Lifeline Mughalsarai: Tracking life and change at the station on India’s busiest railway route

From runaway kids to the man who lifts bodies, a calm station manager to the jobless phone booth operator.

Updated: September 14, 2015 8:17:46 am

The announcers are silent, the engine horns quiet, the tracks largely empty, and the few passengers around asleep on the benches or the platform. It is 5 am, and still dark. This is the time the Mughalsarai railway station rests.

A few hours from now, and this quiet will shatter, as through a station that sits on India’s busiest routes pass foodgrains going to the Northeast, iron ore from Odisha and gypsum in the Northeast head to other parts of the country, and lakhs of passengers go through, either travelling home to the East or going for work to the West.

Last month, besieged by complaints of delays, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu said the Allahabad-Mughalsarai was running to more than 150 per cent of its capacity, affecting the operation of the entire railway network. IIT Bombay has now been asked to undertake an audit of the Delhi-Mughalsarai route to improve its efficiency.

Divisional Railway Manager Vidya Bhushan puts the number of trains operating on the Allahabad-Mughalsarai route at 250-350 daily, making it the “busiest route” in the country. Nearly 200 passenger trains and over 200 goods trains cross the Mughalsarai station daily. “A train passes every 5 minutes,” Bhushan says. Getting on and off, daily, are 13,000-15,000 people.

Arjun, 12, is enjoying the quiet at this early morning hour. Sprawled on stairs, with no fear of being trampled by a rushing passenger, he rolls a cloth, pushes it into his mouth and, as quickly, takes it out and hides it in his clothes.

Mughalsarai, Mughal Sarai junction, Mughalsarai railway station, indian railways, UP Mughalsarai, Mughalsarai station, station Mughalsarai, Mughal sarai station master, Mughal sarai junction, Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh news, indian Express Stalls such as these have been running here for decades, their operations passed down families. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

At the farthest footbridge, connecting Platform No. 6 and 7, which sees few passengers, Suleiman, 14, wakes up as the Toofan Express arrives at 5:40 am from Howrah, more than 3 hours late. As he drags himself up with a friend, he clutches a tattered bag tightly. Within it is what Arjun and Suleiman are hiding: ‘Sunfix’. “Ask them to stop selling this,” Suleiman says, pulling out a yellow tube, half its contents already sniffed. “It has spoiled our lives.”

Throughout the day Suleiman will collect discarded water bottles from the tracks and fill them up with tap water, selling these in general coaches. “I seal them with tape and they become ‘new’,” he says. “Nearly three dozen of us do this,” he says.

There are few takers today for Toofan Express, through its halt of 15 minutes. The train will eventually terminate at Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan, 1,226 km away.

Mughalsarai, Mughal Sarai junction, Mughalsarai railway station, indian railways, UP Mughalsarai, Mughalsarai station, station Mughalsarai, Mughal sarai station master, Mughal sarai junction, Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh news, indian Express The trackmen at the station, whose length is 8-9 km. The station has around 5,000 Railway employees. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

“All the trains, whether passenger or goods, halt at the station,” says B N Dixit, Station Superintendent, Route Relay Interlocking (RRI), an apparatus that handles the course of the trains at the junction. “Even if it is for two minutes, they stop. The Rajdhanis and Durontos also halt.”

For a station with such rush and seven operational platforms, the office of Station Manager Bijay Kumar Shah, on Platform No. 1, is surprisingly calm. “We have around 120 deputy station superintendents, handling traffic, parcel, signal etc, so they bear the brunt, not me,” he says calmly, going back to chatting with his colleagues.

Kedar Nath Pandey, senior sub-inspector, Government Railway Police (GRP), is equally relaxed as he sips tea from a kulhad at his snug office between platforms. “There have been no cases so far today,” he informs as his colleague, Pramod Kumar, launches into a complaint about their irregular lives. “There is no fixed time for sleeping, food,” Kumar says, adding they can’t even make it to government-allotted quarters nearby.

Mughalsarai, Mughal Sarai junction, Mughalsarai railway station, indian railways, UP Mughalsarai, Mughalsarai station, station Mughalsarai, Mughal sarai station master, Mughal sarai junction, Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh news, indian Express Narayan Chauhan at the Sarvodaya Book Store, which has stood on the same spot for 40 years. Swami Vivekananda sits next to Gautam Buddha and Ram Manohar Lohia at the store. “People like reading motivational books,” Chauhan says. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

Pandey, who leads a team of 130 GRP personnel, says they get complaints “in bulk”. “The aggrieved passengers have little idea of when or where the theft happened. They just mention the names of the bigger railway stations in their complaints, such as Mughalsarai, and the complaint is sent back to us,” he says, glancing at a CCTV feed.

Around the middle of the day, there is suddenly some activity. At Platform No. 3, where a train has come from Dildarnagar Station, around 60 km to the east, a group of men is holding two women. “Thieves!” they yell, attracting a crowd of onlookers. Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel rush out of their office — patrolling platforms is something they stopped doing long back. The men say they caught the women “red-handed” as they were trying to steal from their wives’ bags. However, the train only has a brief halt at Mughalsarai and they don’t want to submit a written complaint. Neither do they have any evidence.

But as the crowd gets restless, the RPF personnel give in and handcuff the women. They hand them over to Pandey at the GRP office, who is still sipping his kulhad chai. He doesn’t book the women for theft but for travelling without a ticket. A constable takes the women to a jail nearby.

