July 14, 2006

Passing Ratnagiri in the Konkan

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.


Smoothieshake said...

so... maybe you mentioned this is your very first post...but are you a professional photographer? And you travel around india for this? As always, i love the pictures, and i'll be back to read and see more:)

Rose said...

WOW! Thats some vivid description.. I cud almost smell the fragrance of the hot vadas myself.. :)

Let me join you to condemn the irresponsible officials..


Anonymous said...

train journeys like these leave indelible impressions...

Anil P said...

To Sruthi: Thanks. I'm not a professional photographer, but I enjoy photography. It helps to have an extra eye record journeys. Most of the stories and pictures appearing on my blog are from travels I undertook exploring places around India when time permitted from work.

To Rose: The vada-pavs are particularly delectable on train journeys. NRMU will be pleased to see you join hands with them :)

To Anan: Absolutely, they do.

ambrosia said...

Thank you for your visit to my blog. I am happy to be on yours and to find a treasure here. Your current post leaves me with a "feel good" feeling - your writing kinda sends out the essence of what it means to live, to see, to hear, to feel, to smell, to taste... to be in sync, its wonderful! You can count me as one of your regular visitors :-)

liberosis said...

going through your post and the mention of panval viaduct brought back memories of my college days. i alongwith my buddies used to visit panval while the bridge was being constructed. we would marvel at the "hight-tech" machinery being used to put all that infrastructure in place. growing up in Ratnagiri, I had lots of fun. those were the days!

your post also says -

"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."

well, the railway station is located very close to the midc area. that's why you can see a lot of factories around.

Anil P said...

To Ambrosia: Thank you. I suppose those are the things that matter in the long run, that remind, evoke, and recreate. Hope you'll enjoy reading other posts here.

To Muhaafiz: Thanks. I can well imagine it. What was it like to see the bridge coming up over the Panval river in terms of scale of operations and the duration. I would like to know about it.

Anonymous said...

its universal..wherever one goes, people love having their pictures taken and love it even more when its sent back to them.. and the feeling that one's been able to bring that smile on someone's face so far away.. is a good one :)

the konkan railway routes are truly marvellous- scenically of course but also technologically.. the detailed description you've given made me wonder how tough it might have been to build and how much must have been lost in the process..

Anil P said...

To Mrinalini: True, after a time the tunnels can jarr senses, more so when they are upon you unexpectedly. I close my ears when the train plunges into a tunnel to keep the air bouncing off the tunnel walls from rushing into my ears. It can temporarily change the hearing. Or one can lower the shutters to protect them from the sudden onrush of air.

To Anon: Hmmm. Now, folks are not as enthusiastic about having their pictures taken. I attribute it to the clamour of aggressive television that tends to poke cameras into private spaces for public consumption, making folks wary of hobby shutterists like me. :)

Anonymous said...

is it??? i thought that would be happen only if one was carrying a video cam or a shady bag :)

Anil P said...

To Anon: It is mostly true of cities. I've had more than my share of 'confrontations' when out photographing. This is particularly true of editorial kind of photography. Shooting landscapes and inanimate objects is far simpler in this matter.

A few months ago when shooting Mumbai by night, I positioned myself outside Kurla railway station to photograph wayside vendors selling watermelon juice and fruits under yellow bulbs when whispers went out amidst someone calling out to 'Iqbal' and a burly youth jumped out from behind his stall and ran towards me asking why I was photographing them. He was pumped up and very aggressive. I looked around to see all eyes on me. One backward step might've invited more trouble, more so since the area is known for its assertive minority muslim community. However, it is not restricted to any one community, though the degree of intolerance can vary from community to community.

We had a quiet talk together while I produced an ID and explained him what I was doing out there. Many don't even get the chance to explain. Any vacillation does not help. Then the toughie asked a vendor to offer me a glass of chopped water melon slices and not take payment for it from me. He smiled at me and said "I hope you won't put 'your foot on our stomachs'", a euphemism for 'don't report us to authorities and take away our livelihood'. I nodded.

But I must say that not all opposition is limited to such fears. At other times it is used as an instrument to display power, or intolerance that comes from a sense of 'power to deny' irrespective of any reason.

Moreover, the tenor, approach, and shrillness of intrusive television coverage that passes off for news has not made things any easier for lone rangers like me.

ligne said...

