This was last month during a journey from Delhi back to my hometown Bholepur, located in the Farrukhabad district (Uttar Pradesh). On the morning of 19 Februrary, I packed my bags and headed to the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal (New Delhi) to catch the 10 AM Janrath Bus(Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation) . It is a 7 hour stretch to Bholepur along the historically famed but infamously ignored Grand Trunk Road (Sher Shah Suri Marg) that I have covered many times before. But little did I know then that a relatively easy 7 hour ride in an air-conditioned bus is going to turn into a two day affair involving – an unexpected cancellation, a train derailing accident, a short stop at Barhan Junction (Agra) and multiple changes of conveyance before I could reach home a day later.
It is a pity that there are only two direct trains from Delhi to Farrukhabad – the pathetically slow Kalindi Express (Departure from Old Delhi at 21: 40 PM) that takes close to 11 hours to cover a 440 km stretch and the Anand Vihar- Kanpur Express (runs only on Sundays, Departure from Anand Vihar at 19:45 PM) that shamelessly takes 12 hours to cover the same distance.
The low cost air conditioned Janarath Bus service started by the UPSRTC in mid 2015 by comparison saves a lot of time and provides a considerably comfortable ride. Having said that, the Delhi- Farrukhabad Janrath fares during daytime and is also more expensive – a seat costing almost 200 Rupees more than a reserved sleeper berth in either train. As such most people prefer travelling overnight in trains thereby saving money as well the day. The likely consequence is that the bus mostly travels without filling its quota of passengers.
Coming back to the morning of 19 February and my purported travel, here’s is a sound advice to all and everyone who ever plan to travel across Uttar Pradesh during legislative elections – “Keep a track of polling dates and prepare backup travel plans!”
The Chaos at Anand Vihar
I am very punctual with travel, and have never missed a bus or train. When I reached the Anand Vihar Bus terminal at 9 AM, a full one hour before the scheduled departure of my bus I had no idea of the mess that awaited me.
On the morning of February 19, Uttar Pradesh was getting ready for the third round of polling for 69 legislative assembly seats across 19 districts which included my home-district Farrukhabad and several adjoining towns and cities. (find some photographs from an election rally I attended in Farrukhabad) The unexpected and rather deplorable result was the cancellation and long delays in bus services and trains across Uttar Pradesh and even more so in the polling region.
My punctuality was wasted as I reached Anand Vihar only to find that my bus had been cancelled. The entire station was in chaos as passengers went from counter to counter haggling with irritable officials trying to find a way out. I found that many buses had been abandoned by drivers without any announcements or prior notification given to people. The gross mismanagement by officials who refused to take any responsibility was sickening to say the least.
After three hours of waiting at the bus terminal and informing my family of the situation, I received a call from my sister who told me that I could book tickets for the notoriously unreliable Anand Vihar-Kanpur Express since road transport was not available. I agreed and asked her to book the ticket – which meant I had another 8 hours of waiting to do at the nearby Anand Vihar Railway Station.
Anyways, I despairingly sauntered off to the nearby station and lunched on the Rajma-Chawal from the IRCTC Rail Ahaar Cafeteria bracing up for the long wait.
After two rounds of tea and a little reading from Birchwood by John Banville (the Man Booker Winner for The Sea) I went to the waiting room to recharge my cellphone and camera battery since most charging outlets in the lobby were either taken or not functioning.
The waiting room was almost full with passengers from delayed trains with only a few seats and charging sockets available. The medium sized LED television ran election advertisements from Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) on loop with intermittent broadcasts of public service ads for national schemes. The passengers pushed to indifference by incessant political murmur sought solace in the screens of their mobiles. Some carelessly slept on the benches meant for seating four or more. Two little boys probably high on sugar treats ran from corner to corner skidding on the marble floor; now and then their uninhibited innocent cackle would take the entire room by surprise.
I found myself a socket in the corner, took out my laptop and revised a few episodes of The Wire. Around 5 PM the LCD television that I had been so long ignoring rudely displayed the expected delays for a series of trains. My train (the Anand Vihar- Kanpur Express) was expected to arrive an hour late at 8:45 pm instead of the usual 7:45 PM.
