Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Visit to the abode of the clouds

 A run in the hills was long overdue with my good friend Gerald having invited me for the run last year, which I had to miss as I could not get sufficient leave from work. This year when the date was announced and it coincided with my being temporarily laid off work for being excess in the Cadre, I gave a serious thought to it and was even able to convince my wife to make it a pilgrimage plus running tour. The maiden Sohra marathon on the 17th July got me salivating! The ambitious plan was to do Kali temple, Kamakhya temple, Shillong run and visit Puri Jagannath on the way back, but, as they say we can only propose. Looking at more than ten days of travel, the wet weather my wife backed out. The need to be back in Chennai on 20th meant I would have to spend more time on trains than on the terra firma. I was thinking of giving it a miss when Dharmendra’s exhortation that the scenic beauty of the place would be worth it did the trick.


I spent a few days on the Indian Railways site planning the trip with the idea of leaving by the last available train and reaching Chennai on 20th. The plan looked like an Ultra of a train journey for a marathon in Sohra. On Sunday the 13th July, after a farewell run on my highway and taking leave of Biscuit and wife, loaded with food to last me till the return, I left for the station to catch Amravati Express which was to take me to Kolkata my first base in 35 hours. My friends Akhil and Samaresh were alerted in Kolkata. Notices were out on the Internet to give me a running break at Kolkata on the 15th. While I had enough food for the sole, I had only a copy of Bible to nourish my soul in the following week.


While waiting at the crowded Hubli station platform for the delayed train, I made way for some elderly ladies to sit and was rewarded with friendly smiles for the same. They were part of a big group and had lots of luggage. There was much banter and planning for boarding the train by the leaders of that group. The train arrived and the group had berths in my bay, I having managed a side upper berth for privacy and an assured window seat. They settled and tried drawing me into their conversation, I gathered that they were on a pilgrimage to visit the Shakti Peetham at Pithapuram. Now, this was home ground for me, I had spent the last month or so in that constituency and more importantly run past the temple most mornings! I gave them all the details including the short train stoppage and distance to the temple, etc.  Out came their big utensils and as if the entire coach was turned into a marriage hall during lunch, I was offered tasty Dalia Upma with choicest accompaniments of Bhujia, Chutney powder and pickles. I resisted for formality sake and on being pressed once accepted gratefully. My lunch will have to wait for dinner time! The constant leg pulling and camaraderie and tempting the diabetes with endless cups of Coffee/Tea by the group was reminding me of our family get to-gethers of yore which the now nuclear and single child generation are missing. The train was unusually less crowded.

            Train reached Guntakal station in the evening, the members of the family got down for a stretch or more to bravado amongst themselves as to who would get on back the last. What was conspicuous on the station was that vendors were selling Samosas wrapped in plastic thereby generating lot of plastic waste, i had a very environment friendly experience in one other station on the same journey!


I also had to get down at Samalkot station which is the serving station for the temple town to hand over two books on Gandhi, from an old Gandhian, which I had borrowed while on Election duty there, which my trusted Liasion officer and now a good friend agreed to collect. The train reached half an hour late and we had a long leave taking. The Vizianagaram station was very spick and span and with wide platforms. It is interesting how the background and people change during the course of a long journey. Travel in the Sleeper coach brings this alive, the AC passengers all seem similar and any case you miss the sounds and the scenery is muted from behind the double glasses.


We entered Orissa much to the delight of my co-passenger, who has been working as a mechanic in Belgaum since he was 17. He celebrated his entry to his home state with a local dish which looked close to Dahi Bhalle with boiled potatoes. The passage of time was reflected in the rising stench from the toilets and the queue near the charging point with anxious people with mobile phones. I used the remaining charge on my mobile to send message to my hosts in Kolkata and my wife of the dying phone and went to sleep.


