By: Seema Qadri
Trains, railway tracks and railway stations, whenever I recall them from the long-drawn-out list of memories from my childhood, I would always get these glimpses of a haunted railway station in my mind: all the tracks at the station lying empty, few of the engines lying on some strips of tracks but not on the main track, these tracks were somewhere on the backside of the station, complete silence rather a dead silence in a way that even if the winds bothered to blow from that forsaken and deserted station, even their noises could not be heard, the station absorbed all the sounds in it, leaving a dead silence behind, the station made everything stationary, the station was haunted.
Well, these are just memories from my dreams because I had never really seen a railway station, except in the movies.
We always tend to imagine a place in the best of its condition, but keeping in view all the Bollywood movies that I have watched, these railway stations and the trains seemed too fussy, chaotic and always symbolic for separation. ‘Thanks’ to Harry Potter Series; I could imagine what beauty one could see through the window of a train. For me, train is not just a means of transport to sit in and enjoy the view of beautiful landscape, but it is a space that separates us from our surroundings and provides us a window to see what lies there. What will I see through this window: beauty or the weirdness of the world around us? Chaos or the beautiful order that nature has placed the different things in? Will it be an adventure or the same journey that I experience from my home to my university in that 407 local bus (which I try to avoid though by travelling in a Mazda)?
The sound of steam engines piercing through the silent nights while moving on iron bridges or speeding past the beautiful landscape, it was more of a curiosity than a dream to be on one such train and travel to distant lands and never come back. I wanted to experience it and give answer to all my curiosities, to see what that window will make me see. But how? I never wanted to leave my homeland either!
But as they say, something in life is destined to happen. So on 15th of May, 2014, on a bright sunny morning, I set out for my first train journey with my friends. With a mix of excitement and curiosity, we arrived quite early at Nowgam Railway Station to catch the first train to Banihal town. But as it turned out, there was no early morning train on that particular day. With more than three hours at our disposal to kill we began to explore the place.
Nowgam or Srinagar station as it is called, is one of the busiest and biggest stations in Kashmir. The station building – which is a grand one – is stuffed with carved wood all over. As one enters the building it feels like being inside a cheap houseboat or a Shikara. It defies all aesthetics.
Anyways after a dismal look at the station, we decided to take breakfast while the train arrived. I walked around the platform hoping to find something interesting, but obviously, I found just some weary men with heavy assault rifles slung over their shoulders. They were there to guard the wooden-wonderland, called Nowgam station, from any threat! I roamed around for a while trying to look for an enquiry booth or any official who could have helped, but there was none!
Finally, the train arrived, now excited I was. After pushes and shoves, we were on board. The train looked completely different from what I had watched on television. It was spacious, fitted with plush seats with a pair of fans above each row, on each wall. It felt like the train struggled to look classy, but couldn’t as the crowd or more precisely over-crowding put it off.
I and a friend of mine had to stand at the door near the junction of the two compartments, till we reached Islamabad as there was no space inside the cabin. We couldn’t see how the world outside looked from train window and to my disappointment I couldn’t see what the window of this train had there to show me.
But as train left Islamabad station, we managed a seat and for the first time since morning, I felt at ease. It was mid -May (2014) and snow on the mountains was still fresh. Despite how uncomfortably I was seated between three men on a row of three chairs, struggling to keep my feet above the floor that was almost flooded with freshly spitted paan, I had a joyful smile on my face, as I was now in this train that was slowly making its way towards Banihal.
I could not get a window seat, but thankfully there was a window; a window that answered all my curiosities. The window that made mighty mountains look so small to me.
Usually when I roam around in Srinagar with my friends, we visit Boulevard a lot. There I would always wish for that long Foreshore Road to never end. There, I wish, I could somehow get away and move to the mighty Himalayas where I can have a small house to spend my whole life. Now, this moment, while this train was near Qazigund, what I could see through my window was these Himalayas, seemingly not mighty anymore; I could see the soil on which numerous trees were uniformly planted by nature. I was so close. I could not feel the speed of the train, but the joy in the eyes of the people who waved at the train from the outside. I could see large fields of crops, along with some odd constructions that one might call a house. I saw the water flowing from the mountains, I saw nature, I saw the beauty, I saw paradise, I saw the answer to all my curiosities – I saw Kashmir.
Over the years, given its geographical importance, Banihal town has mushroomed along the highway that connects Kashmir valley to the outside world. It was already noon when we reached Banihal. The station looked more lively and full of life. With details of a beautiful day ahead on my mind, I set out to explore Banihal till next train to paradise leaves.
The buzz that one gets to see around Banihal railway station has failed to spread across the town. Once outside, we boarded a taxi to reach the main market Banihal, a ten minutes drive from the station. Our taxi driver, who wore a sleepy look on his face, told us that he has been travelling non-stop since last night. During the ten minutes drive from railway station to the main market; our driver talked non-stop trying to give us an overview of the highway town. We started to look for a place where we could have something good to eat as our stomachs were roaring with hunger.
After a delicious lunch at the Dak Bunglow, we busied ourselves with the work. We were told that the last train to Srinagar leaves at 5 PM, so we set ourselves the deadline for 4 o’clock to wrap things up.
It was one such day when you wish clock to stop for a while and day to pass slowly and things speed up instead. I wanted this to be a never ending day. We were lost in our attempts to make the day more worth remembering. We were not yet done with our work when clock struck 4.
Finally, with a heavy heart, we set out towards Banihal station to catch the last train.
There was huge crowd outside the station with people talking in loud voices that the train has been cancelled. I didn’t know how to react.
It was my first experience outside the circumference of the circle that I travel normally in a day. We started to think about the options that we had to get back to Srinagar. Either we had to wait for the train to arrive – that had fewer possibilities – or we had to start looking for alternatives.
There was total chaos at the station as nobody knew if the train was coming or not. Luckily, I found a police officer who told me that the train was held hostage near Qazigund station by locals where a lady was found dead under mysterious circumstances. ‘It is least likely that it will reach Banihal anytime soon; you better take a cab,’ he said. I greeted the news with mixed feelings as the idea of travelling back home by road was equally exciting for a person like me who has never been out even this far.
We finally started to look for a cab. It took us a while to convince a cab driver to take a trip to Srinagar as he was enjoying the chaos outside the station created by impatient travellers. Finally at around 6 in the evening we boarded the taxi after much convincing and left towards Srinagar.
It was my first journey on that stretch of road, so this time I took a window seat to enjoy the scenic beauty. As a child I have always listened to stories of people getting struck in Banihal near Jawahar Tunnel. The idea of getting struck amidst this peaceful wilderness was both exciting and frightening. But it passed off rather smoothly. I was getting calls from my home; they were worried and were constantly asking where I have reached. I didn’t know. I didn’t know where I was, when suddenly somebody on the back seat shouted that we are almost near the tunnel. Wow! This is how I felt that time. I was going to cross the Jawahar Tunnel, about which I have only read and heard from elders. It was going to be a great experience. One of my friends, who was sitting next to me was continuously telling me stories about this road; he told me some funny experiences that he has had during his earlier visits through this tunnel. I was enjoying, both the company and the stories. 2.75 kms, and the tunnel was over. After crossing the tunnel we stopped at Qazigund for customary tea while someone among the passengers was telling his mates, ‘Qaezgund peth gassi ghareh nyun hatchyuw choncheh, magar dyun gassih maaji, zanaani neh kyenh, nateh diyaw soa amee seath choab’. (One should buy a wooded spoon from Qazigund. But give it to your mother and not wife, she will beat you with it!)
As we left Qazigund, I felt like coming home despite the fact that I was away for just a few hours.
I always like listening to discussions. In our cab there were discussions going on among the passengers. I was enjoying listening to them and was occasionally smiling to myself when they cracked some jokes in between. I could hardly rest myself, I felt excited not only for the reason that I had this handsome experience of travelling this far from my home, but this exhilarating and pleased feeling of reaching close to my home. I enjoyed the sunset for more than thirty minutes during this journey, as the sun was constantly playing hide and seek with us. The profusion and the wealthy split of colours ranging from golden, orange, red to purple on the sky made the moment more intriguing. The sunset was an indication that the day was over and the best part was that I had a back-pack of memories with me that I would treasure for the whole of my life for every reason. I learnt two things, one is that all curiosities may come to an end but once a journey begins it sets us in for many other journeys; the journey to Banihal led a path for the journey to the answer of my curiosities, which in turn led me to the journey of creating memories with my friends.
When the day was over, and I was on a journey back home – which I enjoyed the most – I learnt one thing: come what may, a roving bird always wants to come back to its nest when the day is over!
While moving towards my home, as the darkness engulfed daylight completely, I realised all of a sudden that this journey of mine and the journey of life that we all are going through are remarkably akin.
With a beautiful yet hectic day coming to an end, I felt the wear and tear of journey; I closed my eyes and dozed off, only to wake up in the paradise!
Such a wonderful piece of writing. I instantly feel in love with the way writer has interchanged two journeys – journey of life and journey to Banihal. I am a Kashmiri living abroad, wish I too can be on this train some day. Kudos KL team, You do really wonderful job. Take care
It’s always a treat to reaf such engaging write-ups.Enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Many congratulations to the writer for making readers fall in love with train journeys.
I love the way words flow out of your heart. Simply inspiring and outstanding piece of writing. Hope someday I too can translate my emotions and inner feelings into words as neatly and flawlessly as you have done. Wish me luck. And thanks for inspiring me to write again
Dove in the Sky…..
Such a beautiful writeup. I felt as if I was travelling. Would love to take this trip to paradise. It would be more beautiful if you could capture some pictures but still it is splendid. You have left space for imagination.