Every post of yours that I read fills me with envy :) Its been too long. I guess I should now start blogging about journeys in the US to make me feel better.
But am always scared of taking photographs of people here. It seems like there will be repurcussions I do not care for!

Keep blogging away.These are fun to read.

Anil P said...

To Ligne: Thank you.

To travel, to remember, to be reminded, to smile . . . reasons enough to record journeys. The only way to stymie time to a standstill for the moments that reading diaries from long ago invoke? Maybe so.

Anil P said...

To Ligne: Thank you.

To travel, to remember, to be reminded, to smile . . . reasons enough to record journeys. The only way to stymie time to a standstill for the moments that reading diaries from long ago invoke? Maybe so.

Anonymous said...

hmmm.. thats a bit of a situation you had there! and expectedly you must be wary of shooting pics now.. i never have shot pictures of the town i live in! but i have on my trips to places like manali, tawang, shillong, etc. and people there just love it! you are right..maybe it is a city-small town difference..

Anil P said...

To Anon: Not wary at all :) What was shillong like?

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Such beautiful writing. I've never been to India, but you make me feel like I'm there.

Anonymous said...

hmmm.. plucky you are then!

shillong's a place to live.. beautiful weather year round, the most exotic of flowers grow there and the people are warm, live and let live types, minding their own business. long winding roads, typical of hill stations but the cars dont honk! i have never seen such quiet traffic flow anywhere!! one can walk all over town.. its made that way and its a pleasure too. lovely chinese restaurants all over. but if you want solitude and mountains and rivulets all about you, cherrapunji's the place - a short trip away from shillong.

thats a highly dry summary of a fascinating place.. should visit sometime..you'll have a field day with the camera :)

Anil P said...

To Elizabeth: Thanks for your comment. It sure is a diverse country, and involves as diverse experiences.

To Anonymous: That's a very compelling description to visit Shillong. From what you describe, the laid-back bestows a peaceful feel to the place. I'll surely keep it in my sights in the future. I suppose experiencing silence, and knowing what it is like can induce respect for it, and keep people from intruding into its 'space'.

What's the commerce like in Shillong, and the things that interest people there?

Anonymous said...

did you notice - this is the first comment of yours to anon - after a long long time - which is devoid of a smiley!!

about shillong.. it is very peacful indeed.. but not exactly laid-back in the 'sussegad' way.. its more like everyone's content with their lives.. people smile a lot there, especially the girls :) the general feeling is one of bonhomie.. i'm sorry - not doing a good job of explaining :)

economy is basically agriculture, mining and tourism.. it isnt a very prosperous state, but there aren't any glaring inequalities either.. for instance i walked around the entire main market about thrice in five days and saw only two beggars!

they seemed to generally like singing a lot. And every corner you turn there'll be a bunch of youngsters sitting and chatting away.. i know that sounds very 'usual', but its different there.. it seems as though everything else - running shops, taxis, restaurants, everything - is just by-the-way. the important thing seems to be to enjoy one's company..

that sounds vague i know :). but thats really how it came across to me.. maybe i was just in a great mood back there!

ligne said...

aren't we poetic? I didnt read your response until today..a little time off blogs.. :)
I really wish now that I had kept a diary of journeys...the next one I will remember..am off to yosemite for a few days..camping..extremely excited.. :)

Anil P said...

To Anon: Yup, no smiley that time :)

Actually what you said about Shillong makes a lot of sense. Personally, I don't see much merit in 'running' all the time, chasing 'dreams' that only get bigger all the time while the life spent chasing them gets progressively 'smaller'.

If 'to not be chasing a mirage, real or imagined' is looked down upon and considered unambitious then there is very little that can move such souls to walk by the wayside and enjoy the panaroma that life has to offer. I feel that to rest occasionally is not about slowing down, but about letting life catch up.

I hope Shillong doesn't unearth mineral 'riches' 'coz if Goa is anything to go by, then swathes of Shillong will be mined, ending a way of life in those regions for good. Few things can damage the soul topography of a place like mining can.

It looks like Shillong is one happy place to be in, in which case it has a lot going for it :)

To Ligne: It's never too late, I'll look forward to reading of your trip.

Anonymous said...

i agree.. some would consider such thinking plain lazy but i think this is the only way to be..

Anil P said...

To Anon: Bang on! Hope there are more of our tribe out there :)

Anonymous said...


Bhushan said...


Should I say your blogs read like mine, or that I would like to write like you?! I do not which is a better compliment!

Keep writing, cheers!