Didi's Gift -- On the Howrah Mumbai Duronto Express

Satish Kulkarni

AT LONG LAST FULFILLED a 30 years old yearning as I traveled the Howrah Mumbai via Nagpur train route on Mamata Didi's gift - the Duronto Express. Reached the Hallowed precincts of the Howrah Station at 6.50 AM for a train that was to depart at 8.20AM - this was coloured by earlier experiences of a literal traffic jam 30 years ago wherein I had made it by the skin of my teeth by sprinting across the howrah bridge with my yes - The HOLDALL!! . Howrah bridge now no longer has trams running on it so the hotel concierge wondered why I was leaving for the station so early - so I regaled him off my narrative 3 decades ago.. The only side-effect of this narrative being that the beautiful young lady at the reception got a fair idea of the age of this Uncle leaving me no option but to be at my avuncular best as I completed my check out formalities.

Howrah Station now has a new wing for South Eastern railway departure trains. It was cold misty and foggy but the station ambience is the same. Porters mostly from Bihar speaking bhojpuri/maithili - (kaa ho khaini khavatani baa?) - Roughly translating to how are you would you like some khaini i.e. tobacco with Lime/chun). The method of kneading khaini with chuna is the same replete with a deft toss between the mouth and lower lip. The children being with me and my having to be a model parent prevented me from (once again) trying this after 36 years ! People from all walks of life, representing a microcosm of India that one can only experience via long distance train journeys.

Gave reassurance to an elderly bengali couple at the platform in Bengali that .the Duronto indeed leaves from here (ai platform theke hi chaadbe). The feeling of reassurance that the couple had after I volunteered to help them find their coach/seat can only be experienced but cant be described (this was similar when I personally negotiated a lower berth for my mother whilst she was travelling pune to bangalore). The train glided off smoothly and promptly at 8:20AMwith with a post office maroon coloured Santragachi 4000HP WAP4 doing the honours. This loco would haul this train right upto Igatpuri. The train attendant welcomed us with a Rose -( "Welcome aboard the Duronto SIr") and soon we were past Santragachi into the lush green bengal countryside. Simple folk bathing in the pond soaking in the lingering winter sun, women washing clothes, some carrying water, the occasioinal bullock being given a bath, children waving at level crossings, banana trees, swaying cocunut/palm's - got goosebumps as I experienced the bucolic ambience of a fast vanishing era.

The train's music system jockey must be a great philosopher. Lovely piano versions of old kishore da melodies of yore suitable for all genre of passengres wafted through the music system on the train - sample these

- musafir hoon yaron na ghar hai na thikana..., meet na milaa re manakaa, jaane man jaane man tere do nayan, nain tumhare mazeedar o janabe aali, ghoongroo ki tarah bajata hi rahaa hoon main, teri galiyon mein na rakhenge kadam, raahi manwa dukh ki chinta kyon sataati hai, some numbers very very nostalgic and touching for chaps like me, yet some romantic numbers that were apt for the flirtatious couples in the coupe's for two..

Kharagpur went past and breakfast arrived - fruit juice, the best railway omelette you can ever get, the classic what only the khansama of the railways can prepare - cutlets superbly done with bread crumbs - shallow fried golden brown to perfection with a delicious beet, green peas, potato, onion filling, baked beans, finger chips cooked in mustard oil and tea...

Got talking with my fellow passenger Mr.Raychaudhuri a retired life sciences Prof., caught up with him with old text books of yore Gray's Anatomy (costing a princelely some of Rs2.50 in his father's days in Dacca as he told me), maths/kc.nag, algebra/kalipada basu, datta's botany - yet another dream fulfilled meeting and having an "adda" session with a bengali master moshai/intellectual on a journey.

The train pounding the miles- some changes as I missed the lingering windhorn of the WDM2 diesel loco as this route is fully electrified. Arrived at Tatanagar(Jamshedpur) and saw goods boxcars loaded with steel being hauled by coupled WAM4's with TATA stenciled on them - another reminder of the past. This marked coming into the second state of the journey - jharkhand. Came into Orissa at rourkela, and felt the sheer power of the 5 coupled 5000 HP bandamunda WAG5 loco's hauling a long boxcar goods traiin.

Lunch was soup with bread soupsticks, chappati veg/panner curry, aloo bhaja(fry) rice, dal and curd - very tasty children loved it too. My daughter's initiation into railfanning came with an innoccous question what do the devanagari initials "da pu" on the loco stand for. Patiently explained they stood for South Eastern (Dakhshin Purva) Railway and that this train route has been in existence since 1900 then run by the then Bengal Nagpur Railway(BNR) and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway(GIPR).

After a snooze came evening and then the most introspective part of the journey at dusk. Somehow late evenings on a train are always a time for reflection/introspection as one watches the sun go down the dark red horizon and as the evening mist settles in over the plains. Its almost as though one rewinds one's life's journey at this time of the day - times of bygone childhood, schooldays, one's first crush...

As night settled in went past bilaspur, durg, temple town of dongargarsh, rajnandangaon as I prepared to settle in for the night. Got up early at 4.00am and after a wash in a swaying railway carriage toilet got ready for dawn. (If one can hold one's aim in a swaying moving train one has arrived as a seasoned rail traveler :-))

Dawn at winter is one of the most fulfilling aspects of a rail journey. On the plains one can be amongst the mist and see the lingering fog as the upcoming day portends hope and aspiration. The railway town of Bhusawal went by - this place was one of the worlds largest steam loco sheds in the pre-independence days. Experienced dawn as the Sun broke out somewhere between Manmad and Deolali - O what a glorious sight. As my bangla copassenger remarked "O we are but mere children in front of Mother Nature and there is some divine power orchestrating this nature's dance and play"...(translation imperfect as this is best heard in bangla).

Stopped at Igatpuri and had the best ever masala and adrak chai's of my life. So much so that made sure that I had two cups of each but also made sure that both the children enjoyed this once in lifetime flavour - they loved it. Also cajoled my co-passenger who had given up drinking chai to have - just one (shoodoo taste 'er jonno i.e. just for the flavour) - he loved it. Tried maska paav at the Irani's stall - beautiful. Our adrak chaiwala being a Marathi Manoos - got talking and in his words "Igatpuri madhe chahaa/jewan madhe paisa wasool" you get value for money for food at Igatpuri and the weather is good only until kasara. Was touched by his humility and his happiness and contentment in life with what he enjoyed doing - something for me to learn as I continue in this IT rat race. Personally saw the AC to DC loco change as an Igatpuri DC/AC WCAM3 loco too charge. Bid adieu to the Santragachi WAP4 loco - this would return back with the return howrah duronto again at Igatpuri in the evening.

By now we had traversed 5 states (bengal, jharkhand, orissa, madhya pradesh, maharashtra), I had spoken bengali, hindi, maithili/bjojpuri, understood oriya, marathi and of course english. Suuun timing che - remarked the pretty young gujrati girl as the train rolled in at on the dot at 10.20AM Mumbai VT oops Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Taxi guy Dalvi was a Marathi Manoos from Kanjur Marg so he loved taking us from VT to Powai at IIT.

All in all very very fulfilling.