The more I travel in Sleeper class the more I feel that the most important amenity for a passenger today is more charging points nearer their seats after a cleaner toilet of course! The charging points have become the community tap/wells of the modern India. The tap fights have been replaced with charging right fights! Two young girls were performing acrobatics and before I could debate whether I should give money or discourage they were gone. I was only touched by the confidence of the young girls on their own cheerfully going about their business. I don’t know how many Nadia Comaneci are hidden in our countryside waiting to be mined. The train sped past Pundi station, the extra large Battary room (emphasis mine!), I don’t know when it was inspected last. When the train passed Baleshwar (Mauled into Balasore by the English!), I remembered my earlier blog about the need for restoring the place to its old name.


The train reached on time at Kharagpur station (famous for being station of the alma mater of stormy petrel of Indian politics, the AAP president!), on the station I saw a mobile stall selling Poori Bhaji, the guy prepared it on the go and did roaring business in the 20 minutes the train stayed there, the food was served on newspaper and leaf pattal, very eco-friendly, all for a princely sum of Rs. 20/-. I was reminded of similar scenes on Kanpur station where we used to have a plate of Poori/Chole Bhature for Rs. 2/-. I resisted the temptation and stuck to my rations. A lesson in eco friendliness for our Guntakal friends!


The train was  half an hour late when it left Kharagpur, the near full moon and train tearing down reminded me of the romantic scene of Shivaji, Padmini from the famous Tamil movie of yesteryears ‘Thillana Mohanambal’, only my Mohanambal was more than two thousand kilometers away with my mobile out of charge! Another hour or so spent at Santragachi meant the train reached Howrah at 11:30 PM, more than an hour late. There was a message for me in this which I did not realize till too late. I easily found the rest house and was in bed before midnight. When my mobile came to life after IV feed for sometime, I saw message from Akhil dada, my host for my Kolkota visit informing me of my Room No. Must repeat our earlier association, we had last departed at Palghar station where he (with his newly wedded wife) and yours truly were detrained by a zealous TTE on our journey to join our postings at Rajkot and Bhavnagar respectively about 25 years back. Maybe, the germ of Gandhi got into me at Palghar station (we were thrown out for not having a confirmed seat!).


Must confess here that my ‘Run Pe Charcha’ mission fashioned after our PM’s ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ to bond with runners failed at Kolkota as despite much publicity on facebook I could not get any company for a run. I understand my friend Kripa Sagar is attempting a run in Kolkota in her mission to spread awareness about Smoking, here’s wishing her good response!


Got in touch with him the next day and refusing his offer of sending a vehicle for me to reach his office, walked across to the ferry station reminiscent of our probation days. The ferry tickets have now become Rs. 5/- (same size and quality of recycled paper, gone up from Rs. 2/- in 25 years!). Tried to get a place to stand near the bow and feel like Leonardo of Titanic!


We waited for another batchmate to arrive and went to see the Hyderi Manzil, the place where the Mahatma stayed during the Kolkota riots around Independence time. The memory of Sir Richard Attenborough’s movie of this episode where Om Puri comes with a knife to confess his having killed a small child and Gandhi’s solution for him was rekindled at the site. We all posed for photographs and I spun on my charkha at the venue. My visit and stop over at Kolkota was successful for this visit alone. After a sumptuous lunch with colleagues and a heavier dinner parcel (courtesy Akhil’s wife!) I was off to the station to catch my train to Guwahati ( this time in a Car!). The station was full of slush thanks to a heavy downpour. I also got the taste of a new method of charging at the Railway rest house at Howrah, Since I had checked in a little before midnight the previous day, I was charged for two days (princely sum of Rs. 100/- per day), had I known, I would have spent some time in the Matron’s room and saved myself 100 bucks!


The route from Howrah to Guwahati was very scenic with paddy and Jute cultivation on either side of the track and children playing football in wet fields. The train was on time at Guwahati, after a bath and change, I was escorted to the famous Kamakhya temple. The pujari there was a staff of the Railway office and I got a good darshan. The tell tale red streams of blood indicating slaughter reminded me the Gandhi’s comment on his visit here. Nothing has changed in the people’s heart inspite of the Mahatma’s intervention to stop the cruelty. Hope the ruling deity drives some sense into the devotees!


