A train journey to Kolkata, and within.
Life is a chain of events, some spectacular others mundane. Some events test us and give us lessons to last a lifetime. I would like to describe one such event which made me look at humanity in a different way.
This “train” of episodes happened on December 7th 1992 when I was in a train going to my grandparents’ house in West Bengal. Freshly out of college and immediately being hired by a Multinational Corporation made me want to take a break and spend some quality leisure time amidst the greenery of rural India. The train left the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (then known as Victoria Terminus) at 6 a.m. After settling down snugly I picked up the newspaper lying on the seat. And there it was! In black and bold letters! “Kar Sevaks demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Country on red alert” This was a result of a quagmire which the political parties of India could not resolve and a few politicians of a community took it upon themselves to put a violent end to the problem.
A feeling of uncertainty and impending gloom engulfed the air of the train compartment. Loud whisperings turned to nervous conversations as more and more co-passengers went through their copies of the ominous newspaper. We were out on the road; the train was hurtling through fields and barren lands. Going back home was a distant dream now. We felt vulnerable and were mightily scared. What if our train becomes a target of arson, rioting and looting? What if it stops in the middle of nowhere? And it did exactly that.
Around 4 p.m. the train came to a screeching halt at Jharsuguda, a small mining town in Odisha. Upon asking our coach attendant we learnt that heavy unrest was on at the next station of Jamshedpur, hence this decision to stop the train here. The passengers were fervently thinking of defense strategies. If need be, the women and children could be locked in the washrooms and the curtain rods in the coach could be used to ward off the goons and their ilk. Women handed over their jewelry to their spouses. Such camaraderie was born between the passengers who until some time ago never knew each other. They were the followers of different religions and sects which made our train compartment look like a miniature version of India, the country epitomizing unity in diversity. Not once did the passengers ask each other their religions. No one needed to know whether the other was from the community which demolished the mosque and sparked off the rioting in the country. They felt safe and secured in the company of their countrymen. They knew that they would unify and fight the goons if need arise.
We had to face food and power shortages leading to a smaller lunch pack and switching off of the air-conditioning in the compartment respectively. I tried to concentrate on my paperback but in vain. People started singing devotional and patriotic songs to lighten up themselves and their brethren . After a good twelve hour wait, peace prevailed at Jamshedpur and the train chugged off from the Jharsuguda station and arrived at the Howrah Station in Kolkata where I was received with open arms by my grandmother. She was in tears of worry and joy and asked me, “ How could you endure such an arduous journey with so many strangers around you?”. “Strangers?” I remarked, “No Grandma, they are like me, as they think like me, they are the people who make our country incredible” From that day onwards I stopped typecasting people on the basis of their religious beliefs and ideas. For me this train journey was also a journey inwards to the depths of my soul and heart.