Kindness of Fellow Passengers

The scheduled arrival of the train was at 23:50 and the departure at 00:10. That means the train would arrive at the station just before midnight and depart 20 minutes later when it was the start of the next day. In other words, if you are going to the station today, you will board the train tonight and your journey will start in the wee hours of tomorrow. And that is perfectly fine if your ticket is booked accordingly for tomorrow. But if your ticket is for tonight, or to be precise, with journey date of today, alas, your train has already left!

Train in a station – representative image

My train had left thus, and as if that were not enough, I boarded the next day’s train with a wrong ticket! But what happened thereafter was heart-warming for me.

That was in the summer of 2005 when I was on a trip to Nainital for a few days. Travelling from Hyderabad, I, along with my family, had a stopover at Lucknow on the way to the hill station. While departing from Lucknow, a traffic jam on the road delayed our arrival at the railway station, and we boarded the Howrah-Kathgodam Express just a minute and a half before departure without checking the reservation chart for our names.

As the train started, we proceeded to occupy our seats in the Sleeper Class carriage. I saw that two of my fellow passengers had already occupied the berths booked by me. As I asked them to vacate my berths, they showed me their tickets. To my surprise, I found that the seat numbers in their tickets were exactly the same as those of mine.

My mind went blank. It took me some time to realize my mistake – I booked my ticket for 22 June when I should have done it for the next day because my journey was in the early hours of 23 June.

The train picked up speed and the passengers began to settle in their seats. With my wife and two-years old son journeying along with me, I could not afford to get off the train at the next station. I got a little panicky. I showed my ticket to some of my co-passengers and asked whether I would be allowed to travel with that ticket. They said, ‘Aapke pas ticket hai na? Kyu nehi allow karega? (You’ve the ticket. Why won’t they allow you?)’

But the prospect of making a 10-hours long journey at night along with a kid, standing or sitting, filled me with anxiety. Sensing my distress, one of them assured me, ‘Please be seated. We’ll have some arrangements for you shortly.’

They were a large group of men and women travelling together by the train that night. Almost half an hour later, one of them called me over and mentioned two seat numbers for us. Two women of the group magnanimously vacated their berths and accommodated themselves elsewhere along with their children.

I cursed myself for not being careful enough about my itinerary and was getting ready to offer an explanation to the ticket examiner, pay a hefty fine or just be scolded by him. However, he did not come to check the tickets after midnight.

It is almost sixteen years since then and I have had my share of unanticipated troubles in the travels afterwards – my illness, a sudden call of strike by localites, vagaries of the weather, cancellation of train and all that. Those are, however, the hassles that come with travelling and I was prepared for them. But some troubles cannot be overcome without the help of others and one cannot be grateful enough when help comes from the strangers. In this context, this act of kindness by my fellow passengers sixteen years back still moves me. And it reaffirms my faith in the goodness of people and makes me go out into the world with confidence.

Dance of Rain

Monsoon has set in! The dark clouds are hovering over our heads, threatening more rains. It is usually after the summer months of heat and dust that rainy days start, bringing relief to the part of the earth we live in. However, it was a little different this year here at Hyderabad and also most other parts of the country. The summer was quite an extension of the spring, cool and pleasant, with disturbances in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea causing spells of showers, keeping the mercury down.

So after a very enjoyable summer, monsoon rains are here and are pouring with the rhyme and rhythm of their own. People caught in the middle of the road are scurrying for cover. The bird that perched on the branch of a tree seems to go into deep meditation, fluttering its wings from time to time to shed water from its feathers. I am reminded of the rainy days of my childhood.

Rains in my village

My childhood was spent in the Dooars region of West Bengal in the floodplains of the Himalayas. There the monsoon clouds hit the mountains, causing precipitation, and as a result, it pours profusely for two months and more. The rains would start in the evening and continue incessantly throughout the night. And then what a sight to behold in the morning! My village has lakes, ponds and also a river. The ponds would be filled to the brim! The cacophony of frogs would be heard all over! The rills would cut through the ground in front of my home! The river would suddenly swell up and the water would gush, forming a swirl!

I loved to frolic in the rains. Along with other children, I would go around the neighbours’ homes in our hamlet. The houses were made with slant tin roofs. Through the troughs of the roofs, water would pour in gushing torrents. We would stand just under them and bathe, holding our hands close to our chests.

