Those of us who travel by trains must have, at some point of time, observed trains rushing past an obscure station at the edge of a forest, or halting at a desolate one in the dead of the night, and wondered — who ever boards or alights at this godforsaken station at such ungodly hours? I often would. And I would also wonder what the staff posted at such places did to bide time. I finally found out one bitterly cold night.
The forlorn little railway station of Mala lies in the Terai district of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, not very far from the Indo-Nepal border, one of the last vestiges of the now nearly extinct metre gauge railway network in India, that once spread across the length and breadth of the country.
The bulk of the Terai lines of Uttar Pradesh passed through thick forests, and deliberately so, because the British had primarily laid them for timber extraction from these areas. These lines, including the one at Mala, were inaugurated 131 years ago, in 1887, under the aegis of the Rohilkhand and Kumaon Railway Company. As recently as a decade ago, it was a part of the large British-era network of more than 3,000 km of metre-gauge tracks spread across northern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Today, barely 300 km of these 1,000 mm track, known as “chhoti line” (small line), survive. The rest have either been decommissioned or converted to broad gauge under the Union government’s Project Unigauge, which aims to convert all railway lines in India to the standard broad gauge of 1,676 mm. In the new vision of “development” that India has adopted across various sectors, homogeneity and assimilation are the buzzwords. And, so, the Great Indian Railways, once an amalgamation of multitude of railway gauge types — from 610 mm narrow gauges winding along the dry arid zones of western India to the 762 mm lines that served the forested tribal hinterlands of central India and the foothills of the Himalayas, and from the 1,000 mm metre gauges that served remote corners of India’s north-eastern frontier states and whistled across the rainforests of Western Ghats to the 1,676 mm broad-gauge lines — has to abide by the new order.
One cold November night in 2017, I boarded the last train from Pilibhit on the meter gauge, which eventually reached its final destination, the sleepy, dusty town of Bahraich, some 270 km away, in the wee hours of the morning. The train passed through fog-covered sugarcane fields, dragging its old maroon-liveried coaches — the likes of which are not seen on broad-gauge lines anymore — with its densely packed occupants seated on bare wooden benches, huddled in blankets, some half asleep, others munching on peanuts, yet others smoking their beedis. Less than an hour later, the train began honking incessantly. “Mala aa gava bhaiya lagat hai (We’ve arrived at Mala, it seems),” one of my co-passengers announced, as he leaned out of the window to spit out a generous dose of gutka. A dense plume of smoke from the diesel engine, a little more huffing and puffing, and the old locomotive could finally have its well-deserved break as it pulled into the station.
A few co-passengers got down on the low track-level platform that is typical of the stations on India’s narrow gauge lines. Then, within a minute, as the train honked again, everyone clambered back into the coaches, except me. As I watched the train slowly disappear into the fog, the atmosphere of the station appeared, to put it mildly, a bit unnerving. A thick layer of mist hung low over the station; three light bulbs flickered — one at the far end of the platform, the other from behind me, and one in front of the station-master’s cabin. Not a soul on the platform, nor any sound to be heard, except for the rumble of the train trundling away into the forest. I was beginning to question if it was a great idea after all to land up here at this hour. As I walked up to the station-master’s cabin to see if I could find anybody, the heavy door creaked open and out came a short young man.
