I was leisurely walking into the Kolkata railway station when my colleague Madhu called to say: “It seems there is a technical problem. I am stuck at the entrance to the security enclosure.”
Typical of Indian stations, there are no signs to indicate the way to the train. So, it takes me about five minutes to get to where Madhu was waiting.
“They are saying my visa has a problem. It says ‘entry and exit by road or air’, but not train,” Madhu explains.
An immigration officer was trying to reach his bosses on the phone, but at that hour, not many were answering his calls. After about 15 minutes, the immigration officer politely tells Madhu he could travel only up to Gede — the last station on the Indian side. Period.
“Eastern Railway shouldn't have issued a ticket in the first place because your visa is not in order. But because they have issued a ticket, we’ll let you travel up to Gede,” he explained.
Something had to be done — we were not going back.
I had, in the meantime, obtained clearance to board the train. Now, I checked how much time I had to sort things out for Madhu, if at all I could, before disappearing into the crowd waiting to greet the railway minister.
“You have 20 minutes, sir. You are through… we’ll let you in the moment you come back,” said the immigration officer. “Run.”
Towards the end of the conversation with the immigration officer, it occurred to me that top officials of the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission in Kolkata would be around. They could surely help, I thought, because all that they needed to do was scribble a five-letter word — TRAIN — on Madhu’s visa to let him travel up to Dhaka.
I approached none less than the Deputy High Commissioner himself, and even before I could finish my sentence, he realized what had happened and pointed out a gentleman standing next him, saying: “He is the man.” This gentleman, who identified himself as the first secretary, quickly pulled out a pen and scribbled the magic word on his visa.
Bingo, Madhu can travel all the way to Dhaka!
We board the train, newly-painted and decorated with flowers. Once inside, we find a very clean car — by Indian standards — with a red carpet laid along the aisle, a long one indeed. Overwhelmed by the contrast, an elderly gentleman was recounting for other passengers the old days when, in the early sixties, he used to travel by rundown trains from Sealdah to Dhaka.
A railway official warmly greeted us, “Namoshkar, Subho Nabobarsha,” before pointing out my seat — “66, Window”. In the 20 minutes of anxiety, I had almost forgotten it was the Bengali New Year — a very special day across the border where we were finally headed.
See Pictures of Maitree Express:
The train from Dhaka to Kolkata meets the one from Kolkata to Dhaka at Darshana in Bangladesh.
The Kolkata-Dhaka train was decked up for the inaugural run.
The event coincided with the Bengali New Year.
Enthusiastic crowds gather along the route to Darshana.
The engine driver of the Dhaka-Kolkata train.
The man who bought the first ticket with an India-Bangladesh passport.
Villagers gather en route to see the train.
(All Photographs by Madhu Kapparath)
Whistles are blown and the seven-car Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka is flagged off. After almost 44 years, passenger train service between the two countries had finally restarted. But it’s a pity that this train is carrying just 65 passengers — and most of them are journalists on assignment — whereas it could seat up to 370 people.
Some railway officials blamed the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission in Kolkata for the poor turnout, but I soon realized they had done their bit. Tickets were being issued from Friday, 11 April only to passengers with a valid visa. The train was officially announced on Thursday evening after the cabinet cleared it, and because the High Commission was closed at the weekend, people couldn’t get their visas done, railway officials lamented.
But a young man on the train contradicted this claim.
“When I heard about the train on Friday, I checked through my travel agent if I could get my visa done the same day. My travel agent said the High Commission would issue visas even on Saturday to passengers travelling by this train. So I went there on Saturday and got my visa done in half an hour. But there were just five of us,” he said.
