My parents had moved from Kolkata to Nagpur, where my father had found a job, and that is where I was born in Mure Memorial Hospital. They returned to Kolkata in a few years, but the link with Nagpur remained. My aunts stayed in Nagpur, where they had found jobs they liked. Stayed too a large number of close friends they had garnered in the city. So began our family’s steady patronage of the BNR, as my aunts visited us in Kolkata on every major vacation in central India and we visited them on every major holiday in eastern India.
We lived in a large house in northern Kolkata, at the junction of two major roads, Harrison Road, the main east-west thoroughfare, and College Street, the long corridor that ran north to south, changing names at intervals. From our home, it was a short hop to the Howrah rail station, whence BNR’s trains would take me to Nagpur.
Short, but eventful. Harrison Road was an incredibly crowded route, with trams, buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws, bullock carts, and thousands of pedestrians, not to mention beggars, sadhus, pickpockets and stray cows and mangy dogs. To negotiate the short distance from home to the rail station you needed to overcome Murphy’s Law: Anything that could go wrong, would. A heat-stroke victim, some broken truck, two colliding buses and their brawling conductors, clashing political processions, all could stop you in the track and make you miss your train.
A huge relief when the train started. There was a sudden puff of wind in the compartment, and the air got fresher and cooler as the train finally left the city and its crammed suburbs behind and slowly entered the countryside. I felt the wind stronger as I was fortunate to be in a seat next to the window. Keeping in mind my mother’s admonition, I kept my head turned in the direction of the wake, otherwise the wind would carry coal particles from the train’s boiler into my eyes. I felt a tinge of sadness, leaving Kolkata and my friends behind, but there was the compensating excitement of visiting a new city and new people.
The couple sitting opposite was looking at us. The woman asked, “A boy or a girl?”
“A boy,” he said. “They say it looks like me. I am rather curious.”
The woman’s husband was middle-aged, with glasses and a small moustache. He was looking at me and said, “Aren’t you a little young to travel alone? Where are you going?”
I said, “My father brought me to the station in Kolkata. My aunt will receive me in Nagpur.” I didn’t want him to think my family didn’t take good care of me.
“Ah, you are going to Nagpur! We live in Nagpur. We came to Kolkata to visit our cousin.”
Then followed an animated conversation about Nagpur, the areas where we lived, the zoo I loved, the school where the man taught, the quiet charm of the city. Then the man in the blue jacket, sitting in a corner and reading a newspaper, spoke up and said that he had also visited Nagpur and was going there for a meeting.
Soon the compartment was buzzing; everybody seemed to be talking about something or other. A roomful of unfamiliar people had started exchanging their views about cities, jobs, markets and relations. Even the young woman sitting in the other corner, who had so far kept modestly silent, spoke up and said she studied in the Hislop College and loved the hostel she lived in and her friends there.
A month later BNR brought me back to Kolkata and the arms of my father and mother. Mother kissed me openly to my embarrassment, and father hugged me and said he had missed me.
Years later, when work or vacation took me to Europe, I sometimes used their clean, comfortable trains that took me swiftly from one place to another.
In the US now, though I mostly use the plane to go places, I sometimes take Amtrak trains to New York and luxuriate in its plush seats. Occasionally I even use their ‘quiet’ compartment to read books and do my work.
I must be honest and tell you: I haven’t yet seen anything that has a patch on the BNR I knew.