The express screeched to a halt at almost the crack of dawn in a small station. That was Kurdha Road Junction in Odisha. The train remained there stockstill for over an hour leaving passengers in the dark, though the scheduled halt was no more than 10 minutes. That was in the late 50s.
Tugged by a steam engine, it had chugged out from the then Madras Central at 6am the previous day. In a matter of minutes it was whistling its way out of the city. Halting only at a few main junctions it had reached Kurdha Road. Calling the shots, some passengers of male persuasion approached the station master and enquired, “When is the Madras-Howrah mail going to depart?” “Can’t assure, it may start at any moment and I am waiting to hear from my counterpart in the next station; don’t however move out of the station,” replied vaguely the man in uniform.
The food packets the passengers had brought with them emptied altogether. Given each moment being touch-and-go for the movement of the train, cries of children confined to the sweltering compartments rent the air. Resting assured that further movement of the express was not in the offing, some of us ventured out of the desolate railway station to fetch eatables to our families since the handful of restaurants on the station had downed shutters.
Unable to suffer the pangs of voracious hunger, children raised the pitch of their screams riling and leaving their moms restless. Hearing the relentless cries of kids, men clustering on the platform and engaged in scuttlebutts scurried out and scouted the streets for eateries. Following about half an hour of search, we succeeded in our endeavour to find shops with buns, loaves and fruits for families having a thin time in the train staying put for hours. At the very sight of the bug-out bags in our hands, those in the train heaved sighs of relief. Parking ourselves in the cramped bogies we doled out the contents, quelling the burning appetite of everyone. Having tucked in the viands, the young ones conked out.
It was nearing the crepuscular hour with the sun sinking down, yet there was little hope of the gaadi trundling ahead. As the train kept remaining unstirred, a death-like lull prevailed on the platform with most of the hapless passengers falling to shut-eye.
Just past the dead hour of the night a long whistle of the train rattled us up from our slumber. The gaadi began inching forward to reach Karagpore, the next and the last junction on the route. All this stemmed from a snap-strike in West Bengal paralysing normal life and entry of trains from outside. Memories of the ordeal of passengers who had to endure a Kafkaesque wait of 18 long hours at one railway station, the state of their exquisite hunger and our forage outside the station were lingering in my mind even long after the incident.