Friday, 1 July 2005

The Disorient Express

Peter Griffin loses track of time on the Barak Valley Express

The monsoon, like any sensible traveller, has paused for breath near Goa. A few hundred kilometres to the West, people wear tired expressions as they gaze at parched, cracked earth.

But here, in Haflong, in the North Cachar Hills of Assam, it doesn’t seem like there ever was a dry season. Water cascades down hillsides, lurks in the clouds that surround you, can be smelled in the carpets and the furniture, and ever so often, comes racing up the mountains as a passing burst of rain.

Getting here has been tiring.

Day One, a delayed flight into Guwahati, a busy afternoon, and an evening scramble through crowded streets to the station. My connecting train pulls out of the station a mere 15 minutes late. But almost immediately slows to a stop. And stays there for an hour.

I chat up one of the TCs. A large paramilitary contingent were boarding the train, he tells me, and hadn’t finished loading up. And they “asked” the driver not to start the train, and when he demurred, the uniformed gallants beat him up. The driver being too badly hurt to do his job, a substitute was being called in. This would take a while.

I seek out the train attendant. Would he be so kind as to hand out pillows? No, said the attendant. As per the rules, he was to distribute bedding rolls once the train had left the station. I point out that the one-third of the train was indeed out of the station. Just then the train shudders and reverses back in. The attendant, with a triumphant air, tells me that if he had complied, he would now, technically, have to take the bedding back.


Almost three hours behind schedule, the Intercity Express finally leaves Guwahati. And pillows and blankets are duly deposited on berths.

Lumding Junction rolls in after 3 a.m. I manage to roust out the chap in charge of the retiring rooms and grab a few more hours of sleep.

As my eyes close, I blearily noted that the eastern sky has already begun to lighten. Dawn comes earlier to these parts of India. So early, in fact, that the locals, very practically, run their lives by “Garden Time,” an hour ahead of IST. It isn’t 4 a.m. yet, but secessionist birds are already up and bustling in the trees that surround the station.

I wake to find that it had rained heavily, and was still drizzling in a quiet determined way. An overcast sky gives no hint as to the time, or even which way is East. I gallop to the next platform, where the train I’m here to write about stands ready to depart.

The Barak Valley Express travels between Lumding, three-and-a-half hours away from Guwahati (when drivers aren’t being beaten up), to Silchar, in the South, 214 km and – loosely – 12 hours away.

It ambles down the track in distinctly un-Expressy fashion. No longer a steam line, it is still one of the last few metre gauge lines in the country. The timetable I’d printed out off the Indian Railways website lists 15 stations, start and end inclusive. But we stop at that many in the first couple of hours. The timetable, as a result, seems to get further and out of touch with the time bubble the train travels in, serving only to keep track of the order of the main stops.

Sharing the cubicle with me are two Bengali couples, with a baby. They ask me the Indian Traveller’s Most Frequently Asked Question: would I be willing to “adjust” so that the baby could sleep? Groan. There goes the few catch-up hours of shuteye I was counting on. They proceed to add to my misery by taking out a large tiffin basket. I can feel the saliva fill my mouth – I had not had the time to catch any breakfast at the station, and this train doesn’t come with a pantry car. I try to bury my nose in a book as they chomp their way steadily through several containers of food. About an hour down the line, salvation arrives in the shape of an elderly vendor with tea and sweet buns. I wolf down two of each, burp, and fortified, take more interest in the scenery we’re passing.

Everywhere, bamboo muscles its way through the undergrowth, wrestling with creepers, reaching above other trees. Which accounts for the amount of cane one sees used, not just in baskets and the like, but entire villages roofed, walled and fenced with it. It’s as ubiquitous as cow pats are in other parts of non-urban India.

Speaking of which, you won’t see many cows. Goats are everywhere though. And instead of chickens scrabbling in the mud, one sees ducks in every pond.

When one sees human habitation, that is. Most of what we pass through shows no sign of being in any way tamed by the railway line that cut through it. Bird sounds abound, audible even above the clatter of steel wheels. The jungle comes right up to the tracks, on occasion reaching out a bamboo stem that rattles against the train walls as we pass. If this is still officially the dry season, I cannot begin to imagine the levels of greenness in the monsoon.

I think about my grandfather, who in World War II, already a man in his middle years, walked through the jungle to Assam from Rangoon, just ahead of the Japanese army. As a toddler, I would sit wide-eyed while he told me tales of monkeys and snakes, forests and streams. And, in later years, my gran would tell me of the physical wreck he was by the time he got through to Assam.

I peer into the thick vegetation, and my respect for him grows. I turn my eyes to the sky. Those were good stories, grampa, really good stories. And yes, I believe every one of them, including the one about the cook whose teeth grew back after he chewed the twigs the monkey gave him.