As the train whistled past slums of northeast Kolkata — mostly inhabited by people who had migrated from Bangladesh till the early seventies — thousands waived at it. And though their faces sprinted away, you couldn’t miss the dreamy eyes, people lost in thoughts, perhaps reminiscing their one-way journey from what once used to be their home across the border. This train was, as it were, the return ticket to their long lost village and family. So near, yet so far…
Breakfast is served. Warm puris with alu ki sabji, and to give it a Bengali touch a small white sandesh on top. Tea is served in brand new flasks… so no stains for once. The pantry staff said some 40 new flasks had been bought for passengers in the First AC car, but there were just 21 of them there. Soon, they start taking orders for lunch — simple fare: egg, fish or chicken meal priced moderately but no hilsa, the fish that Bengalis love so dearly. “We’ll serve the lunch at Gede before we leave the train,” said the gentleman taking orders for lunch. The entire crew, except four technicians, would change at Gede because they don’t have papers to travel to Bangladesh. “Isn’t that sad?” he asked.
Soon after breakfast, I decide to explore the other cars on the train. I walk up to the chair car to find one of them completely empty; another has just three passengers. One of them is 82-year old Satya Saran Das, who was the first to buy a ticket on this train. He is visiting his sister in Bangladesh after two years. “I had travelled to Dhaka by bus in 2006. The bus was good, but the journey, a nightmare,” said Das, who was born in Dhaka in undivided India but migrated to Kolkata 58 years ago. He is travelling on a largely forgotten India-Bangladesh passport, a travel document that allows the holder to travel to Bangladesh alone.
The train halts… It’s clearly an unscheduled stop and security guards armed with self-loading rifles (SLRs) rush to the doors to make sure no one boarded the train while it was standing. Before long we hear people shouting anti-Bangladesh slogans. Blockade. Some 400-500 members of a citizens’ forum demanding refugee status for immigrants from Bangladesh do not want the two countries to be friends. A day ago, a handful of crude bombs had been found along the track here, which the administration dismissed as a ploy to scare people. It seemed the police was prepared for the blockade, and managed to drive the squatters away in 10 minutes.
The train slowly pulls up at Gede — the station at the frontier. Again, instructions are not clear, but passengers figure out on their own that they would have to detrain along with all their belongings. Out on the platform, immigration papers are handed out to passengers as they are asked to form a queue — the first of many queues, in which we spent almost two hours.
The first queue is for being frisked ahead of immigration clearance — the perfunctory f risking takes about 15 minutes. There’s a queue in front of the immigration desk as well, and takes another 10 minutes. Finally at the immigration desk, I am greeted by a completely clueless Government Railway Police officer. With help from an immigration official of the Kolkata International Airport, he clears my passport, only to lodge me in a long queue for customs clearance.
Passengers receive a pink form — something I have never seen before — in which they are supposed to disclose if they are carrying even betel leaf and tobacco into Bangladesh. The paranoia was palpable. In the first round of screening, each bag passes through an X-ray machine. There’s only one at the station, hence the long queue.
Once their bags are screened, passengers were asked to head for another queue — this time, each bag is being opened and cleared by customs officials. This takes ages. The customs officials checking Madhu’s bags ask him, “Why are you carrying two cameras — you are allowed to carry only one?” Madhu managed to convince the officer that he is a journalist, and hence needs to carry them as part of his professional gear. Or perhaps, they realized at long last it’s none of their business.
The long delays in customs and immigration clearance eventually led to a dust-up between journalists and the police. This happened when after all the screenings and clearances, a police officer again asked a journalist to open his bag, before allowing him into the waiting area. The flare up was quickly addressed by senior police officers and Jaya Varma Sinha, railway adviser at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, who was travelling by the train, but by then most of the 65 passengers on the train had already spent almost two hours waiting in queues.
We finally leave Gede. The railway staff has left the train; so have the security guards. Within minutes emerges an unfinished fence made of wire mesh, running along the track. Stern-faced jawans of the Border Security Force keep a close watch as the train passes by slowly, amid an eerie silence.
In less than 10 minutes we reach a culvert and across it, the first board saying Bangladesh pops up. We are finally there. In haste I turn back to check if there’s anything at all that marks the end of one territory and the beginning of another. Nope… there’s none — the lush green crop on both sides of an invisible line swaying in tandem as if in celebration of the coming together of a people separated several times against their wish.
