The Lost Train to Mankundu

On weekday evenings around 8:05, it is veritable bedlam at the Howrah Railway Station, Kolkata, India. The commuting crowds in their thousands run around like scurrying rabbits, jostling and shoving and pushing like maniacs, to catch their homebound trains. They come to Kolkata to earn their living. This railway station, popularly called Howrah, is one of the two that connect this city to the rest of the country. With twenty or so platforms, it can handle several inbound and outbound trains at the same time.

I am from Laheriasarai, an obscure sleepy little town in northern India, about 400 miles northwest from Kolkata. A typical fifteen year old not-so-mature Indian boy, I have come to Mankundu on my school break to spend a couple of weeks with my cousin and his family. He has an auto parts business in Kolkata, a 40-minute commute by train. This is my first trip out of home, so I am a little nervous.

There isn’t much for me to do in Mankundu. Except for my cousin’s mother, his wife and their one year-old son, I know no one else. Rather than sit at home and get bored, I go with him to Kolkata every morning. Occasionally, he takes me around the sightseeing spots in the city, but generally, I sit in his office watching him conduct his business and return to Mankundu together at the end of the day. But, on this day, he’ll be late going home, so he asks me to return alone.

“I’ll get lost,” I say.

For me, Kolkata is huge, beyond anything I had ever imagined before. When I first laid my eyes on its teeming crowds and the congested and chaotic traffic, navigating through its reticulated network of roads, I was mesmerized.

“You won’t get lost,” my cousin assures me and writes down the directions on a piece of paper and tells me to follow them to the dot.

I take the Howrah-bound cable car from Dharmatolla Road, one of the major thoroughfares in Kolkata, just as my cousin has advised. At five minutes to 8, the cable car reaches Howrah. According to my cousin, the Mankundu-bound train will depart from Platform #4 at 8:05. “It always leaves from Platform #4 at this time,” he tells me. I rush headlong into the station as soon as the cable car drops us off. I see a train at Platform #4. There is a long line of would-be passengers at the ticket counter, and, since, by this time, I have less than 4 minutes to catch the train, I decide I’ll buy the ticket on-board the train.

“What time will this train depart?” I ask the train conductor standing at Platform #4.

“8:05,” he says. This confirms what my cousin told me about the departure time.

I get on the train and fight my way through the throng of passengers to a vacant seat.

Exactly at 8:05 the train starts to snail out of the platform. Being a commuter train, it will stop at every station it passes by to drop off and pick up passengers. There are several such stops before Mankundu. I keep an eye out for the names of the stations the train passes so as not to miss mine.

The compartment is sardine-packed. There are no vacant seats anymore. People are standing shoulder-to-shoulder clinging on to the straphangers. Some are hanging outside the compartment like bats holding on to the handle bars. It is quiet inside. At the end of the day, people must be too tired to kick up conversations with strangers. An occasional peddler roams the cars hawking his wares. I open my newspaper and try to catch up with what is already old news. I didn’t have any lunch. Except for a few rounds of tea and cookies in the cousin’s office, I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. My cousin’s wife is a good cook. Every meal she prepares is sumptuous. I look forward to a nice meal when I get home.

Just as soon as the train leaves Sheoraphuli station, the ticket collector shows up to check the passengers’ tickets. By my calculation, I am still about 30-minutes from Mankundu.

“Can I see your ticket, please?” he asks, stretching his hand toward me.

“I’ll have to get it now. I didn’t have the time to buy it at the station,” I say.

“Where are you headed?” he asks.


I give him the money, and he gives me the ticket and moves on.

“This train is going to Tarakeswar, not Mankundu,” the fellow sitting next to me says as soon as the ticket collector leaves. I know that after Sheoraphuli, the lines fork and the trains go either to Tarakeswar or Mankundu, not both.

