Day 73 - 11 May 2015 - Malda to Kolkata
It had rained heavily overnight and the sky was still overcast when I loaded the luggage into the car; the quantum of soiled clothes started outweighing the fresh ones. I calculated that for the remainder of the trip I would need a couple of fresh t-shirts and socks. The rest were fine. The caretaker of the ORH gave me a flask full of hot water so that I could have some coffee on the way.
I was apprehensive about Google Maps showing me the way out of the town because of the experience on the way into it. I had hit a few dead ends before reaching the ORH. But, this morning, a repeat did not happen and I eased on to the NH 34. Despite it being early morning truck traffic was heavy; on the approach to the Farakka Barrage there was a huge hold up that took away more than 30 minutes. That’s when I decided to have a cup of hot coffee waiting for the congestion to clear up. The traffic across the barrage was being directed by paramilitary personnel, who were also in charge of guarding the barrage. When I got on to the barrage I realised that the huge traffic jam was caused by the breakdown of two freight laden trucks at two critical places of the two km long barrage. The trucks looked so run down and sure to break down that it was no surprise that they had. However, the incident called into question the impact of such incidents at such a strategic location. It could be a sinister ploy with ulterior motives, to a conspiracy theorist.
The Farakka Barrage has an interesting history. The barrage was 14 years under construction between 1961 and 1975. The objective of the barrage across the Ganges was to divert water from the Ganges to the Hoogly River at such velocity as to flush sedimentation and obviate the need for mechanical dredging of siltation in the harbour. After commissioning the barrage it was discovered that the objective could not be met. Moreover, land banks along the Ganges started caving in leading to displacement of large populations. The project that did not fulfil its requirement cost the Indian exchequer Rs. 160 crores! Traffic across the barrage is regulated at 20 kmph and photography is prohibited. The poor condition of the road does not permit faster transit, which prompts people to take photographs at leisure!
Once I was through the Farakka hold up I expected to make steady progress. However, I experimented a lot with alternate routes to experience rural areas. While that was so I was also losing time as the roads did not permit fast drives. Moreover, many villages were busy organising VIP visits. I finally landed up at Memari after navigating through some of the narrowest lanes a car could get through. Before hitting the highway to Kolkata I turned into a fuel station to fill up the tank.
The fuel station attendant of the BPCL outlet was so curious about the stickers on the car that he launched into a long chat with me about the expedition. When he came to know that I am from Kerala he told me that the state has had a Chief Minister by his first name – Achuta (Menon). He amazed me by his knowledge of Kerala; later he mentioned that he had had a friend from Thiruvalla in Kerala and that he had visited the state for a function in his friend’s house. The inquisitiveness, the information base and the proclivity to open up to strangers are common to Kerala and West Bengal. Achutho was over the moon when I gave him a copy of Record Drives…And Then Some!
From the fuel station it was just 6 km to the NH2 that would take me to the link road to Garden Reach, the headquarters of South Eastern Railway (SER). I made very good progress on the brilliantly carpeted NH2 and caught up on some time I had lost in exploring the countryside. The sounds emanating from the car, during the course of the day, seemed to ebb and rise. The whistling sound reduced substantially but the grating was a bit louder. I had arranged with Pandey, Secretary to Chief Operations Manager (COM), SER, to find a Ford service station close to Garden Reach. He deputed a person so that I would not have to ask around. When we reached where we had to I was told that the service station had shifted to a location that would take me a few hours to navigate up and down. I decided to postpone the attention to the car. Thulasi Ram, my friend in Visakhapatnam, arranged with a Ford service station in Bhubaneswar to attend to the problem en route to Visakhapatnam from Kolkata tomorrow.
AK Gupta and I joined the Indian Railway Traffic Service as probationers on the same day in Mussoorie on 1 September 1981. He is among the senior most in my batch surviving the retirement ‘mela’. Batchmates have been retiring virtually every month. AK Gupta is presently the COM of the railway. He was at the fag end of his lunch when I walked in demanding samosas! He got me sandwiches and cutlets with excellent mangoes to wind up. Over many cups of tea I caught up on railway news and uploaded what I had to on social media and the blog site.
RK Gupta and I had been colleagues in Bilaspur Division of SER when I worked there in 1988-89. It was a tough working life in one of the heaviest freight loading divisions of the Indian Railways, but, at the same time, most enjoyable. Night morphed into day and vice versa in the office without, on many days, even going home. The camaraderie amongst officers cutting across departments was high and RK Gupta and his family became dear family friends during the sojourn in Bilaspur. Despite many phone conversations I had not been able to reconnect with them as our careers took us to different parts of India. Therefore, when I came to know that RK Gupta was in Kolkata, posted as General Manager of Eastern Railway, I lost no time in ‘demanding an audience’. The meeting was an occasion to motor down memory lane and I was proud to appreciate the wonderful career path his life had seen. His contribution to the Indian Railways as Chief Administrative Officer of the Jammu project will be written in letters of gold whenever that chapter is written.
Gopal Mohanty, the erstwhile COM of SER, and I spent a couple of hours exchanging notes and discussing the assignment he had picked up post retirement as Advisor to Steel Authority of India. Gopal is an infrastructure person. He has, therefore, been rightly tasked by SAIL to advise them on infrastructural requirements to handle the expansion plans of their plants.
Ahead of me lay two days of heavy driving. The Kolkata-Visakhapatnam and Visakhapatnam-Chennai segments were over 850 km each. It would take me more than 13 hours of driving on both the days. Moreover, I anticipated at least two hours of stoppage at the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar. Tomorrow would be a long day.