As I grew restless in the light of new announcements I fiddled around with the station WiFi and to my utter surprise the internet was working. And not only was it working, it was very fast as well. To the readers who are not privy with the state of facilities at stations in India, let me tell you for an average passenger in North India a good internet connection hardly figures on the list of basic amenities one expects to find at stations here. Most of us are happy just to find clean bathrooms.
The blazing fast internet was indeed a relief. I finished few downloads for the latest Oscar nominations while leafing through Birchwood that was turning out to be a really depressing read. I am not sure if I am ever picking a John Banville book again.
Around 8 pm with only a quarter hour left for the train to arrive the damned LCD display mockingly propped up new timings – my train was delayed further by an hour and was now supposed to arrive around 9:30 PM. The news was too much for me to just keep sitting their wondering how to waste another hour or if the train would arrive at all. So I got my things together and walked to the Comesum store in the station lobby and ordered a plate of Vegeterian Pulav (boiled rice with green pea, couple other vegetables and a little spice). Sometimes food is a good way to forget for a while the disappointments of the day past.
I fiddled around with the food eating in small spoonfuls to pass time. By 9 PM I was done. I gathered my belongings, rechecked the nearest displays for further delays and the platform for arrival. The train arrived around 9: 45 PM. After a bit of reading, a visit to the loo and closing the formalities with the TC come to check reservations I flattened out on the berth. I can’t remember when but sleep came easily and without my knowing it.
Around 2 AM, the compartment was alive with soft murmur, the passengers paced back and forth and the dull irregular thuds of the impatient footsteps could be heard. I lazily turned about in my berth realizing the train was inching sluggishly, certainly a lot slower than it should have after a 4 hour delay already. Something was up. I got down to find out.
The snippets of conversation I caught moving around in the compartment suggested that there was probably something wrong with the engine. Yet there was no consensus. Some suggested that the line was bad and the train would pick up pace after a while. The train dragged along slowly as passengers debated the delay.
Reaching Barhan Junction
Around quarter to four, the real news came in, how and from where nobody could tell. But suddenly everyone in the compartment knew what had come about. The Kalindi Express had apparently rammed into a goods train before the Tundla Junction somewhere around 1 AM and derailed thereby damaging a long stretch of line and blocking the route. Thankfully none were killed.
By 4 AM the train reached Barhan Junction and for a couple hours deliberations ran in the background as the officials decided the next course of action. Still there were no proper announcements to inform the passengers of the situation and small pockets of impatient crowd collected here and there on the platform trying to figure out if the train is going to move again.
I got off the train and talked to a few people who were debarking with their luggage. The situation was something like this – a separate engine was sent to join the train at the back and the train was going back the same route from which it had come, meaning back to Delhi because even in the 7 hours following the derailment the Indian Railways could not clear the line and the route was blocked indefinitely. To make matters worse no alternatives were provided to passengers and neither were they informed on time about the derailment.
Around 7 am, I collected my belongings, got off the train at Barhan, and called my father about the situation. He advised me to get to Tundla (some 20 kms away) and then take a bus to Farrukhabad. I rambled about the platform surveying, and took some pictures.
Besides the impatient crowds filing out the platforms, a troop of monkeys idled around the station – cute little kid monkeys huddled around their mothers; young ones tussling acrobatically over the benches, boards, polls and parked goods trains; adults monkeys sat around brooding, ruminating under the soft morning sun, guarding the innocent antics of naughty ones.
On one side in a distance I saw an antique looking minaret like structure. I climbed the over-bridge and getting close found out that it was an old well built by East India Railway in 1948, water from which was used in the olden times for the steam engines and later for the station premises. Some two decades back in the 1980’s it had dried up and gone out of use, and was later declared a preserved relic of national interest.
In a temple nearby by people were offering early morning prayers.
Located merely 40kms from Agra (the city of Taj Mahal), Barhan Junction is one of the oldest stations on the Howrah–Delhi line, built by the East Indian Railway Company in 1866.