“Hum soche ki ei kaun baurayal aadmi hai jo iss ber yahaan utar raha hai (I was wondering who this crazy man is, getting down at this station at this ungodly hour),” said SK Saxena, a broad smile on his face, even as he nervously looked around at the thick forests of the Pilibhit tiger reserve that formed the periphery of the platform. I made my introductions and so did Saxena. “My formal designation here is that of kaantawaala (pointsman), but I look after many things,” he said. I apprised him of my plans to proceed to the Mala forest bungalow, about a kilometre from the station. Now, Saxena was convinced that I was a bit cuckoo. “You want to go to bungalow at this time of the night? Absolutely not! Come nightfall, you have tigers and bears roaming all over the place here,” he warned. “Barely four weeks ago, I came out of the cabin around this time to go up to that tap,” he said, pointing towards an old water tank on the platform, about 30m behind me. “And there was a damn tiger casually sprawled a few feet away from the tap! I forgot my thirst, dropped my jug, ran back to the cabin, bolted it from inside and stayed put till dawn with assistant manager sahab,” he said. “Then there is this large tiger who turns up every second or third day after the last night train departs at 11 pm. He will sometimes sit in the luggage cabin of the abandoned coaches or else, he will hang out below that lamp at the far end of the platform. Once the sun comes up, it is safe, but not when it is dark. A number of people have been killed by tigers around Mala,” he said.
“I suggest you take the last train back to Pilibhit, and come back in the morning,” advised Saxena. I reluctantly agreed. But there were a couple of hours before that train was to come. Saxena was happy to have some company till then, but his senior, the old assistant manager, not so much; he preferred to nap on his chair. We sat outside his cabin so as to not disturb him.
“Hum toh pakke maitaric phel hain (I am a 10th grade fail),” Saxena chuckled loudly, “but my father was a driver in the era of steam engines. Even my grandfather worked in the railways, as a clerk.” When Saxena Sr. passed away a few years short of his retirement, his son Sri Krishna was appointed on compassionate grounds. Saxena has been at Mala ever since, rising through the ranks from a porter to a pointsman. “I cried the day I was informed that I would be posted here, in this jungle. But that was nearly 15 years ago. I was a boy then. Now, I get anxious when I go back to these chaotic towns. I often worry how I will readjust when this station closes down,” he said. The metre gauge lines at Mala were slated to be decommissioned within a few weeks. “I enjoy the quiet but these tigers, not so much,” he said.
And so began another amusing rant. “Tigers, you see, are a big nuisance,” he said, flailing his arms. “Back when these lines had heavier traffic, I had to be up all night as some trains passed this place around 2 am. On one such night, at around 1.30 am, the driver of a train from Mailani wirelesses that there is a fault in the line, about a kilometre ahead of the station,” he recounted. “Now, there are just two of us here, manager sahab to jaenge nahin (the assistant master won’t go), so who will that ‘someone’ be?” he asked. Without waiting for my answer he continued, “That’s right, Saxena ji. And so Saxena ji has to grab a torch and go all alone into that damned forest at 1.30 am in the night. I walked and walked in the dark, praying all the while. Anyhow, I cleared the fault, and then I had to come all the way back to clear the line from here,” he said, highlighting how, unlike the broad gauge lines, everything on India’s narrow and meter gauge lines was still manual. “As I am walking back, the hand wireless crackles again. The driver stutters and tells me to get back to the station quickly. His headlights have picked up a tiger walking in the same direction as me. I tell you, I have never run faster than I ran that night.” Saxena falls silent. “Do you know, the tiger’s eyes shine red in torchlight? Red, like a glowing fiery ember or that red semaphore signal light,” he said, pointing to the quaint fan-shaped, kerosene-lamp powered, manual line-clearance signals now exclusive to India’s smaller lines.
We talked a bit more about his adventures, his family, and shared a lot of laughs. Then, a train honked in the distance, and soon, a faint beam of light pierced the fog, faintly illuminating the giant sal trees that stand guard around the railway station. “Aapki gaadi aa gayi (Your train is here),” said Saxena. He was suddenly lost for words. “Ab toh na steam engine rahe, aur na ab ye station rahega. Samay bhi toh humaari rail ki tarah hai na, bas chalte rehna hi uska dharm hai (There are no steam engines anymore, and, soon, this station will go. Time, too, is like our trains. It has to keep moving),” Saxena finished, as he bid farewell and sprinted away to pull the track-levers at the platform edge, slowly disappearing into the night fog below the yellow station board that read — Mala.