After ponds were filled, on a sunny day, diving into the water and swimming was a way to release our energies. The water lilies would flower! They have long stems that extend from the bottom of the pond up to the surface of water. We would make garlands of the stems with the flowers at the bottom and wear them for some time before throwing them away.

In the afternoon when rain would let up, it was a great fun to play in the grounds that would be slippery after rains. We would play football, splashing water in the puddles. Trying to kick the ball but not quite making it and instead slipping and falling on the ground was perhaps the ultimate game and had no parallel!

Pond with water lily

The rivers would overflow and the fish would come to the ponds and agricultural fields. To catch fish with fishing rods required patience what with sitting in a corner for a long time, making the baits and waiting for the right moment to lift the rod. Far easier was to place a basket of bamboo with an opening, through which the fish would only enter and not come out, against the flow of water in a channel in the evening and collect your prized catch in the morning. The fish would always flow with the current.

School hours used to be cut short because of rains. The teacher would come to the class and do roll call. And notice would come also immediately and we knew what it was for. The matron would clang the bell, ‘dhong dhong’ twice and then ‘dhong dhong…dhong’ in close succession, sending music to our ears.

Today life has brought me to the city of Hyderbad. An average rainfall here causes water-logging in the streets, traffic jams and all sorts of things. Sometimes I get caught in the rains while driving my car or scooty. I enjoy the showers by making a detour on the roads. I often get drenched. Then I fondly remember the dance of rain in my childhood.

Golconda Fort – A Travel in Time

Surreal! That unmistakable feeling overwhelms me every time I visit the Golconda Fort – and it is not just once or twice that I have been to this historical place at Hyderabad. Outings on holidays or sight-seeing with a relative have occasioned these visits quite often and I have never felt less enthusiastic about it.

The fort was once the stronghold of Qutb Sahi Dynasty. Imagining the regal presence of the Sultans in it is a travel in time and I get transported five centuries back. But soon I stumble upon the relics of stone and I am knocked down to the present!

Inside Golconda Fort (photo credit : Arief)

It was first built as a mud fort by Kakatiyas dynasty of Warangal. Its control passed on the Bahmani dynasty of Karnataka in 1363. The commander of that dynasty, Sultan Quli Qutub Shah, declared independence in 1518 and established Qutub Shahi dynasty. He developed the fort and the township inside it with rocks naturally found in the region.

As I drive into the fort, I can see a comprehensive defence strategy at work in every aspect of its build. The S-shaped gateway one km away from the fort ensured no free entry of the enemy into the precinct without resistance from sentinels hidden in its bends.

The high fortified walls made of granite have defied the vagaries of time and stood strong. Rocks were carved into blocks to build those impregnable walls. I wonder how many people worked for how many years to build those walls and how many elephants might have been employed to move those rocks.

The gate Balahisar opens to the township inside the fort, which looks quite gigantic. It had reservoirs and water supply system that pumped water to the top of the fort where Sultans lived.

The Sultans needed to always beware of the enemy and conspirators, so they had to keep their eyes and ears open all the times. The acoustics engineering to capture the sound was mind boggling. The sound at the portico just after the entrance to the fort called clapping portico could reach the top of the fort!

Relics of the fort (photo credit : Arief)

And warfare in the days of the Sultans meant pitched battles in large fields with guns and cannons, and with soldiers attacking the enemy riding horses and carrying swords, rapiers and all sorts of hand weapons. An ambush or a guerrilla attack was also used to take the enemy by surprise. The fort served as the reserve for the weaponry and was also where the kings lived with his consorts, descendants and all trusted lieutenants.

How the world has changed in the last 500 years! Modern warfare involves the use of missiles or fighter jets unlike that in the past and that would make such known reserve of weapons and palace of the kings the prime targets of airstrikes.

The once impregnable Golconda is now in ruins with only the relics remaining to tell the story of its glorious past. Canons fell silent long back and now lie abandoned! And the fort so painstakingly built is now home to nocturnal creatures and is at the mercy of current dispensation for preservation. Valour, power, prestige or empire – all are transitory. Everything succumbs to the all-consuming demon of our existence…TIME.

Welcoming the Rains

A whoosh of wind,
Icy, fresh;
Blows away the blind
And washes my face.

A smell of soil,
Earthy, soft,
Wafts into my nostril
And makes me glide aloft.