Within the next ten minutes, the eyes of those going home were heavy… thousands had gathered along the track to welcome the train. “Swagatam, swagatam,” they roared in a rustic Bangla dialect that you do not often hear on the streets of Kolkata or Dhaka. This is exactly what Varma Sinha of the Indian High Commission at Dhaka was expecting, but what the Bangladesh authorities had lined up at the Darshana station — our first halt in that country — was something that no one could even imagine.
12:05pm (12:35pm Bangladesh time)
The train pulls up at Darshana. Having gone through the arduous drill at Gede, passengers knew exactly what they had to do — get off the train with all their belongings. There were people all around, greeting the passengers as if they were like a cricket team returning home with the World Cup. On our way to the customs and immigration check area a few meters away, flowers were thrown at us, sticks of tuberoses handed out by little girls draped in traditional sarees. For some, it was indeed a glorious homecoming.
No frisking, no screening, we were quickly led into a well done up immigration clearance area, which until four weeks ago was a dilapidated warehouse. The whole process of immigration clearance was discreetly videographed by security officers, but without a hint of paranoia. And what people would remember for a long time to come is the fact that in less than 40 minutes, immigration and customs officials cleared all 65 passengers. So thoughtful were Bangladeshi authorities that they had even put up a bank counter inside the customs hall so that passengers could change money.
“There are 12 (immigration) counters. And we had decided that we wouldn’t take more than two minutes per passenger. I think, we managed to do better than that,” said Animul Rashid, chief commandant of Bangladesh’s Railway Police. The station had been renovated and the systems put in place in four weeks flat. Sonali Bank, which runs a counter inside the station, got a licence to change money the night before. “We had prepared to receive 400 passengers,” said Mozammel Hoque, additional chief engineer of the Bangladesh Railway. Impressed with the arrangement, Varma Sinha said: “Y our arrangements are worth emulating.”
But though passengers were cleared to board the train, it couldn’t leave until the Dhaka-Kolkata train reached Darshana. There, the engines of the two trains were to be swapped.
At Darshana, we started hearing news of the Kolkata-bound train being overbooked. Such was the rush for tickets that Bangladesh Railways had to add an extra car, said Hoque. Not just that, the Bangladesh government had already suggested starting another service between Khulna and Kolkata.
2:20pm (Bangladesh time)
The train from Dhaka reaches Darshana. Amid much fanfare, an iron gate opens for the engine to pass and take over the train from India – its engine had already been decoupled and parked on another track. Even this diesel locomotive is manufactured in Varanasi; its markings, though, are in Bangla.
In less than half an hour, the train to Dhaka departs Darshana. Within minutes, it passes its sister parked on the next track. People reach out through windows to touch Dhaka-bound passengers on the train passing by; some go the extra mile to offer sticks of tuberoses with a warm greeting “Subho Nababorsho”. Some hands meet, some do not; but even if you didn’t touch the outstretched hands, you could feel the warmth.
But the train pulls up soon after crossing its counterpart. Railway officials found a problem with the coupling of the engine. It was quickly fixed, but was perhaps a symbolic reminder that reuniting after separation isn’t easy.
We cross Bangladesh’s longest bridge — the 4.5-km Yamuna bridge — and the train enters Dhaka district. In the fading sunlight, we could see people waving at the train from below. It was clear from their enthusiasm that they were not waving at any train; they were waving at one that was creating history.
Maitree Express arrives at the Dhaka Cantonment — a small station specially done up for it. Even before the train pulls up, we hear Bangla songs blazing on loudspeakers. As we disembark, little girls begin dancing to traditional folk tunes of Bangladesh. The celebration goes on, and even after 13 hours of travelling, passengers are in no hurry to leave the station. It could have gone on, but the tiring legs of the little ones probably brought the singing and dancing to the end. We head for the exit, flowers showered on us yet again, this time by teenaged students. Many of the 65 passengers of the Maitree Express left with tears of joy, perhaps in remembrance of their fathers who had left this country weeping.