© Avirup Ghosh
I was at the train station in Puri, Orissa. Cyclone Phailin had just left, and standing in the overcrowded station on that rainy October night, that only seemed like a prologue for what was to follow. The roads were flooded, buses and cars had stopped plying, cycle rickshaws were fighting fuel-served machines with an energy that one encounters only in aphorisms. We had to remind ourselves that we were on a holiday.
There was no space anywhere – not for bags and suitcases, not for human feet. My nephew, two years old, whose mother had recently taught him to fold his hands into a pranam for the gods, suddenly turned to the porters standing next to him and offered his pranam. We laughed, and when the back story was explained to them, the red uniformed coolies laughed too.
‘Come, let me tell you a story about coolies and trains,’ one of them said.
My nephew is still not old enough to be greedy for stories. And though our feet were aching and our incessant yawns reminded us of how deep and uncertain nights at railway stations can be, we could have done with a story.
Roghu, one of the coolies, began telling us about the hazards of rail travel in Orissa. ‘Isn’t that why Jagannath travels by the rath?’
‘Trains are not for ordinary people,’ his friend added.
‘Who is it for then?’ asked my brother, irritated with everything around him.
‘Trains are for Biharis,’ said Roghu.
His colleague clarified the answer for us. ‘Haven’t you ever travelled by train through Bihar? Haven’t you had your reserved seat taken away by Bihari men?’
Turning towards my husband, Roghu asked, ‘Do you know who invented the train? It was an Englishman, was it not?’.
My husband isn’t one to let go of an opportunity for a laugh. ‘No, it was a Bihari,’ he replied.
The conversation about the difficulty of travel in Bihar amidst the incessant buzz and bite of mosquitoes continued until our train arrived. It was called ‘Jagannath Express’. If I hadn’t been so sleepy, I might have sat Roghu and his friend down to explain to them the delicious irony of that name.
Instead, as incessant rains delayed the arrival of our Jagannath into the Howrah rail station in Calcutta, I sat working on my laptop, reading two writers from Bihar: Amitava Kumar and Tabish Khair. I had first encountered the train in Kumar’s work in his first novel, Home Products, a scene in which the protagonist returns home smelling of the train. I wanted to be on a train like that, to smell of the journey I’d just made. Now I want to live in these trains in Amitava Kumar’s essay.
If bus journeys in Bihar could be as enjoyable as the ones made in Tabish Khair’s novel, The Bus Stopped, who wouldn’t want to take a bus to Patna? In this essay Khair writes about the relation between bus journeys and his writing.
Satish Singh’s Hindi poem, Yatra Chakra, about journeys local and universal, through Patna and elsewhere, has been translated by Abdullah Khan.
Gopal MS, in his photo-essay Mumbai Local, shows us how the world appears to those who live in trains and also how the train appears to the world that is passes by.
The cover image, “Drift”, which is, among other things, about the solitariness of every journey, is by Avirup Ghosh.