hills, before we found that since Mesho was paying more attention to the talking, he'd been absent-mindedly driving around a putla three times. But that's another story altogether.
It's 3:20 AM here, and I need to get my dose of sleep now. Adios, then :-)