Around 7:30 AM, I left the station premises and made enquiries in the vicinity. Some local boys advised me to get on to a shared auto-rickshaw to a town called Etmadpur from where I can easily find buses to Farrukhabad. I thanked them and got on to an auto-rickshaw parked nearby.
Etmadpur was around 12 kilometres away, the auto-rickshaw driver charged me a meagerly 20 INR. The locals told me that the driver was charging more (the usual fare is 15 INR) taking advantage of the crowds of passengers that had to disembark at Barhan because of the halted train. In fifteen minutes I reached the Yadav Market Chauraha(Crossroad), in Etmadpur. I did not regret the extra 5 bucks I had to shell out.
An interesting bit of trivia about the now not so famous Etmadpur is that the town is believed to be named after Mirza Ghiyas Beg, an important official at Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, father of Nur Jahan (Wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir) and grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal (wife of Mughal emperor Shahjahan) who was also known as the I’timād-ud-Daulah (Translates in English to The Pillar of the State).
At the crossroad I found the buses halting. Most of them were stuffed and overloaded with passengers. The election had spared no transportation and though the polling was over the effects of yesterday’s delays and cancellations of transport could still be seen in the overcrowded buses.
I headed to a small dhaba (small food outlet) called Nisha Fast-food. The benches were full with people feasting on Chole-Bhature (Spicy Chick Peas with gravy and fried bread ) and Puri-Sabji (flat rounds of deep fried wheat flour served with a curry of mixed vegetable assortments). I waited for a while and ordered a plate of puri-sabji.
For 10 bucks I was served – 4 puris, a ladleful of chole topped with fresh sour cream and mixed vegetable curry on the side. I won’t be lying if I say that as I was gobbling up the last puri I wished someday I could return to “Nisha Fast food” in the wee hours of the morning and order the same breakfast. Served on a piece of torn newspaper it may not be extraordinary but as a simplistic, unassuming assortment it was nothing short of perfect.
Next I headed to an adjacent tea shop and ordering a cup inquired the shopkeeper about the availability of buses. The middle aged owner was a chatty fellow and told me more than I had asked. The tea served in kullhad (clay cup) was alright but he more than made up for it by striking up an animated conversation about “why Indian Railways does not compensate its passengers for delays and cancellations?” I tried to tell him that it won’t be feasible and that the Railways is already operating on heavy subsidy loses but he did not seem to understand. In a way his line of argument made sense – “…if the Indian Railways is operating on losses and cannot be held accountable, it is nobody’s fault but their own.”
For the financial year (2015-16) alone the Indian Railways recorded a loss of around INR 35,000 crores for passenger segment. There have been major fare hikes, exorbitant pricing for emergency tickets amidst announcements of ambitious plans to lay down tracks for running costly bullet trains.
After a little chat and finishing my tea, I boarded a heavily crowded bus to Mainpuri, a city adjacent to Farrukhabad.
I covered the entire journey standing up. I reached Mainpuri by late noon and finally caught a bus to Farrukhabad, reaching home an hour before tea-time i.e. 4 PM on 20 February.
The election in Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest legislative assembly (403 seats), the most populous state (over 200 million people), the third largest state economy and ironically one of the most educationally backward – is a phenomena unmatched in magnitude and unrivalled in terms of its effects on Indian politics. The poll results declared on March 11 just two days before the Holi celebrations swept the country, brought the centre ruling right wing Bhartiya Janta Party (National Democratic Alliance) in power securing a phenomenal 325 seats victory (unheard of in the post-independence era) thus voting out the incumbent Samajwadi Party alliance led by Akhilesh Yadav.
For now one can only hope that the new state government shall take significant steps to resolve – bureaucratic corruption, poor accountability, dismal education infrastructure, failing industries, miserable transport facilities, growing pollution – and everything else the previous governments could not despite the fact that 8 of India’s 14 former Prime Ministers hailed from the state of Uttar Pradesh.
But wishful speculations aside visiting Barhan even by accident was certainly worth the two day affair and I long to savour again the rustic flavours of Puri-Sabji at Nisha Fastfood!