The facade of Howrah station. A Telegraph picture
During my long “fishy” career at the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) in Barrackpore, I have made countless journeys that started from and ended at Howrah station. In the process I have developed a special relationship with this station.
My reminiscences about Calcutta cannot be separated from my trysts with Howrah station. Each time I alighted at the station, I was filled with a bizarre, difficult-to-explain feeling. It didn’t matter whether the train was the urban, snobbish Rajdhani or its rustic cousin Madras Mail or a nondescript vagrant like Howrah-Madras Janata Express. The feeling builds up as the train chugs hesitantly into the platform amid the loud hiss and puff of the engine and the teeth grinding of the wheels against the rails.
Inside the station, the chorus of porters and hawkers replaces the mechanical orchestra. Passengers and their friends, too, contribute their share of decibels — nobody talks at Howrah station, everybody shouts. This mix of sounds that can throw any untrained mind out of gear forms the background score at any station in India, but when it comes to Howrah, this “rail-harmony” assumes a rhythm and pitch, which, I believe, puts me in a hypnotic state.
I sometimes brood over this “Howragenic” state of mind. Is it Howrah-phobia or Howrah-mania? Is it driven by fear or anxiety, thrill or expectation, or the happiness of homecoming? The answer is “yes to all”!
My first visit to the station was in 1971. Awe, fear and anxiety gripped me as I alighted from Howrah Janata Express on a cold December morning. It was the first time I was travelling out of Kerala. The train had taken three days to make it to Howrah and I had almost become attached with it. I had no idea how I would deal with porters and taxi drivers with my very limited Hindi and total ignorance of Bengali. To make matters worse, I was to soon appear in a job interview — for the first time in my life — at CIFRI.
As the mist around the station evaporated, I was awestruck by the Howrah bridge. I had never seen such a huge structure in my life.
However, on my way to Barrackpore through the city, I felt betrayed. I had in mind a vivid picture of Bengal, thanks to the translations of three Bimal Mitra novels. I had conjured up a vision of a state full of handsome bhadraloks in spotless white, well-starched dhotis and kurtas, roaming neatly paved streets, mouthing words of wisdom. I had also dreamt that the streets of Calcutta would be like that of Visva-Bharati as described by Kumaran Asan, the famous Malayalam poet. But all I saw were dusty streets, shouting people and chaos.
I got the job at CIFRI and started working in its Nagarjunasagar Centre (Andhra Pradesh). My second trip to Calcutta was to deliver a talk at a summer school in Barrackpore. This time, too, my special Howrah feeling was tinged with anxiety — of facing the summer school participants and meeting the charismatic director of CIFRI.
But during my subsequent trips from Nagarjunasagar to Barrackpore, I felt more comfortable with Howrah. I learnt that people shouting at each other were only conversing. I learnt that the running men and women were not fleeing after a bomb-scare; they were only going about their work.
Subsequently my place of work changed from Nagarjunasagar to Barrackpore and visits to Howrah station became more frequent. Over the years, I not only started liking the crowd, but felt like a part of the multitude — a water molecule in a rolling and rocking sea, a tiny star in the universe. You surrendered your personal identity to the crowd. You became amorphous; you had no shape of your own, but were an element of a larger shape, a member in a pack of migratory birds or a school of fish that keeps changing its shape in beautiful patterns.
I would long to go to Howrah to experience this bliss, bury my mundane problems, hopes, aspirations and frustrations. The romance lasted for about 10 years. Then my mode of transport changed from train to planes.
I now live in Delhi and recently, after a long time, I travelled from Patna to Howrah in a train. As the tired train dragged itself into the platform in the early hours, my mind took a walk down memory lane.
Whatever I wrote about Howrah is applicable for Calcutta. Both can be an “enigma shrouded in mystery” for first-time visitors, but for those who choose to stay back, they are the right place to search for bliss.
(The writer works with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi)