The narrator’s never-failing experience of travelling back to his place of birth during a ‘politically stolen’ holiday, is simply worth sharing
By Joy (Sirshendu)
Returning home after a long stay away is an emotional experience for everyone. For me however, the first return to Shillong after spending the initial few months of college at Rourkela was very special.
Going to college was not pleasant in those initial months. It was the first time that my eyes had seen anything other than the pine-wooded hills of Shillong or the lush greenery in the lap of Brahmaputra and North Bengal.
In later years, I eventually got used to the dusty, brown landscape of the steel city and learnt to look at trees sprinkled with what looked like ‘Garam Masala’ without wincing.
But that stupor had not set in then and my heart cried to go back.
In normal course of things, I would have been allowed to go back only after the first semester. But fortunately my college had a glorious tradition of “Sine Die”.
This marvelous maneuver involved a harmless, pointless and completely irrelevant political protest in the middle of the night by hundreds of students solely for the purpose of shutting the college down for about a month during the Dussehra – Diwali break.
It was a time-honored tradition. At dawn, the sleepy-eyed authorities came and gave us a lecture on law breaking (pure formality) and then declared the college closed. All of this in perfectly amicable manner!!!
My heart was singing as we headed back to our hostels after a night of intense `political’ agitation. But then going back was not so easy in the 90s as it is now.
No Tatkal, no online reservations and most importantly no information on demand. A group of around fifteen of us from various north eastern states headed out in the early afternoon and began the journey of a lifetime.
The first part of the journey from Rourkela to Howrah was uneventful. Reaching Howrah at about 10pm-ish we dumped ourselves elegantly over our luggage and spent the night as best as we could.
Very early the next morning while it was still dark we went from Howrah to Sealdah to catch the 6am Kanchenjunga express bound for Guwahati.
We were glad to find the General Compartment not quite empty but with space enough for everyone. We had to spread ourselves in various places and I found myself on one of the side seats a little way off from the rest of my friends.
This was to be my fixture for the next 24 hours. The next 12 hours were delightful as the train rushed through the spectacular beauty of green fields, villages, crossings at small towns with people waiting patiently, small quaint stations and just a glimpse of the life beyond the platform gates, rivers, forests, buffaloes and birds.
The compartment had become chock-a-block by then. I was crammed into half of my side seat and there were people sitting on my feet.
Although practically mummified, I did not mind at all. My whole being was hanging out of the window. And so it went on through the late afternoon, someone kindly passed me some lunch and later samosas. And then as if to top it all, nature ended the day with a spectacular sunset.
The lights of the towns came up, sights and sounds of crammed markets, glistening lanes where rain was falling, and then as the evening set in, pitch darkness. Nothing to occupy the mind outside I finally became aware of the cramped mass of humanity in the compartment.
With the dim yellow light, tired expressions on faces swaying with the train’s rhythm, monotonous drone of inane conversations and hunger, my battery started to drain rapidly (a simile that I could not have even imagined then).
The hours from then on to the morning when we reached Guwahati went like a haze. Every now and then I would wake up with a jerk and find the train at a halt and my specs at my feet.
Retrieving the specs, I would look at a sleepy desolate station with goods dumped on the platform, a solitary coolie sleeping, some dogs and darkness beyond.
As the train dragged on … Kokrajhar… Bongaigaon.. Nalbari…Rongia … just a few more hours to home. Eventually at around 4am we reached Guwahati.
Alighting on to the platform my group broke away to find the connections to their respective destinations. Two lady classmates who had fortunately found berths during the journey were the only other people bound for Shillong.
Reaching the bus stand we got to know that Shillong was under curfew and no buses were plying. These kind of surprises are somewhat rare in these times of instant news and social media but in those days such uncertainty was fairly common.
The news gave us some moments of anxiety but luckily we were informed that all buses for Shillong had been scheduled to depart together in a convoy at noon.
The idea was that the buses would reach Shillong just around evening when the curfew was to be relaxed for the day.
And then I made a most ghastly mistake and I can only thank providence that it did not have disastrous consequences.
After purchasing the tickets and having some breakfast with my two classmates, with 4 hours left for the bus to depart, I decided to go and visit a relative who stayed just a few kilometers away from the bus stand.
With all three tickets in my pocket and leaving my bag with my classmates I hitched a rickshaw and went over to his house.
It was a typical large Assam type house and it felt delightful after the stress of travel to sit in the front room sofa with the mild morning sunshine filtering through the curtains.
My relative had stepped out and I decided to wait. As I waited I drifted off into blissful sleep.
In a perhaps typical take-it-easy Northeast manner, when my relative came home and found me sleeping in the front parlor, he did not bother to wake me up for the next 3 hours!
Luckily at 11:45 practical sense prevailed and he finally decided to wake me up. With just 15 minutes for buses to depart and terrified to think what my classmates would be going through I rushed back to the bus station in a panic only to find that the ladies were quite casual about it.
They were possibly unaware that their tickets were with me.!
With no traffic from the opposite direction, that was one of the fastest rides to Shillong in those days of comparatively narrow roads. However, on reaching the outskirts we had to wait an agonizing hour for the curfew to get over.
Entering Shillong as the dusk was just setting in, the bus winding through the empty streets, shops just starting to open and a sunset made-to-order to welcome me still remains the perfect homecoming.
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Joy (Sirshendu), an engineering grad, had his schooling in Shillong before moving to Bangalore. After a couple of decades of excitement and monotony alternately of the corporate world, he has now moved to an NGO that focuses on education-to-employment programs for the deserving and underprivileged college students. Joy is an avid traveller and is the co-author of the book -“Faith” in journeys: 20 places that tuned our beliefs.