This morning the papers were screaming of the maoist attack on the Tata-Bilaspur passenger train.
Segue to 1986 or 1987. I was in a small town in Orissa called Rajgangpur bravely holding up the tail end of an audit team that was trying to unravel the financial goings-on at a cement factory. When I suddenly had the idea of visiting my uncle in Jhumri-Tilayya in what is now Jharkhand (for those ancients among you brought up on Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala, here is a piece of news – yup, there is actually a place called Jhumri Tilayya and it is now in Jharkhand).
My return journey from JT back to Rajgangpur involved the very same train on the last leg from Tatanagar (or more pithily, ‘Tata’ as Jamshedpur is known in those parts – on a different note, what an incredible franchise the name Tata is!).
I remember it as the absolute worst train journey of my life (and having managed to get around a reasonable amount of the ‘heart’ of India during my misspent youth, I can assure you that this is quite a record).
The train actually passes through some pretty scenic country. The green, wooded country side of southern Jharkhand melds nicely into the gradually urbanising parts of northern Orissa. But that is where the good part stops.
The train itself was rolling stock left behind from the the first world war, probably imported from the Burma theatre. And god, the smell! On a very hot day, travelling inside a rustic iron dibba with mounds of over-ripe guavas being methodically chewed on (and large parts spat out on the floor) by cheroot smoking little women leads one to question one’s motives in undertaking the journey.
That year I spent on the Orissa-Jharkhand border going back and forth from Delhi was one of the most memorable of my life. And when I recollect the many instances that I came across of the appalling human condition in that land, I can now recognise with the 20/20 of hindsight, a certain inevitability to where we have landed up – the Red Corridor.