Image source (Nat Geo Traveller)
One of my short stories was recently published in a National Geographic feature on “Travellers' Tales Of Ghosts, Ghouls And Things That Go Bump In The Night “. The full feature can be seen here. I am reproducing my contribution for the convenience of my readers.
But wait. Why should you read this spooky account yet again - assuming you are one of my numerous friends and readers who have already sent me kudos message for my first byline in a major publication?
Because I am going to share the insider scoop. The story behind the screens. The things that did not make it into the 250 words that got published.
I must pause here to reiterate to the readers that (almost) all this is indeed a true incident.
Railway Station, Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh
Sarnath Express was my third home. Shuttling between my engineering college in Varanasi and my hometown Bilaspur, I had spent a staggering amount of time in that particular train.
This fact could be attributed to the temperament of the train more than to the frequency of my travel. The train, when at its best cheerful self, would merrily sprint between the two stations in little over twelve hours. But Sarnath express was not a cheerful train. It was mostly somberly depressed, revolting and lazy. Almost suicidal.
The train would pull up at the Bilaspur station, shy, reluctant and quite behind schedule. It would than start a leisurely stroll towards Varanasi, its destination. Occasionally breaking into a jog it would abruptly start walking to catch its breath before coming to a complete stop to let another train run by. The fourteen hours journey usually spread out to eighteen and sometime even twenty hours.
Today the train screeched into the station ten minutes before schedule. I was happily alarmed by the fact because this had happened first time the last three and half years I had been traveling on the train. I hopped into my compartment, and right as the clock stuck eight, the scheduled departure time of the train, the train jerked forward, accelerated rapidly and zoomed out of the station.
The eternally depressed Sarnath express was on Prosaic today!
(The following piece was published in the Nat Geo feature)
En route Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
I was travelling to Benares. It was close to ten o’clock on a warm night and I was shuffling restlessly on the upper berth in a three-tier compartment of the Sarnath Express, which was due to reach the holy city the next morning. Sweaty and uncomfortable, I decided to get some fresh air.
Walking to the entrance of the compartment, I unlatched and swung the main door open. The train slowed down a bit. We were going through a dense forest; the smoky smell of sal trees poured into the compartment.
“Alakh Niranjan!” Startled by the salutation, I hurriedly looked back. A young ascetic stood behind me. He had long hair and intense, friendly eyes. Unlike the usual sadhus I've seen, he was clean-shaven and had long, neatly combed hair that fell on the shawl around his shoulders.
“Go and sleep,” he said, unblinking, “You want to see Ganga Maiya tomorrow, don’t you?”
I am not sure what overcame me, but I silently obeyed. Closing the door, I went back up my berth. In less than a minute, there was a loud screech, and amid screams of “Accident! Accident!” the train’s lights went off. Our compartment, already tilted at a very acute angle, rolled over on its side as it toppled down the track.
We were eventually rescued. The side of the compartment where I was standing just before the accident, was totally crushed. I searched for the sadhu but could not locate him among the alive or the dead.
–Prithvi Raj Banerjee
(Continuing with the behind the screen scoop)
On the railway tracks, somewhere near Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh
As our compartment toppled down the embankment of the elevated railway tracks, I was thinking about … well frankly nothing... because, I admit, I was shit scared to even think.
Though I did have a confirmation of my theory about the ‘depressed train’. Today the train had finaly snapped. Sarnath Express had attempted suicide.
I screamed along with the other passengers as finally the coach stopped tumbling, lying on its side, tilted up at a steep angle. Miraculously no one was seriously hurt and eventually (which seemed like an eternity in that chaos), I was able to scale up the aisle and carefully pop out of the main door above me. The space under the door had been packed with the luggage of the passengers who had exited before, providing a secure foothold.
As I dropped down the tracks, I saw several compartments lying toppled along the tracks towards the rear end of the train. Towards the front of the train – or rather where the front was supposed to be – there was nothing! The tracks stretched out and disappeared around a bend in the moonlight night.
The passengers had trickled out of their respective compartments and had started small bonfires along the track, which made the spooky setting even more eerie. I walked down the tracks and was relieved that there were no fatalities. The passengers, huddled around the flickering light of the bonfires, were tending their injured kin.
It was a moonlight night so we were able to see fairly clearly even in the middle of the night. Two tracks separated by a moat stretched around a bend. Sal forests started about hundred yards on the right side of the tracks. On the left were paddy fields, very sparsely dotted with settlements, which appeared as faint flickering lights close to the horizon.
I searched for the mysterious sadhu but could not locate him.
The Comic Tragedy
Some adrenaline pumped passengers, mostly those like myself who did not have any injured to tend to, decided to march up the tracks to find the first half of the train that was apparently missing.
“Sala driver”, puffed a hefty man in his mid-forties as we walked briskly up the tracks, “ he has been speeding since we left the first station “
“As if his rear was on fire”, quipped another “ now look we are screwed...”
I was trying hard not to imagine the driver with flames coming out of his rear end with his hands on the speed throttle of the engine, giving out a maniacal laugh even as one of the compartments swung dangerously around a bend and toppled over, pulling all the ones behind it as a stack of dominos.
The driver gave another maniacal laugh, just like the famed demons of Indian mythology, as the coupling link between the rear section of the train broke from the front section with a loud clang. He paused to give out a long toot of the engine horn before laughing again and sending out a big bellow of fire out of his rear as the engine disappeared around the bend.
“I have already beaten up the Guard”, boasted another proudly, showing a silver flashlight that was apparently confiscated from the poor railway employee whose compartment had also toppled over along with the rest of us.
“Can you turn that on please ?” I requested respectfully pointing to the flashlight. The vigilante reluctantly turned it on no sooner he did, we saw specks of flashlights up ahead on the tracks.
The rescue party from the front section of the train arrived shortly. Unfortunately the train driver was part of the rescue party. I tried my best but could not rescue the driver.
“What do we do now?” the hefty man asked, looking at the unconscious train driver, lying beside the tracks.
“ He is the only person who can contact the railway authorities...” I had screamed trying to save the driver from the mindless onslaught. My plea fell on deaf ears as a misaimed punch, ironically landed on my ear.
I was alone. I tried not to think about the mindless violence as I jogged in darkness towards the bend, nursing my bruised ear. The front of the train should not be far away.
Right around the bend I could see lights on the track ahead of me. It was the front section of the train! My heart skipped a beat as I started running towards the reassuring lights.
Just then, soft footsteps behind me made a chill shoot up my spine. Just behind me, with a smile on his face was the mysterious sadhu I had met just before the accident.
“Alakh Niranjan!” He said effortlessly, his intense, friendly eyes glowing in the moonlit night. “ You did not get to sleep after all … did you?” I smiled sheepishly.
“Follow me”, he said as he almost floated down the tracks with me scampering after him.
Epilogue: Two of my college friends had planned to receive me at the Varanasi railway station. Of course none of us knew that we would face this unplanned sequence of events. They knew that the train had met with an accident but did not know if I would make it with the surviving portion of the train or not.
It was 4 AM in the morning when the 16 hours late train finally reached Varanasi station. A very delighted accident survivor was greeted by two very brave friends. Two ladies who had their own share of adventure spending more than ten hours on the platform trying to track down a friend on board an accidental train.
This one is for you Anisha and Ina!