After an argument with my good friend about my wanting to take public transport instead of a car to Shillong, I left behind an angry friend, but, my principles intact. The driver who came to drop me to the bus stand suggested Private Tata Sumo’s, I settled for the State Transport bus. The bus was very comfortable with twin seats and ample leg room and space for luggage on top (all this for Rs. 110/-). The crew picked up lot of passengers enroute, who were not given a ticket (the MTC must take note of this leakage of revenue!). My companion on the bus, Shri S K Dey (to be pronounced as ‘They’ and not ‘Day’) was very informative and guided me on how to reach the Rest house at Shillong. He gave me a running commentary which was very informative all through the journey. The Bus stopped enroute for a break for passengers, the toilet was dirty which is not new for such stops, but, there was a person sitting to collect Rs. 2/- for the use of urinal. I argued with him as there was sign saying it was Pay and Use. I was told that local fruits, viz., Bananas and Pineapple are best brought there as they are costly both at Guwahati and Shillong. I made a mental note to do so on my return journey (fate had other plans!).


I spent some time and a decent walk of over a Km to find the rest house. The people were very helpful and that the people are conversant in Hindi and English made the job easy. The rest house attendant, Kishan, a young boy was very helpful. I was treated to a good fare of Rice, Dal and Mixed vegetables, a perfect vegan carbo-loading food for the next day’s run. The rest house is regal and worth a separate visit with family. I retired early because I had to reach the start point at Police Bazaar early the next day.


At 3:45 AM, I started for the Police bazaar, I spent my time taking photographs of the Tirot Singh Memorial (I realized the 17th July, date of the run was his martyrdom day!), other public buildings on the way to Police Bazaar. I spent some time locating a Pee point, near the bus stand.

Promptly at 5 AM, a crowd gathered outside the Reliance Trendz shop, the bib-collection point. The scene was like an Army recruitment centre with crowd overflowing. I located Gerald’s brother and got special treatment. The arrangements were excellent, the runners were to be taken to the start point in buses, each bus had a volunteer who marked the bus No. in the runners bibs. I was taken in by the enthusiasm of the runners, I remember two girls flagging down our bus after seeing the Marathon banner on it and asking Gerald to be allowed to participate, he readily obliged! The enthusiasm for the run was infectious. I was contrasting this with the no-show I got at Kolkota the previous day!


A short ceremony at the start point with an enthusiastic Radio jockey compeering the show was nice. Even the speech by a local MLA was very short and to the point. Had a photograph with Gerald’s wife and kid and many other runners. They welcomed me very enthusiastically. I was asked to speak and not having prepared for it, spoke from what came from my heart, the prevalence of smoking among youth! I hope they take the advice seriously, coming as it does from an Ex-smoker who has gone that path!


The run started about half an hour late at 7:30 AM. Gerald cautioned me about the strip tease act of mine saying that the rains in the hills are very cold. I was looking forward a full run in the rain. The markings were in Miles, the first was flat and it was a mild drizzle as we crossed the majestic building of the Eastern Air Command and the Mukem village. I don’t remember when the rain started coming in sheets, the winding roads and sharp bends were a little tough for me to negotiate for me in the rain. The shirt came off at Mile 3, was greeted with a lot of jeers and some cheers for the bare-chested baba running in the rain. Passing vehicles had people peeping out to wow me. At one place some youngsters playing in the rain joined me in the run and got their photograph taken with me. I was really impressed with the stamina staying power of lots of the runners. Some of them were running in full dress with backpack. I decided to run slow and steady.


At some points, the cloud cover descended and I was literally running in the clouds (is this why the State is called Megha-laya!), I was tempted to sing ‘Aaj main Oopar, Aasman neeche!. I was drenched and felt cold, my fingers freezing. I even thought of putting back my shirt on. The first ten miles were a steady climb on heavily banked curved roads was a challenge for the Hubli Passenger. The rest of the terrain was level and though some parts of the roads were badly scuffed up, it got easier. My only satisfaction was that I never walked and every time I crossed some youngster, I earned their grudging respect and admiration. That to me is the best award for a runner an appreciation from the peers! A word for the volunteers, though there was no permanent shelter for them they were braving the weather sometimes without even an umbrella. The volunteers on bicycle were thoroughly drenched, but, cheerful all along. As I invented on this run, for hydration you just needed to stick your tongue out! I christened it as my way of Rain Water Harvesting.


