Like most bengalis living in Jamshedpur, Calcutta (now, Kolkata) was our Mecca. Our annual Haj would happen during the summer vacations. Since Jamshedpur was a hinterland of sorts with a sleepy ambiance and where nothing out of the ordinary ever happened, I eagerly looked forward to the trip. Calcutta was in stark contrast to our town. Huge, noisy, unplanned, chaotic and stunning in its complete disarray, it was a shock treatment that I was awaiting all year long.
Sharing my enthusiasm was Anirban, my good friend and neighbor. We had little in common except for our zeal for the trip and, of course...trains! Trains fascinated us to the point of being an obsessive topic of discussion every evening when we met to play. We would begin our daily rendezvous by discussing our latest finds on the Indian Railways. And since his pilgrimage to the holy land during the long vacation was very much like mine, our camaraderie found a glue in Steel Express.
Steel Express was the mainstay of railroad connectivity between the two places. Its scheduled departure time from Tatanagar (Jamshedpur) Junction was 6:05 am and reached Howrah Station at 10:20 in the morning. We would then take a bus or taxi to our uncle's place somewhere in Tollygunge, a dingy and overly crowded place in the City of Joy. En route, we would cross the famous Howrah Bridge which was bang next to the station.
Anyway, since having something to discuss about our favorite train wasn't always easy, we resorted to figments about its speed vis-a-vis other trains, as if it was listed in the stock exchange! He would quote his own make-believe source on how Steel Express's speed had improved over what it was the previous day, while I would quote my equally fictitious agent in corroborating his finds! Each believed the other was quoting from a genuine source. Of course, there were other contenders to winning our affection, most notably Gitanjali Express and Rajdhani Express. While Anirban was sometimes fatigued of the Steel and would temporarily flirt with the also-rans, switching my loyalty was a preposterous thought since I was completely enamored by my train and would hear nothing against it. If Anirban said anything that even mildly tilted the balance in favor of the 'lesser' trains, Iwould vociferously spring into action and protect my turf and my train. So ferocious was my espousal that soon he would be won over to my camp and we would continue praising our beloved train to dizzy heights!
The excitement for the impending trip began to build with the onset of the summer vacation. Ah, the mood! Anirban and I would discuss tirelessly the exact sequence of events that led up to the big day. All the anticipation, planning and packing. The intricate details about everything that had to be in place for the trip to be absolutely perfect. However, his trip generally preceded mine by a day or two. When the big day came, I could hardly sleep! Packing our luggage was especially fun and didi and mom would meticulously look into all the details. Nothing was left to chance. Dad remained aloof while the rest of us would offer our own inputs into what should go into the suitcase or bags. Debates would be spirited, pros and cons fathomed, best fits and innumerable compromises agreed upon and finally everything would be squeezed in. It was such great fun. Not being able to contain my excitement was a given. I wouldn't be able to sleep the night before and when it was time for us to get up at 4 in the morning, I had hardly had a moment's sleep! This was the real thing. All those plans were now going live. We would go through our motions and leave home at 5. Mom would insist that it was cold outside and that I should be wearing a scarf. I protested but she would have none of it. Since it was dark, I would finally acquiesce in suffering the ignominy of wearing it, something that made me look like a girl! Well, everyone's asleep and no one will notice, I said to myself. We walked to the stop, waited for the station bus, boarded it and were finally on our way. I reveled in the experience.
Our bus would reach the station well before the scheduled departure. And then I finally saw my divine train stationed proudly in platform number 1. What a heavenly sight! We boarded and took our places. I would settle for nothing other than the window seat. That was an absolute must! And since the train was mostly empty, finding a place that caught my fancy wasn't difficult. Dad would see us off and wait there waving his hand at me till he was completely out of sight. That's when it struck me. I would be without him for a long while…and my eyes moistened as the train gradually pulled out of the station and gathered speed. Well, everything was soon forgotten and I would settle in assimilating as much as possible of the world outside that seemed to be hurrying past us.
Our train would usually reach its destination on time and that' s when I realized that the much hyped journey had come to an end. Not fair! So much of build-up but so ephemeral a trip! Anyway, the shock treatment from Kolkata still awaited us and I looked forward to it. We had vast clans of relatives who would descend upon us when word spread that we were in town. Since I was a loner, the constant influx of visitors would often overwhelm. Anyway, I had to live through it…and visiting relatives after a year-long abeyance wasn't necessarily all that bad, I reasoned myself.
Our vacation days would evaporate faster than I was willing to acknowledge and soon enough it was time to bid adieu. I had grown fond of Kolkata during my stay there and reconciling with the Spartan town of Jamshedpur would be difficult, I thought. The return trip wasn't all that fun and I couldn't stand the thought of enduring yet another year of academia before the next trip. However, I remember one particular incident. Dad had come to the station to receive us. Our coach stopped exactly in front of where Dad was standing. I saw him, leapt off the train on to the platform and ran towards him. Dad bent with open arms and hugged me tight!
Yes, the initial days after our return trip were very boring. Anirban was equally sombre, but there was some fun in meeting him and exchanging details. Soon school reopened and the first day of the new academic year was a riot, each pupil having his own account to narrate!
I never imagined those figmented tales about Steel Express would one day find their way into my blog!