I go out on a high
And behold the sight.
Thunder rumbles in the sky,
And plays sound and light.

A drizzle falls in streaks,
I hear its strain.
Nobly, gracefully,
Here comes the rain!

A Horrific Bus Robbery

The many bus journeys I made during my college days for going home were largely safe and incident free. So, I hardly had any foreboding of something horrific happening to me while on a trip home on a night of winter in 2002. I studied engineering at Bengal Engineering College at Shibpore, Howrah, from where I used to go to Esplanade to board a bus to Siliguri in the evening. A 14-hours journey up to Siliguri and beyond would then take me to my hometown, Maynaguri, by the next morning.

Then as a college student, it was usually during summer and puja vacations that I used to go home. But this time, a few unexpected holidays in December made me homeward bound. As usual, I boarded a bus to Siliguri at Esplande bus stand. I still vividly remember that it was a cold night, making the passengers in the Volvo Bus sit in their seats, wrapped in warm clothes. The bus made a pit-stop at Krishnanagar, 100 km away from Kolkata, where we had dinner, and then left for the destination. I closed my eyelids, but the glare of headlights of the buses coming from the opposite direction fell into my eyes now and again, keeping me awake. I tossed and turned in my seat for some time and eventually drifted off to sleep.

It was about two o’clock. I was suddenly jolted out of my sleep! Some men were beating at the bus and shouting, ‘Grab them, hit them.’ Before I could make out anything, three or four of them, their faces covered with clothes, barged in to the bus through the door in the front, brandishing knives and pistols. The driver and conductors rushed to the back, fearing for their safety! I realized that the men were dacoits out to rob us of our belongings. They started lifting the bags and suitcases stowed in the shelves above the passengers’ seats. A man in the front row tried to prevent a dacoit from taking away the suitcases. What the robber did immediately still sends shivers down my spine! He swung his knife, nicking the man’s chin, thus making his intentions clear!

The robbers shouted in Hindi, ‘Kagaz Nikal (bring out your notes).’ Then they went about extorting money from the passengers. Seated by the window in one of the middle rows, I kept a bag in the aisle. I lifted it and stowed it below the seat in front of me. And as they came in, I brought out two hundred-rupee notes from my wallet and stretched my hand with the money towards them, apprehensive about their being satisfied with the offer. But to my relief, one of them collected it and hurried towards the back rows. They did not ask for more!

The robbers went about terrorizing passengers with knives and pistols and extorting money. But all of a sudden, a whistle was heard! A train was coming through the track that ran parallel to the bus route. The robbers seemed very worried! They screamed, ‘Train! Train!’ and rushed to the door! All of them got off the bus in a jiffy and went away as the train whizzed past us. The passengers in the bus heaved sighs of relief!

Our bus went to a police station near Farakka to register an FIR. And after registering the FIR, which took almost three hours, we left for Siliguri. It was in the evening that day as opposed to the morning usually that I reached home. The robbers were armed with knives and pistols, and the robbery happened all of a sudden when the passengers were asleep. But the train came to our rescue! What frightened them, I still do not know. Did they fear that the train would stop and people would go after them? Maybe they were afraid. But thank God the train came to our rescue at the right time that night!

A Bachelor

Five-days old stubble,
A heap of rubble,
He doesn’t care to trim;
He has no desire to be posh and prim.

With all things he plays shuttle;
His room is a jigsaw puzzle.

Clothes tucked in bookshelves
And computer on floor,
Books strewn in wardrobes
And kitchenware in store.

Mosquito net strung all the time
Over his bed,
He has made his life sublime
Without any sweat.

He never stays put with patience,
Floating always is his existence.
Busy without business,
People call him a bohemian par excellence.

Parents like to see him marry,
But it doesn’t seem to be his worry.
They pray for him to find his partner,
But Cupid simply doesn’t seem to care.

Everything so bizarre,
Who is this boulevardier?
He is a bachelor,
Is a bachelor,
Is a bachelor.

Jaldapara Calling

Should our dream destination always be far away from home? Minds wander away from our horizons into distant islands and continents. Yet, the locations within our vicinity may hold the thrill and wonder not to be found elsewhere in the world! I realized this to my surprise when I visited Jaldapara forest close to my home last month.  My wanderlust has taken me mostly to far-off destinations, as though anything worth seeing must reside in distant places beyond my reach. But now a trip to the forest has so thrilled me with the view of nature and wildlife that I am left wanting to visit the jungle again and again.