I remember what my parents had told me before I left Laheriasarai: “Be careful in the trains because there will be crooks prowling around to swindle gullible passengers.” I have heard many stories about scheming thugs in and around Kolkata, so I am thinking perhaps the guy sitting next to me is trying to trick me. After all, I am only 15 and look even younger.

“You should get off the train at the next station and take a train going in the opposite direction,” he says.

“But there isn’t any train going that way until tomorrow morning,” the guy sitting next to him says.

I don’t say anything to either of the two guys and try not to show what I am going through in my mind. I don’t want to believe them, but my heart starts to thump. In spite of all the warnings that have been pumped into my head, I feel there may be some truth in what they are saying. It is only a few minutes after 8 p.m. If what they are saying is true, it will be a long wait for me through the night before I will get to Mankundu! Where will I go at this time? I don’t know the area. Do I have to spend the night on the station platform? My aunt, cousin and his wife will be so worried about me! They don’t have a phone at home, so there is no way to contact them.

As these thoughts are swirling through my mind, the train reaches the next station. Without saying anything to anybody, not even thanking my well-wishers sitting next to me, I stand up like a zombie, and, unmindful of the consequences of what may be in store for me, I push through the crowd and get off the train. I am the only one to get off at this stop. A few seconds later, the train leaves.

The name of the station is Diyara. I have never heard of it. It appears to be a small station and is completely deserted. In the middle of the platform to one side is the station master’s office. He’s the one who sells tickets and takes care of the comings and goings of the trains. The station is surrounded on all sides by thick dark wooded areas which look even darker because of the moonless night. The platform is dimly lit by low wattage bulbs atop light poles.

I take hurried steps toward the station master’s office and stand in front of its only ticket counter. There is no one manning it. I peer through the window. It is quite small inside. Someone is sleeping on a cot in one corner. I guess it must be the station master. I try to wake him up by tapping on the window, but he tries to wave me away. I persist.

“What do you want?” he says, visibly annoyed.

“I need a ticket for Mankundu.”

“Come back tomorrow morning. The next train leaves at 6:30,” he is about to go back to sleep, but I interrupt him.

“Is there any other way to get to Mankundu tonight?” I ask, my voice subdued with concealed fear and nervousness.

“If you follow the track through the woods on the left of the platform and walk about two miles, you may find a bus,” he says. “I’m not sure you’ll find one at this time, though.”

“Is there a hotel nearby?” I ask.

“No,” he goes back to sleep.

I am thinking the man on the train was right after all. There is no train going back tonight.

On summer afternoons during school breaks in Laheriasarai, I had walked in the woods with my friends many times and had, in fact, enjoyed those walks. But, this is different. The night is pitch-dark, and the woods are dense and deep and eerily threatening. The silence is punctuated occasionally by the susurrus and frog calls. I don’t entertain any thought of embarking on a two mile trek through these woods.

Obviously, this station is in the middle of nowhere. There is no human habitation anywhere as far as my eyes can see. My heart sinks at the prospect of having to wait out the night alone on the platform. The low wattage bulbs atop the light poles aren’t doing much to dilute the darkness. I don’t have a book I could try to read. In the confusion of worries just before I got off the train, I left my newspaper on-board. Fortunately, there are a few benches on the platform. Fatigued and exhausted, both mentally and physically, I lie down on one of them and try to get a handle on my bearings. I am carrying a fair amount of cash in my wallet and wearing an expensive imported watch. These would be reasons enough for a robbery anywhere, more so in this tiny little deserted outpost. I am worried about my cousin and his family worrying about me, wondering where I am and what is happening to me. I am cursing him for forcing me to return alone despite my fears and reluctance to do so.