I finished strong in the end and I found to my surprise that I had taken 5 hours 3 minutes and 27 seconds, not bad for the gradient and curves in heavy rain. I was pampered at the finish point by lots of young volunteers. The District Commissioner, a 2004 batch officer and his SDM a 2009 officer showed lot of enthusiasm in running, even the DC’s wife joined for some distance. There was food and musical entertainment for everyone, lots of people came up to get photographed with me. I felt like a minor celebrity.


I now started getting worried about reaching Guwahati by night for the return journey next day morning, another Ultra of 48 hours by train to Chennai. Gerald’s brother and his friend were kind to forego the festivities and drop me back in their vehicle after a hurried lunch. I got a shock at the bust stop when I was told that the next bus is only at 7 AM the next day (holiday for Tirot Singh anniversary!) I panicked, then I was guided to take a Sumo!


I was squeezed into the back where three people were already seated with their baggage. The fare was Rs. 170/- (bus fare was Rs. 110/-). The lack of sleep and the after effects of the run were telling on me now. The next three hours were a harrowing time, till we were dumped near the bus stand at 7 PM. The driver was able to locate me (my cell phone battery was dead!) and I reached the rest house by 7:45 PM. After a nice bath, I reached my friend’s place for dinner. His wife had stacked sumptuous dinner on the table to which I did ample justice. His two Labrador pets, Cheetah and Honey (she became a good friend!) were a bonus to me.


I was to board the train at Kamakhya station, where the train was to stop only for two minutes. There was no announcement till 6:45 AM and there were no coach indication boards or announcement of train formation. People had to run long distance to get to their coaches, I made it to my coach in time. My companions were an aged heart patient going to CMC Vellore and some college students going to Kancheepuram. I found rampant sale of recycled water bottles on the entire route. The Pantry staff and accompanying staff are mute spectators. Next day morning, I tried getting to the charging point, but, the crowd was too much for my finer nature. My next communication to wife would only be after reaching the rest house at Chennai the next day (hope she understands!). I was struck by the variety in the food sold by the locals and the standard fare peddled by the Pantry. The rate difference was also very much. A biryani sold by locals Rs. 40 to 60/- (Egg/Fish/Chicken Biryani) against our starting price of Rs. 90/-. The Pantry staff were manfully trying to peddle their fare. I fact before the train reached Vishakapatnam in the evening, the Pantry dropped their rates to match the market rate ( I was surprised at the dynamic pricing!), I was told that the train will be flooded with excellent biriyani at Vishakapatnam after which Railway fare will not sell! My lesson from this and earlier trips in Sleeper class is that our catering is way off the mark and does not understand the real needs of the travelling public. We should have our probationers to travel length and breadth in Sleeper class to empathise with the travelling public so that we can deliver real passenger amenities.


The train reached about an hour late to Chennai. I was able to put in a run on the Marina where I met a few runners and felt good. The afternoon journey to Hubli was comfortable and I had nice company of a family with two small kids.

The five hours of run in the hills amidst clouds with a steady rain was like consecrating Lord Shiva (I am Vishwanathan, his namesake!) and at the end of it I was clean and pure and did not even require a wash. Even hydration was not required as it was a case of water- water everywhere and lots of it to drink, it just needed sticking your tongue out! All this for a registration fee of Rs. 100/- with personalized care from Gerald and his family was priceless. A must go for all runners, where a vacation in the hills can be combined with soul enriching run in the hills. Looking forward to the next edition with my better half in tow! This exercise of getting this experience on paper took me very long and I still don't believe that the written word can do justice to the experience of running in the clouds in the rain!



1 comment:

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