Monday, August 14, 2006

Unforgettable journeys-I : The day I got lost

(This is the first of series on my unforgettable tarvels)
It was a day I will never forget for two reasons. Reason 1: I was traveling out of my state alone for the first time in my life. Reason 2: I got lost my way in the final leg of the journey and left stranded in a secluded remote train station named Maliya Miyana (near Kutch, a near desert) in Gujarat.

To begin with I must inform you that I studied engineering at the L.E. College at Morbi, Gujarat state in India. The four year degree course done during the period 1990-1994 made me travel nearly a quarter thousand kilometers across the vast land of India. Guwahati, my hometown, is in the Eastern corner of India while Morbi was almost at the Western corner of India. The Guwahati – New Delhi – Ahmedabad – Wankaner – Morbi was the shortest route for traveling to my college (and hostel) in Morbi from my hometown. Even then it was more than 3000 km traversing across eight states of India, and involved changing train thrice over three days. Barely a few months after I had joined my engineering course, we got break and so, an opportunity to go home. Being one of those first year guys severely stuck by the virus of homesickness, we left Morbi by the first available train. It was Navratri time, i.e., the time was around October, 1990. While coming home there were traveling partners as other students from NE states traveled together. But at the time of going back to college, I had to travel alone. This was the first time I would be traveling alone outside the state.

Everything went fine till I arrived at the Ahmedabad railway station around eight in the evening by the Delhi-Ahmedabad mail. I had no idea then as to how to travel by bus from Ahmedabad. May be I was a bit nervous to explore new mode of traveling, that too at night. The two big suitcases I was carrying, one full of books and other cloths, also went against traveling by bus. So, I decided to catch the next available train to Wankaner. The train, 9017 Surashtra – Janata Express from Mumbai arrived around mid night. I boarded into a compartment which had lesser no. of passengers. As I had been traveling for the last two days, I soon fell asleep. The train was expected to reach Wankaner station around 6 in the morning. I woke up once in the night and felt that the train is moving erratically like being in a shunting yard. I looked at other passengers who were all in deep sleep. So, I fell asleep again.

I woke up in the morning and waited for the train to reach Wankaner. Minutes became hours and still there were no signs of Wankaner. I was so confident that the train is going to Wankaner, I did not bother asking anyone. In fact there were only few ordinary looking passengers in the entire compartment. The train halted once at a small station. I looked out and saw that the train was carrying a water tanker attached next to the engine. People from nearby places were waiting for the train to collect water. This aurprised me a little as I did not recollect seeing any such scene in my earlier journey. This gave me an insight into the water scarcity in the remote areas of Saurashtra. The train may be the only source of drinking water for them. The train moved on. It was almost 9 am and still no sign of Wankaner. Now I was certain that something is seriously wrong. After asking 2 / 3 persons, one was able to tell me that this train was in fact going to a palce called Gandhidham, not to Wankaner or Rajkot. Fortunately, the guy was informed enough and he also suggested to me get down at Maliya Miyana station. Initially he suggested that I travel to the highway and then try to catch a bus or truck to Wankaner or Morbi. But then he suggested me against traveling through the Maliya village as villagers may snatch my belongings. I was in a bit of shock and suspense. What went wrong? I boarded the right, but in the wrong coach! The coach I boarded was detached at a station named Viramgam Junction in the dead of the night and was attached to this train. That explained the shunting like movement I felt last night. So instead of going to Wankaner, I was heading to Gandhidham. A horrible experience and lesson which I never forgot in my life. If I am getting into a coach at the begining or at the end of a train, I make it a point to get it confirmed that it will not be detached en-route.

Finally, the train had come to a halt at the little known station by name Maliya Miyana around noon time. I was relieved to see a sign saying ‘Change here for Morbi and Wankaner’. I promptly got down. The train soon disappeared into distance. It was a barren and empty station. I walked down to the station masters cabin and asked him about how to reach Morbi from here. I also told him what I was told about traveling through the village. The station master, a middle aged man, told me that there is nothing like what I was told in the train, but he suggested that I can catch the meter gauge train that will go to Wankaner via Morbi. The train was to start at 3:30 pm. I decided to wait and travel only by the train. I was empty stomach as there was nothing to eat with me and the station did not even have a tea stall. The clock stuck 3 after a miserable wait. I walked upto the train and bought the ticket to Morbi from the guard. It must have been a surprise for him to see a passenger like me. I told him my story. He suggested that there nothing to fear, but suggested me to get into the compartment immediately next to his guard trolley. I got into the coach and pull down all the window shutters. The meter gauge train with a steam engine started moving slowly through mostly barren landscape. On the way it stopped on few road side stations which had no platforms. People who were to travel had to buy ticket from the guard as probably the stations had no ticket counter. My reckoning was that barley 10 people boarded the train in its 20 odd km of travel over nearly two hours. By evening the train had reached a station named Navlakhi. I was asked to get down here and change train for Morbi. After waiting for another half an hour or so, the train to Morbi was ready for boarding. By about 8:30 pm I had finally arrived at the Morbi station. Then I had realized that this is the same train which we catch for going to Wankaner on our onward journey to home. The difference here is that I have traveled to Morbi instead of traveling out of Morbi by this train. I must be the only student in the entire history of L.E. College who has reached Morbi from the reversed direction by traveled in this train from its originating station. I was late by more than 16 hours. But was relieved to have reached Morbi.

Later I found out that the place Maliya Miyana is a salt producing area and the station is used mainly for loading of salt wagons. Many labourers migrated to this area from states like Bihar and MP. This also brought lampoon elements to the area. Some of them took to the easy money making process of dacoity and looting. In fact I was told that these looters operate in the sambal style like in films, i.e., they are horse riding looters with local made guns and bullet belts. So, the place Maliya had a bad reputation and is dreaded by local people of that area. I was thankful to the guy who had the knowledge and wisdom to advise me against traveling through the village. God must have sent him that day.

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