The night trudges along slowly, still many hours to go before the break of dawn. Reclined on the bench, between being alert and exhausted, I must have dozed off. I am awakened by the choppy cacophony of approaching voices. These are the voices of a group of six teenagers engaged in loud discussions about something I can’t decipher. With my arms raised skyward and slowly swiveling them behind my back, I stretch, letting out a quiet yawn, and pretend to be someone waiting for a soon-to-arrive train. I am chilled with fears of being mugged and robbed by a gang of young thugs, but I fake a look of blithe unconcern and fearlessness. The teenagers are headed in my direction. I brace myself for the final drama of my life, the denouement of hours of misadventure, my metamorphosis into a bundle of bloodied flesh and bones that will be discovered in the slow unfolding soft light of dawn by some hurried passenger scurrying to catch the day’s first train. As the gang comes closer, the faces of my cousin and his family, and of my parents and my siblings I said goodbye to not too long ago, flash before my mind’s eye, and the pain of not being able to see them one last time well up inside me like a volcanic eruption. I feel an ache thinking they will never know whatever happened to their loving little boy. I take my wallet out of my pocket and put it on the bench next to me and take off the watch and place it next to it. As the gang gets closer, I am ready to part with my worldly possessions and rest my faith and hope in their kindness to let me keep my body and soul in one piece.

They are about ten feet from me now, their quick shuffling paces turn into slow strides, their chattering only a wave of muffled voices, and the hand gestures that accompany those muffled voices resemble a ballerina’s hand movements. And, now they are on my left, within easy reach of me. But, they don’t stop. Instead, they throw a casual sideways glance at me and move on. I don’t make any eye contact. With one more leisurely stride, they walk past me, their muffled voices gradually returning to choppy chattering as before, and, their hand gestures once again accompany their ongoing discussions.

Emboldened by a guarded confidence that I might survive the night after all, I put the wallet back in my pocket and put on the watch and go back to waiting out the night. For a while, time seems to be poised at one point, but then I must have dozed off because when I wake up, the dawn is stirring on the woods beyond, and the commuters have started filing in on the platform. I walk up to the station master’s office and peer through the window. He seems to be getting ready to start the day. I take my position in the line to buy my ticket.

The Mankundu bound train arrives exactly at 6:30 as the station master had told me the night before. Before boarding, I ask him and several passengers to make sure it is the train that will take me to Mankundu. The last thing I want to do is to take the wrong train again and get tossed around like a shuttlecock.

There are many empty seats in the train unlike during the rush hours at Howrah. I can pick and choose. After a brief stop, the train leaves.

In about 30 minutes, spent and sleepy, I am back at my cousin’s home in Mankundu.

“Where the hell had you been all night?” my aunt greets me as soon as I step inside the house.

“I need a cup of hot tea before I can talk,” I say.

An Embrace Remembered


It was about 8 o’clock one September evening. I was at Kolkata’s Dum Dum airport to catch a flight for Canada where I was going for graduate studies. The airport was rather empty and quiet. Perhaps my flight was the last one to leave that night. My oldest brother, whom we called Dada, was among a handful of people who had come to see me off just as he had been present in all the significant events in our life.

The oldest of my ten siblings, Dada had the mantle of family head thrust on him after my father passed away in 1961. My old man was never much of a breadwinner. Dada was still in college, an exceptionally bright student, and looked forward to a promising future with immense possibilities. He could have left home to pursue his own dreams, but he didn’t. Still in his early twenties, this handsome young man of few words, with a florid complexion and a commanding gravitas, decided instead to defer his own dreams and joined the physics faculty of a local college as an instructor. The job did not pay much. He supplemented his income by tutoring a drove of students, and with the money he thus made, managed the family expenses, including his siblings’ schooling needs. To see his siblings stand on their own feet became the mission of his life. If he was sad or disappointed with himself, he never let on. We were awed by his personality and treated him with godly reverence.

In a few minutes, my Canada-bound plane was ready for boarding, and the hugs and good-byes ensued. Dada was the last one I hugged. As we were holding each other in a tight embrace, I could hear his squelched sobs. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. I had never seen him cry before. To us siblings, he was a strict disciplinarian. If we ever strayed off in our conduct, he never wasted any time to set us straight. Once when I was ten years old, I had talked back to one of my older sisters and used uncivil language. She squealed on me when Dada came home that night. He had a baton which he used to set us straight. That night, the baton came down on me like flurries of hail until I could not remain standing anymore. He had picked my knee joints as the target for maximum effect. I didn’t protest. I was under the spell of my deep-seated reverence for him. To me, he was larger than life. I was not prepared to see such a tough man break down for me.

