I have been in the North East for more than four weeks. I have been tolerating thus far bad roads, uncomfortable journeys and dangerous routes. It was only a matter of time I reached breaking point and it happened this way.
Day 1: A long wait at Mokokchung
I make my way from Longleng by bus all the way back to Mokokchung. This is the last day of my permit in Nagaland. I have to either reach Kohima where I can try to renew the permit; or get out of Nagaland. Destination is Imphal, Manipur. I reach Mokokchung at half past ten. I enquire at the bus station. There are no more buses today for Kohima. The next bus is tomorrow at six in the morning. There are many private travel operators at Mokokchung. I make enquiries. There is not a single vehicle to Kohima. The last one is at 10 am. Consumers don’t have much of a choice in these places. Tour operators have their preferred times to maximize on profits.
I book myself on an overnight bus to Dimapur. I buy the local newspaper.
‘This paper is two days old,’ I complain to the vendor.
‘You can’t get today’s paper anywhere in town. Today is Monday,’ he tells me politely. I settle for Saturday’s news. The road blockade to Manipur continues to exist. I am not sure if I can get to Imphal via Nagaland. Now that my permit to Nagaland is expiring, I have to try a different route.
I have a good lunch and catch up on my travel notes. The bus to Dimapur is at 5 pm.
Day 2: A longer wait at Lumding Junction
It is a sleepless night on the bus to Dimapur. The bus stops in the dead of the night for dinner. I don’t even bother to leave my seat. At times, the bus does not move for what seems like hours. I am beginning to wonder if I will reach Dimapur on time but at half past four this morning I am at Dimapur.
Like a zombie I walk into the railway station right next to the bus station. There are no direct trains to Agartala but it is a short ride to Lumding Junction where I can get a direct train to Agartala. So here’s the plan – visit Tripura first, move on to Mizoram and finally to Manipur. I am hoping the road from Mizoram to Manipur is not suffering from the road blockade.
The only snag is that the train from Lumding to Agartala leaves at 8.15 pm. I have to wait nearly 12 hours at Lumding. This is a railway town. A large part of the town is nothing but railway quarters with their distinct architecture of red bricks. Railway architecture is a study in itself. There is a forest bordering the other side of town but the forest ranger tells me that there are no wild animals here. There are no walking paths to enjoy. For sometime there has been a plan to start an Elephant Project but nothing has yet happened. Possibly funds were allocated for the purpose and disappeared along with the elephants. The town has some temples but I find nothing of interest to mention here.
All across the North East people use bamboo in many ways. In Lumding fences are mostly made of bamboo. As I walk through town I have the rare chance to see four men building one such fence. Later I admire different types of fences in the railway quarters. It is almost like an open museum to study these fences.
I have a nice breakfast at a restaurant, the only decent one in town. The restaurant is close to the forest check post. I sit down at the breakfast table for hours and catch up on my travel notes. The waiter doesn’t mind. He even allows me to use the toilet. I brush my teeth. I have lunch here and head back to the railway station.
Buying a ticket at an Indian Railways counter is quite a task. Service at Lumding is slow. Some say it’s because the computer systems are slow and decades old. The queue moves one inch at a time. With people always cutting in and crowding at the counter, the head of the queue is always like that of a hammerhead shark. Even with queues, there is much pushing, shoving and shouting. When will we every learn?
Needless to say, I can’t get a reservation. I have to travel for 15 hours in the General Section. This includes a sleepless ride for tonight. Let’s see how my body holds up to this challenge.
When the train arrives, I manage to get a seat but I am pulled out of the seat physically. The porters here are ruffians. They reserve seats as if its their birthright and sell them off for a couple of hundred rupees. I can’t be bothered to go down to their level for a brawl. I pick a spot in the aisles. The coach is packed. I manage to lay my backpack and sit on it. This is the way to travel for the next 15 hours.
Day 3: Back at Lumding and then to Guwahati
About a week ago I had travelled to Haflong by bus. From Haflong I had taken a passenger train to Badarpur. The whole experience was a slow taxing journey. I had resolved not to repeat it but here I am today on the same route. There is no quicker way to get to Agartala. Little did I know that Agartala would remain elusive and unreachable.
It is one in the morning. We have almost reached Haflong but the train has stopped among the hills. As dark clouds gather through these early hours, heavy rain brings cool breeze into the crowded coach; but that’s about the only silver lining. We stay at this spot for three hours. Some say the track is under maintenance. Some say a bridge has collapsed a little ahead. The reason doesn’t matter. We are not moving. Three hours of patience-testing wait. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
Finally the engine is reversed and we are on our way back to Lumding. At half past eight I am back where I was yesterday this time. Now there is no other way but to take a train to Guwahati. This is a big detour. I am supposed to be going South but I am going to travel North for it.