And yes, the army. Or is it paramilitary? Whatever. They’re everywhere. The larger stations have small squads of armed uniformed men patrolling the platform, peering into the train. Even the really small stations, the ones not on the time table, the ones with three waiting passengers and a goat, even those stations have at least one of them, usually in a sentry post by himself, insulated from the civilians around him.

The smells of the journey are wet ones. Wet earth, wet leaves, wet goats at stations. And the views, of hills and valleys, of green in more shades than I’ve seen anywhere except Kerala. Wildflowers fringe the long grass and bamboo. And at one stage, so close to the tracks I thought it was a large goat, I see a wild deer.

I break journey at Haflong, roughly mid-route. I am to get down at Haflong Hill, but the train stays put at lower Haflong for two hours. The locomotive has had it. A replacement is on it way. As at Guwahati, I do not learn this from an official announcement, but by asking around, my shrewd traveller’s mind being tipped off by, after the first hour, noticing that there was no engine in front of the train.
I flag down an autorickshaw. I have been told it should cost me not more than forty rupees to the Circuit House where i am to spend the night. The driver asks for what sounds to me like sixty. Fifty, I say firmly. The man looks at me strangely and says “thirty.” This place is a looong way away from becoming a tourist trap!

Haflong has little to offer the typical tourist anyway – just achingly beautiful vistas everywhere you look. Tea and toast consumed, I lean over the fence and watch the daylight disappear, hurrying West to give the rest of India its sunsets, my cigarette a glowing orange counterpoint to the lit windows in the valley below. And from the gloaming, several fireflies join in, flashing green-gold as they wander from flower to flower.

It is a perfect moment.

And I can tell no-one about it. The only cellphone service provider here is BSNL, and it does not allow other networks to roam on its frequency.

I go indoors to write soppy poetry instead, and nourish my outer self with a delicious river fish preparation, accompanied with thick-grained, soft rice.

Next morning, I wake at what, for me, is the hideously early hour of 7 a.m. Outside, it is bright and clear, and still. The further, higher peaks frequently draw their clouds more tightly around their shoulders and disappear from view. Visibility fades a little, and the view begins to get hazy. It dawns on me that I am actually walking in a cloud. The breeze suddenly picks up speed. With a sudden rush and a roar and a rattle, the trees begin to dance. Fat, cold drops of rain race toward me out of the haze. They clatter on the roof of the Circuit House like the ghosts of a thousand bureaucrats simultaneously typing reports on ancient typewriters.

I leave to catch the day’s Barak Valley Express for the second half of the journey. It is only an hour late.

The scenery from here on is more rugged. Wild bamboo fights for space with other trees. And everywhere there is the sound of running water.

The Barak river is a constant presence on the left, a muddy brown ribbon that undulates across the landscape, here, stirred to a what looks like great rafting white water, there, quiet looking but fast-flowing, joined at regular intervals by streams that tumble down the hillside on one side of the train, reappearing under us on the other.

The train shrieks through pitch-black tunnels that drip water, bursting through into the brightness of the evening on the other side. Young, high-spirited men shout into the darkness, their voices echoing back to the other compartments.

The long dusk segues unnoticeably into a brilliantly moonlit night. The river still glints beside us, a silent, silvery grey now.

I sleep. The train is running three hours late and I have an early morning flight to catch. The Barak Valley Express pulls in to Silchar a little short of midnight. I stagger out and find a hotel, with the help of a journo I had met at Haflong. I ask for a 5 a.m wakeup call. I bargain with a taxi in the morning. I get to the airport well in time.

When will I learn?

The flight was two hours late.

The information
The Barak Valley Express leaves Lumding at 7.45 a.m., and, allegedly, reaches Silchar at 8 p.m. the same day. The up train leaves Silchar at ??a.m. and reaches Lumding at ??p.m.
There is no first class or AC wagon. Just sleepers and unreserved bogies. The train has no pantry car, or official attendants. So carry your own food if you’re finicky. But you will not starve if you don’t. Every station brings vendors with varieties of channa, buns, boiled eggs (called “dim,” if my ears served me right) and of course, tea. And yes, plenty of fresh fruit – pineapples mainly, but also large yellow bananas and jackfruit.
Silchar is an important rail junction, and has an airport. From the Lumding end, however, your nearest airport is Guwahati. Be sure to plan connections with long gaps. Transport here operates not in Garden Time or IST, but in that unique time zone, As Long As It Takes.
Haflong, the seat of the North Cachar Hills autonomous district council, is a good place to break your journey. You can book into the Tourist Lodge through the Directorate Of Tourism, Assam, which you can contact at (0361) 2547102. You also have a choice of cheap to medium budget hotels, a market on Saturdays (I’m told you can buy rice beer!) and wonderful walks to be had every day.
Possible excursions from here include the bird watching centre at Jatinga, 9 kms away, and the ruins of the former capital of the Dimasa Kachari kings at Maibong.

Published in Outlook Traveller, July edition.


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