As the shuttle took me to the waiting aircraft, he stood by one of the windows staring at me. After I boarded the plane, he was still staring, his roving eyes desperately searching for me not knowing where I was inside the plane, but I knew where he was. I kept waving at him, fully aware he could not possibly see me, until the plane began to roll, snailing at first and then picking up speed, Dada reducing to a blur in the distance, and finally disappearing from view. His somber face, pressed against that airport window, following the path of the departing plane is the last image I have of him. Even after so many years, I can still feel the gentle taps of his fingers on my back from that airport embrace.


One February evening, my wife and I were in our Hamilton, Ontario apartment talking about our upcoming visit to India. This would be my first time back to my home country since I left it in 1968. Being on student stipends all these years and with a family to take care of, although I had long been pining to see my family back home, I couldn’t afford a trip earlier. I was naturally quite excited about our visit, and a chance to see Dada again since our parting at Dum Dum airport in 1968.

We had already finished our gift shopping for siblings and hordes of nephews, nieces and cousins. I had bought a Swiss watch, a tiny Japanese tape recorder, and a German camera for Dada, things I was sure he would love. I was looking forward to the conversations he and I were going to have, his curiosity about Graduate Schools in the U.S., his questions about my dissertation and the challenges I had to face. Just as I was getting up from the sofa to check if I had packed his gifts in the suitcase, the phone rang.

“I’m sorry I’ve some terrible news,” the voice was solemn and subdued. It was Noda, my older brother from Kolkata.

Of all the bad news he could possibly give me, the news of Dada’s death was the farthest from my mind. I was stunned.

“What’s it?” my wife asked.

I do not remember how long I had the phone receiver pinned to my ear, or what else Noda might have said during that telephone call, but I do remember I could barely hear my wife’s voice.

Reflections of a Transplanted Indian

I still remember the cold day in September when I arrived in this part of the world. As the plane (it was my first time on an airplane) slowly approached Saskatoon airport, I looked out the window with timidity and diffidence. It was well past the twilight hours. The descending nocturnal darkness had begun to embrace the earth below, and tiny dim dots of lights were sprouting all over the sprawling city like thousands of scattered fireflies. The view was like a scene straight out of a picture postcard. I felt as if I was about to land in a fairyland. To the pristine mind of a curious young man, just edged out of teens and set out in search of a western sheepskin and a bright future, this was definitely another world, far removed from the pervasive clutter and chaos he had just left behind. On that cold September evening, with a half empty suitcase in my right hand and US$8 in foreign exchange securely tucked away in the inside pocket of my jacket, I limped gingerly out of the airport into a world that I would soon find truly alien.

In the seemingly ordered monochromatic world of my new home, life did not just slide into perfectly etched grooves. It twisted and turned and wiggled long and hard before it could insinuate itself into a manageable alcove. The Promised Land of my dreams was far from being visible through the wilderness of recurrent despair and emotional ravages. This was 1968 when most people from the third world countries went to Europe, mainly the U.K. and Germany. North America didn’t see too many of us. To the local denizens, ensconced cozily in their sheltered cocoons, I was a novelty, a surprise arrival from another world. Their glaring and glowering eyes made me recoil with unease and discomfort, and an overwhelming homesickness became a new battle on hand. I longed to see Indian faces, but they were as rare as daffodils in a barren land. I pined to talk in my mother tongue, but the only ones I could talk to were the four walls of the poky little rooming house I lived in.

Back then, I would often awaken in the middle of the night sniffing whiffs of aroma of curries, biriyanis, samosas and sweets in my dreams, but alas my palate would have to remain unsatiated. There were no Indian restaurants anywhere around those days, and the Indian groceries were veritable dream finds for those of us in need to gratify culinary cravings.

