On my travels by the Konkan Railway on the Mandovi Express that leaves Mumbai for Goa at dawn, I usually pass the Ratnagiri-Dadar-Ratnagiri train coming in from the opposite direction from Ratnagiri. It leaves Ratnagiri for Dadar at about the same time that the Mandovi leaves Mumbai.
While my train waits on an adjacent track for the Ratnagiri passenger to pass us so that we get a clear track to Ratnagiri I keep my eyes peeled out for crowded compartments, especially in the summer when schools close for vacations. For, when the Daily Passenger comes to a halt alongside us, waiting for our train to commence its journey to Ratnagiri, and beyond, so that it gets the green signal to proceed to Dadar in the opposite direction, I scan faces looking out the windows at us. I usually stare back, and try to read the faces.
Since the time I first took the Konkan Railway many years ago, I’ve been curious about Ratnagiri, and its people, almost as if I were searching in their faces for traits that’re uniquely Ratnagiri. I believe it has to do, in part, with the fact that I grew up relishing Goan summers to the taste of the Ratnagiri hapoos. Unlike the chikki that hawkers announce in Konkan-bound trains, "Lonavala chikki, Lonavala chikki," even if they were to be made in a crowded Mumbai gully far from Lonavala, cashing in on the strength of the fame that the chikkis from Lonavala acquired with travelers years ago, there is no such chance with mangoes from Ratnagiri, they belong there. I’m a big fan of the mankura, a Goan mango variety that dad got us by the dozens in the summer, but the hapoos from Ratnagiri are a species with few parallels in the Konkan. They’re unique to Ratnagiri, its soil, and its people.
In the two and half hours that it takes the Down train to cover the hundred kilometers stretch from Khed to Ratnagiri, the railway passes over three bridges spanning the rivers Vashisthi at Chiplun, the Gad at Aravali, and the Shastri near Ukshi, then through sixteen tunnels, the last six of which are strung together in close succession across twenty-odd kilometers before Ratnagiri. The train plunges through the first of these six tunnels after crossing the bridge over the Shastri. On emerging from the sixth tunnel at Karbude, before Bhoke in the Ukshi-Bhoke section, the train floats in the air when inching across the two viaducts at Khedshi, and Mahalaxmi before pulling into Ratnagiri to a swarm of vada-pav vendors awaiting its arrival. The fragrance of hot vadas would tempt the stoutest heart into eating them. As the train comes to a halt in Ratnagiri, the stillness of the windswept Konkan is broken by vendors calling attention to rows of vadas and pavs they’re hawking, and it happens as suddenly as when the landscape outside the window is abruptly terminated when the train plunges into tunnels. And when the breeze blows in strongly from the west in the summers I smell salt in the air, the same smell that wafts in from the sea along narrow Goan roads that criss cross dwellings along the coast before ending up on the beach. On occasions, the Konkan breeze brings in the smell of fish mingled with that of salt, washing my lungs with old memories by boats by the sea at Colva, near Margao in Goa.
As the train slows down on its approach to Ratnagiri, I trail my eyes over large factories set back from the tracks. From the train I can only imagine what they might be. It is a relief to emerge from the slew of tunnels and feel the warmth of sunshine streaming in through the windows.
I get off the train and stretch my legs, and walk up to a board nailed to a wall to read a notice written in chalk in marathi language. A mustachioed railway porter in red shirt watches me read the notice posted by the railway employees’ trade union NRMU (National Railway Mazdoor Union). The NRMU dislodged KRCEU (Konkan Railway Corporation Employees Union) that was affiliated to Geroge Fernandes-led HMKP in the elections held in February 2005. NRMU is an affiliate of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and All India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF).
The notice on the board reads
Since the inception of the Konkan Railway, lack of foresight by incompetent officials led to their commencing the train service without any thought to Konkan Railway’s development.
According to rules, the running-staff cadre is revised each year or when there is requirement for the same. But since the last 7 years this has not been done. This was achieved only after NRMU came to power. But because of some incompetent officials in the administration, there has been a delay in filling vacancies for running-staff. But because of pressure exerted by the Union, exams to fill vacancies for Co-drivers were held on 19 March, 2006.
On account of these incompetent and immature officials in the administration, Central Railway staff has to run some of the trains on the Konkan Railway. We condemn such irresponsible and incompetent officials. Condemn. Condemn. Condemn.
I smile at the porter, Namdeo Tukaram Bharge, who’s now sitting on a bench in front of the board. Through the window in a room behind him, two people watch me while I photograph Namdeo. His eyes fix on my camera. I take his picture. Then he tells me, "This looks like a good camera. I’m sure the picture will come out good. Send a copy to me. Write my name on the envelope, and mention my badge number – Number 38 porter – and address it to the Ticket Booking counter. The photograph will be delivered to me." I reply, "Yes, I’ll send it." I look around the station and while away time and wait for the train to move. Elsewhere on the platform, Ratnagiri hapoos lie packed in boxes that've attracted the attention of passengers. I see an elderly couple bend down to check the mangoes in one such box. It is the second week of April and the sun is out in the sky, and it’s a relief to be out in the open after riding the slew of tunnels.
