Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Ghost Train



-Brian Mendonça

I look up Indian Railways’ Live Train Running Status on www.runningstatus.in and type in the number of the Goa Express. I am relieved to see it is about to reach Miraj junction and is well on its way to the capital. Passengers on the train last Sunday were not so lucky.

When  the 12779 Goa Express left Vasco-da-gama station on 21 February at 03.10 p.m. for Hazrat Nizamuddin station, New Delhi, little did we know that it would be returning to Vasco like a ghost/spectre at the ungodly hour of 01.15 a.m.

My sister was travelling with her husband and child on the train to Pune. When they reached Londa station, at 7.30 p.m. they were informed that the Goa Express would not proceed beyond that point. Passengers were given 2 choices, viz. 1) Find alternate means of transport to proceed to your destination 2) Stay put in the train – which would now be proceeding back to Vasco station.

How would Felix, my brother-in-law report for work the next day – having only barely managed a weekend respite?  How would Maegan his daughter, go to school the next day? What about the numerous plans that would go awry?

When Felix called to give me the news, I thought he was joking. How could something occurring more than 2000 kms. away cast its shadow on Goa and Pune?

By then the railways had already taken a hit of 200 crores, by the anarchy unleashed by the arsonists. With the situation spiraling out of control, and the officials gazing, anything was possible. A bag kept surreptitiously in the train may detonate a bomb which could derail the train. Spectres of Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh and Bhisham Sahni’s teleserial Tamas hovered near. The intent here too is to partition India.

An escalation of the Jat agitation in Haryana compelled a suspension of most north-bound trains. Trains which were already enroute were advised to return to their originating station.

And so, to placate the agitators the Goa Express turned back with its tail between its legs. It did not even touch Pune which it is scheduled to arrive at 03.55 a.m. the next day. And though a sizeable number of armed forces personnel board at Pune, it was not enough to allay the growing fears of an attack.

The most disturbing fact at that time, was the absence of any reliable news. News channels were more busy with other theatres of India going up in flames. A panel discussion anchored by Barkha Dutt, the same evening on NDTV, titled “Jat Agitation. India’s ‘Backward March’ into Quota Politics?” questioned the legitimacy of OBC quotas given at the barrel of a gun.

A  leading ‘low-cost’ carrier departing at 0535 Monday from Dabolim airport offered 3 seats on its website for Rs. 36, 000 on a flight to Mumbai. Thankfully Felix and Vanessa decided to leave by bus instead the following day from Panjim at 08.00 p.m. . They booked tickets online at www.redbus.in. They reached safely on Tuesday at dawn.
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Published in Gomantak TimesWeekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 28 February 2016. Pix of Ghost Train from poster by Tom Straub from fineartamerica. The poster commemorates the anniversary of a train crash near Statesville, North Carolina at 3 a.m. on 19 August 1891. According to local legend the whistle of the train and the screams of the passengers are still heard every anniversary. (telegraph.co.uk)

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