Over the last forty years or so, Indian food, music, arts and the whole gamut of sundry other cultural pursuits have penetrated the American scene and have, in turn, morphed what once was an alien world into something that is not only not alien anymore but delightfully hospitable. Suffice it to say that we have changed, both America and I, in a way that was inconceivable on the day I emerged out of the Saskatoon airport into the sharp prairie winter.

The clatter of coins and the rustle of crisp greenbacks serve as no panacea for the emotional tug from friends and family stationed in the back of beyond across the seas. On days when gathering black clouds in the skies of Hill Country Texas slowly extinguish the diurnal light, and the leaves in the willows in my backyard dance in the gentle westerly wind heralding the imminent advent of rain, I still hunger for khichuri and bhajas as I hear the pitter-patter of the first rain drops on the roof of the pergola. On weekend mornings, an agonizing nostalgia overpowers me as I fondly remember the luchis, aloo bhajas and suji my mother used to make for her children’s breakfast eons ago. On those rare occasions when we are regaled with fabulous concerts by the eminent exponents of Indian music who travel thousands of miles to satiate our musical thirst, I remain unfulfilled as I hear the quiet refrains of Piloo, Shivaranjani, and Jayjayanti welling up in the deepest recesses of my subconscious long after the curtains have dropped for another protracted hiatus.

In the meantime, images from that fateful September evening forty years ago keep flashing by in my mind’s eye like the crawls on a silver screen. Now that my chase after wealth and fame is virtually over, I hear a quiet scream welling up inside me to tell the story of how it all began, how it has unfolded and how it has changed my life. I feel impelled to record for posterity a watershed in human history when we ceased to exist in our own little silos, and the national boundaries started to slowly melt away to facilitate the free flow of humanity across this little planet of ours we call home. As I sit alone in my solitary sanctuary a world away, my morning cup of coffee in my right hand and the chrysanthemums and lilacs in the backyard garden in full view through the living room windows, I cannot help but marvel at the uncoiling tale of a young man who, manipulated by some unseen magic, blundered almost penniless on a wondrous journey years ago and flirted with a kaleidoscope of experiences the unseen magic had hardly prepared him for.

Music Stilled

It was early 1985 in Toronto. My wife and I were late getting to the concert. We had to sit at the very back of an audience of 600 people. The faces on the stage were barely recognizable from where we were seated, but we managed to recognize all except one, and when he started to sing, I found myself in a trance and so did the rest of the audience. I had never seen him before. He was a new arrival in town.

I attended many of his house concerts shortly thereafter. He had a deep, resonant, and incredibly mellifluous voice. His renditions mesmerized me. I had never heard anything quite like it before. He rekindled my fading interest in music, and accepted me as one of his students. He taught me once a week. Each of his classes lasted until he thought he had given me enough for a day – typically two hours, sometimes three. He didn’t teach for money; he did this purely for the love of music. Over the years we became close friends.

After a few years, our professional lives separated us, and we lost contact with each other. In July of last year, we met again in Toronto after 15 years. In the meantime, his life had taken a whirlwind turn. Against the stark reality of a bald head, and a mechanical contraption in his throat that feebly attempted to help him communicate, his face adorned the same winsome smiles I had seen so many times in the years gone by. His wife told me he had recently undergone laryngectomy which led to the complete removal of his voice box. Chemo had usurped him of his luxuriant hair.

His music, the love of his life and his lifelong passion, was stilled forever.

The day after Christmas last year, in the dim light of a quiet North Carolina morning, he passed away, surrounded by family and friends. But he lives on with me in spirit through many of his rare recordings in my personal collections. Not long after I heard the news, I played his songs once again like so many times in the past, and I remembered in gratitude his generous gifts to me during the many hours he had spent with me sharing his precious and unusual talent.