I’ve named these six tunnels ‘the dirty half-dozen’ because, of the twenty-odd kilometers before Ratnagiri where the Konkan opens up near the sea, these tunnels take up half the distance, shutting out the landscape along the route, and hardly has the train emerged from a tunnel before it plunges into the next one, then the next, and the next. The last of the ‘dirty half-dozen’ at Karbude, near Bhoke, is over six and half kilometers long, making it the second longest railway tunnel in India; the longest is at Pir Panjal in the Banihal Pass.
I buy Ratnagiri Times, the local marathi-language newspaper. A headline reports the Jodhpur court verdict sentencing the wayward film star Salman Khan to five years in jail for killing a Black Buck on a hunt in Rajasthan. The station resonates to conversations of people milling on the platform. An old lady gets into the train with a basket of bananas and looks up and down the length of the compartment to check if there’re sufficient passengers around to buy bananas. The train pulls out of the station, and later passes by houses with sloping roofs made of tiles and nestling among trees. Their walls are made of uncovered laterite stones. I steady my hand and take a few pictures. Past Ratnagiri, five more viaducts and three tunnels line the fifteen kilometer stretch between Ratnagiri and Nivasar. Of the five viaducts, the Panval Nadi viaduct, eight kilometers off Ratnagiri, spans 424 metres across the Panval river, and glides high over canopies below, and is among the tallest railway bridges in Asia, its piers rising sixty-four metres above the bed. As the train runs the length of the viaducts off Ratnagiri in quick succession I find myself riding valleys in the sky, keeping pace with pigeons riding the breeze alongside.
I moved to the door of the compartment on the train bound for Goa so that I could lean out and take some pictures of the countryside. On my way through the narrow corridor I dodged a group of fifth-standard students in blue t-shirts and shorts who had colonized the place, giggling, chatting away, ribbing one another, and playing cards while they were not chasing one another on the bunks.
I stopped to look at a plump kid with an irritated look on his face telling his classmate in a sing-song voice,"Tu mujhe irritate mat kar yaar," before turning his attention to the playing cards in his hand.
I couldn't resist a smile. My head brushed against a knee in the upper berth. Another of their classmates was squeezed into that little corner, a magazine balanced in his lap. I ducked my head to avoid brushing his other knee, and moved ahead to where a side-lower berth seat opposite a quiet-looking boy lay empty. He sat with his bag to his back, looking out the window while his classmates were engrossed in playing cards in adjacent bunks. Gagandeep Singh, a student of Bishop Cotton school, Shimla, told me that there were eighty-one of them on a tour to Goa, accompanied by 'five teachers' and a Minder whom I saw later scold the students in English in a Malyalam accent when the train stopped over at Karmali. Not realising that the train stops only for a few minutes before leaving for Margao, some of the students lolled about on their way to the exit, inviting a swift rebuke from the Minder who lifted his muscular hand agressively and threatened them, "GET DOWN, or I'll give you one." By 'one' he meant a slap. They hurried to the door thereafter, herded by lady-teachers who promptly ordered them into two columns along the length of the narrow platform at Karmali opposite the famous wetland where thousands of migratory birds used to fly down to roost, escaping the harsh winters in their countries. But that was long ago, before the Konkan Railway cut through the wetland.
I sat opposite Gagandeep. He told me that they had stopped over in Mumbai where they saw the Taraporewala Aquarium, and a museum. Now, they were looking forward to Goa.
I tell Gagandeep that he has rosy cheeks the kind that lend kids a happy innocence, and that they are well rounded, at which he smiled and said, "Once, a photographer who had been called to take a group photograph at my school pointed out to me after taking the photograph, and said, 'Woh beechwala bada gol hai', (The bloke in the middle is well rounded.)." We both smiled. I watched him look out the window every now and then. He had a calmness about him that belied his years. He showed only a passing interest in what his friends were doing. I didn't know for sure if it was because this was only his second journey by train ever (The first one was last year, on a similar tour to Rajasthan) or whether the countryside that flashed by along the West Coast was a new experience, or if it was about something beyond all this. Often, thoughts that course the mind zig zag around 'corners' in roads that run ram-rod straight.
Every year, in Dec-Jan when the school, dating back to the mid-1800s, and spread over 35 acres, closes for vacations, he visits his parents in the United Kingdom before returning to Bishop Cotton for the new year. He told me that his younger brother studies with him at the same school, the oldest boarding school in Asia. Then we talked about his hobbies and places he has visited in his time in India, and about his trip to Rajasthan last year. After a while he turns to look out the window again as a small pond draws up outside. Two children about the same age as him are merrily dunking one another in the water, and wave out spiritedly as the train thunders past them. Then he turns to look at me before turning away again. I try to read his thoughts, but get nowhere because where eyes are calm, thoughts run deep, rarely rising to the surface.
Then we both turn to look out the window. I latch onto the blue sky and watch my thoughts sail across the blue expanse, drifting away with the wind.
At the turn of the century I returned to Bombay from Goa, not an easy decision to make. A software company let me in, then another, then yet another. Time ran past. This time around I was wise enough not to give chase. So occasionally I take my camera along, searching for corners, finding them where none exist. And some of them are painted blue.