Jaldapara is a deciduous forest in the floodplains of Himalayas and is home to India’s second largest population of one-horned rhinos after Kajiranga. It is a forest of mainly sal, teak and mahogany trees standing tall and forming thick foliage with a canopy at the top. Inside the forest, there is a quaint bungalow for the tourists to lodge in. This is Hollong Forest Bungalow. Accommodation in the bungalow is limited and tourists have to book rooms well in advance.

I, along with my family, set off early in the morning. We reached the forest, which is 80 km away from my hometown, Maynaguri, in just over two hours. The entrance to the forest is on the highway connecting Jalpaiguri with Alipurduar and the lodge is eight km inside. As we drove towards the lodge, we peered into the jungle on both sides of the approach road for wild animals. Was something stirring in the bush? Rhinos are sedentary animals and can be sighted easily. Finally, there it was! A rhino resting under a tree as we came near the lodge – a huge animal with a horn that would give anyone a scare! Our car stopped for a while for us to take some snaps. Then, within a minute, we were at the lodge. 

Hollong bungalow

Hollong tourist bungalow is a two-storey wooden house with five rooms, and around it are forest offices, cottages for foresters and a temple. The lodge overlooks a vast stretch of grassland surrounded by tall trees standing like walls on all sides. An attendant helped us check into the room named Kingfisher in the second floor. Opening the window of Kingfisher, we were thrilled to get the bewitching view of the grassland! There is a stream nearby and on the other side, a clearing made by removing the grass cover. The attendant told us that there was a salt pit in the clearing and animals frequented the spot to taste the salt, which was replenished by the staff of the lodge every morning.                            

I went near the stream, where tourists thronged to behold the scenic beauty of the jungle. Everyone was expecting to see some wild animals present themselves at the clearing. And they were not to be disappointed! Two bisons were soon seen coming out of the woods and tiptoeing towards the salt pit! I never knew that the taste of salt could be so enticing that they were ready to risk being sighted by people!  But their wide open eyes and taut ears were indicating their alertness – the slightest hint of trouble was sure to make them run away to the safety of jungle. Then came a sub-adult rhino. Young and inexperienced, it stood there with its head down, relishing the salt, and looked up from time to time, giving the tourists the opportunity to have some good shots from a close distance.

Rhino in front of tourist lodge

The silence of the forest was seeping into my mind and soul. The cacophony of urban life makes us oblivious to the sounds of nature. But there the tranquility of the place aroused my alertness to the sound of breeze and the rustle of leaves. As daylight dimmed, birds started warbling and in the twilight, the atmosphere was filled with the song of birds. Suddenly, I noticed a rhino just at the gate of the tourist lodge. I was horrified, but was told that rhinos roam freely around the lodge at night.

We had a decent meal in the restaurant of the lodge. Returning to the room, we sat near the window and looked out towards the salt pit for more inhabitants of the forest. We stayed up till midnight as the staff of the lodge kept focusing their searchlights on the animals visiting the spot. A herd of chital was there and so also a herd of bison for a pinch of salt!

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early in the morning to go for the elephant safari. There are four elephants for the safari.  One has to climb the elephant’s back through a ladder and a platform. Guided by mahouts, four of us rode one of the elephants and left for the safari. As she ambled gracefully through the jungle, the mahout sitting in front of us kept putting aside the branches dangling from the trees along the way. He was raving about his skills as a mahout, the elephants he cared for and about how once chased by a rhino he took the tourist back to safety.

There are several streams crisscrossing the forest. The elephant dutifully crossed two of them with the load of five of us on her back. While crossing the stream, she drew water through her trunk, quenched her thirst and moved on. She entered the grassland that stretched far from the tourist lodge. And what variety of grass there was! Tall and bushy with blades spread like a fountain of water! It was elephant grass. We explored the pasture for a while. Then the mahout guided her back to the lodge, and the safari was completed within one and a half hours.

I wanted to spend one more night at the lodge. But, alas, my booking was for only one night! So it was time to pack up and return. It was drizzling and a cool breeze was blowing. The attendant came and put our luggage in the car. We had another look at the clearing and, while driving away, took some more snaps to treasure the memories of the trip for the future. We left with a desire to visit the place once again.