It takes two hours in queue to get a refund on my ticket to Agartala and buy another one to Guwahati. It is a slow passenger train that leaves Lumding Junction at 3 pm. Thankfully it is not crowded. I get a seat and after a couple of hours manage to stretch out for a decent nap. I arrive at Guwahati at half past ten. It is too late to be searching for rooms. I pick a spot on Platform No. 1, spread out my tarpaulin and fall dead asleep.
Day 4: To NJP and sleepless to Kolkata
At half past one I am woken up by a couple of policemen. I tell them that I arrived late last night. They want to check my backpack. I comply. They go through it completely. When they leave, I can see in their eyes a rare satisfaction in spending their professional time usefully. Lots of people are sleeping on the platform but they have either next to nothing or modest baggage.
‘I don’t trust them,’ tells me a guy sleeping next to me. ‘Some months ago two policemen took away my bags right here. There was nothing I could do.’ He is reclined on an old bedspread. He carries a small bag which he is now using as a pillow. His clothes are dirty but otherwise he does not look scruffy. His appearance is a matter of situation rather than habit. He then unloads on me all his problems.
‘My wife cheated on me. I have left her,’ he reflects without regret. ‘My only concern is my old mother. It pains me to think of her but I can’t go back home.’ He gets emotional. As tears well up in his eyes he talks incoherently and falls silent. I fall asleep.
In the morning, I take leave of my platform partner. I step out of the railway station wondering what to do. A man is calling out for passengers to fill a Tata Sumo bound for Agartala. Imagine riding on bad roads all the way to Agartala! I have been told it takes about 24 hours by road to Agartala. I head to the airport. It is five in the morning.
There is a complete lack of information at airports. A flight is leaving for Kolkata soon but no one can tell me about other flights for the day. I have to wait till some of the airline counters open. At about seven Indigo opens.
‘What time is the flight to Imphal and how much?’ I ask.
‘It’s leaving at half past eight,’ he tells me. He checks the price and comes back, ‘About five thousand.’
Had it been three thousand I would have taken the flight. I am wondering if I should return home.
‘Is there a flight to Bangalore?’ I ask.
The guy checks and comes back, ‘There is connecting flight to Kolkata where you can get a flight to Bangalore.’
‘How much is it?’
‘About fourteen thousand.’
Outrageous. I have to put up with a long train journey back to Bangalore. I return to the train station and snack on cakes and biscuits. I buy a ticket to New Jalpaiguri. I manage to get a seat. It is a journey of seven hours. At New Jalpaiguri I find out about flights from Kolkata to Bangalore. The cheapest I can get is for six thousand.
I buy a ticket to Kolkata. It is a tough overnight journey of ten hours. There is no place even to sit. I have to stand most of the way. It pains me to think that many Indians travel this way on a regular basis.
Day 5: Leaving Kolkata
At Kolkata, I try for air tickets once more but as flights get closer to departure, prices climb steeply. This morning tickets start at eight thousand. I should have bought my ticket yesterday at NJP.
I badly need to check into a hotel for a shower. It’s been a week since I had a shower! I have been on the road continously and have not checked into a hotel for a week. I take a dormitory bed near Sudder Street, a place that has lots of cheap rooms. I haven’t checked in yet; I haven’t paid the hundred rupees for the bed; I haven’t yet entered my name in the register.
‘This place is full of bed bugs,’ tells me a foreign tourist. ‘I have been here for two nights. I have just about had it. I am checking out today.’ Just then as if to prove his point, he points to the next bed. I see a bug scurrying across the sheets.
I thank him for the tip, pick up my stuff and leave. I return to Howrah and search for a room. I find a bed, not a room mind you. As I lie on the bed, I see the Howrah Bridge right at the window next to me. This will certainly be a nice memory of my brief stay at Kolkata. I nap for an hour, brush my teeth, shave and finally enjoy the long desired bath. I pack up and return to the station. The queues at all counters are long. It seems chaotic but queues move quickly and there is order despite people cutting queues. There is no chance of reservation.
The train is to depart at 1610 hours but is delayed by an hour. The train I have picked for my return to Bangalore is the Howrah-Mysore Special. Possibly this is not a train many people know about. I get more than a seat. I take a luggage rack and stretch out comfortably.
Day 6: A long train journey
I wake in the morning after a good night’s sleep. I haven’t slept like this for days. For the rest of the day I continue to lie lazily in my hard wooden berth.
Day 7: At home finally
After a modest delay of two hours, at six this morning, I am in Bangalore. It has taken me seven days to return from the North East. People are taking about ‘Around the World in Eighty Hours.’
Regrettably, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura had to be skipped. Perhaps, another time, another chance.