A journey by train to the Northeast of India was an ordeal that demanded an enviable degree of stoicism from you. I don’t know if the situation has improved now. The longest train service in India now is from Kanyakumari in the Southern tip of the country to Dibrugarh in Assam (4286 km). The Vivek Express that rolled out from Dibrugarh yesterday has overtaken the Himsagar Express (Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi, 3715 km) in the list of long distance trains in India.
The weekly Vivek Express is certainly a blessing to the people of the Northeast. I can visualise potential passengers crowding before ticket counters from very early in the morning, if not from the previous night. I remember people sleeping before the ticket counter in Shillong, daring the bone-chilling winter of the hill town, in order to book their ticket the next morning for the Guwahati-Cochin/Trivandrum weekly train.
It was over a quarter of a century ago that I made my first trip to the Northeast. I was a job seeker. Rather, I had been assured of a teaching post in a school in Shillong. But an attack of jaundice had kept me in bed for a rather long period preventing me from getting my train ticket booked in advance. Finally when I was able to travel, I went to Ernakulam (50 km from home) to book a ticket to Guwahati. There was just one weekly train at that time from Ernakulam (Cochin) to Guwahati. There was no ticket available on that. The man at the counter advised me to book my berth up to Howrah by another train and find my way out from Howrah after reaching there. In those days of manual reservations (computers were yet a dream for the Railways) there was no way I could book a ticket from Ernakulam for a Northeast train.
The Howrah railway station submerged me in a sea of people. Snaking their way through the milling crowd, touts of all sorts came and went offering a variety of services – reservation, a seat in the general compartment without any reservation, unsolicited advice of many sorts, apart from services not related to train journey. Being young, I decided to venture out on my own. I managed to find a seat in the general compartment which soon became more crowded than I could have imagined. The first train journey to the Northeast was a foretaste of the life that the region would offer.
Every subsequent journey from Shillong to Ernakulam and back was a ritual. I would have to leave Shillong a day before the train journey since there was no conveyance from Shillong that would otherwise reach me at Guwahati railway station to catch the train early in the morning. The night would be spent in a hotel in Guwahati. Enter the train compartment the next morning armed with a reserved ticket only to find at least three passengers per seat. Most of the extra passengers would be relatives or friends of other passengers with bona fide reservation. Cooperate, collaborate, make the best of the little space in which you squeeze yourself. Endure the ordeal for 76 hours at least. Usually the train would run late by hours. Then endure the ordeal more. As a priest once told me: “offer the pain to God and it will disappear.” The journey was indeed a pilgrimage that would make you long for a god. Once the journey from Ernakulam to Guwahati went on for about 120 hours due to a bandh called in Assam. Bandh was the national pastime of the people in Assam in those days.
Sometimes you would also have to put up with passengers other than people. There were many occasions when goats, and even pigs, joined us. They would be travelling in the corridor between the toilets. The pigs would be bound and gagged.
Such exotic passengers would appear only in Assam part of the journey. In that part you would also be smothered by traders who would travel the whole length of the train with a hoard of items. The wares would range from cheap “China balm” to rather costly electronic items allegedly made in China. Counterfeit was the trademark.
I haven’t been to the Northeast in the last ten years, except one train journey I made two years ago from New Jalpaiguri to New Delhi. So I don’t know how the situation is now. But I’m glad that the Vivek Express is linking Dibrugarh and Kanyakumari. That’s a link between two worlds.