The Farakka Express’s arrival sends a buzz down the platform. As pilgrims swarm the station, other passengers peer out of the train to have a look. The Farakka Express’s arrival sends a buzz down the platform. As pilgrims swarm the station, other passengers peer out of the train to have a look. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

Back in his office, Venkatesh Kumar, in-charge of the RPF, reels out the numbers: 1,370 people caught in 2015 till July, 124 sent to jail, Rs 8,67,095 collected in fines.

The most common crime, he chuckles, are men boarding women’s compartment and travelling without a ticket. “We get a lot of vagrants, or gadais, too, some come looking for prostitutes, others for drugs.”

Then there are the children who have run away from homes, ended up at the station, and are put up at one of its four child protection homes. Sandeep, 17, sitting with three others, is among the eldest. He says he escaped a father who beat him daily.

“Children start yearning for home within hours, once the anger and tears have subsided. They are usually from poor families,” says Kiran Gupta, who manages one of the protection homes.

Outside, amid the cheery food and fruit stalls, is the Sarvodaya Book Store, which Narayan Chauhan says has stood on the same spot for 40 years. “I started running the store when my father passed away 20 years ago.” Chauhan, nicknamed ‘Prakash’ or light, lives at a walking distance from the station and spends 12-15 hours at the shop daily. “I earn enough to feed my family,” he says. Behind him, Swami Vivekananda sits next to Gautam Buddha and Ram Manohar Lohia. “These days people like reading motivational books,” he says.

12 - trackmen sit inside a hut made of discarded wooden planks used for tracks. The total length of the station is 8-9 km, most of which is the marshalling yard and the wagon repair sheds. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

Hidden away from the passengers are Mughalsarai’s wagon repair yards, once the largest in the country. The total length of the station is 8-9 km, most of which is the marshalling yard and the wagon repair sheds. “The marshalling yard is said to be the longest in Asia,” says Dixit.

Rationalisation means that most of the work has became mechanised, though Mughalsarai still employs about 5,000 persons in the Railways. The work goes on 24 hours, in shifts.

“All the engines have a ‘home depot (where they come for repairs)’. The electric shed is home to 189 such engines,” says Senior Divisional Electric Engineer Deepa Kumar Gupta. “The wagons have to mandatorily come back for inspection after 12-18 months of running,” adds B N Singh, Senior Section Engineer.

At the lone telephone booth at the station, Sanjay Kumar is getting ready for lunch. As he opens his tiffin, amidst deities watching over from rectangular frames, he says, “Barely 8-10 people come here in a day now. We used to have eight booths once.”

Mughalsarai, Mughal Sarai junction, Mughalsarai railway station, indian railways, UP Mughalsarai, Mughalsarai station, station Mughalsarai, Mughal sarai station master, Mughal sarai junction, Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh news, indian Express Runaway kids, mostly from poor families, who make their way to the station are housed at its four child protection homes. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

It’s a universal problem, Kumar adds. “A gentleman from Kolkata told me there were 22,000 phone booths at railway stations across India and all are shutting down. My boss said this too will be converted into a stall, but with the phone,” he says, as a family enquires about a train to Mirzapur. “I play carrom on my phone most of the time.”

However, not very far from where Kumar sits, in this town of around 1.5 lakh people, time has stood still.

Barely 10 km from Varanasi and 30 km from the Bihar border, Mughalsarai has always been an important stop. The Kabul-Chittagong Grand Trunk Road runs through it and the first railway line connecting it to Patna was laid over 150 years ago, in 1862. Many take a train to here on their way to Varanasi, also earning it the title —now used sparingly — of ‘Gateway to Varanasi’.

The town now lays disjointed, the new plastered on the old for convenience, rarely aesthetics. The bustling tea shops and restaurants on GT Road, on which the station stands, have walls that are now permanently black. “The crowds keep growing,” says Mahendra Singh, 42, who runs the Punjab restaurant-lodge set up by his grandfather 60 years ago.

The only change, he notes wryly, is that the handmade wooden toys sold outside the station have made way for Chinese items.

Krishan Kant Gupta is calling for another round of tea sitting in his small shop nearby, selling stationery, magazines and newspapers. In the morning he sells the ‘Sunfix’ solution that gets the gadais at the station high. “I sell 50 tubes daily, all by 9 am,” he says. “Sunfix, superfix, quickfix, groundfix… they are all the same.”

The grandest stamp of history on Mughalsarai lies just a stone’s throw away — the European Colony’s crickety calm a contrast to the station’s cacophony.

The leafy neighbourhood was built in pre-Independence India for railway employees, then almost all Anglo-Indian. After Independence, one by one, the Anglo-Indian families left. “By the time I made my first visit to Mughalsarai in 1979, only a few Anglo-Indian families were left. Due to easy residency permits in the UK and New Zealand, all moved out,” says DRM Bhushan, sitting inside his residence, House No. 1, built in 1945 and still decorated with English countryside paintings.

Just around the corner are small houses dating back to the 1930s, with high curved ceilings, slanting roofs and chimneys, the Baklay Gymkhana from 1925, and a majestic church. “One day people started queuing up outside my house, worried about a cloud of smoke. I had just had the fireplace lit,” laughs Bhushan.

But almost a century before the town’s runaway kids, a local child would walk these parts to the Railway School, that still stands not far from the junction. On April 22, 1915, his name was struck off “on account of not paying the fee, as committee decided”, though it was added again a month later. The school still has the original record, almost wilting at touch, of Lal Bahadur Shastri, and his time at the school, between 1911 and 1916, in Classes 1-6.

“The school has existed since 1876, and when I joined in 1988, it had three buildings. Nobody knows how old these are,” says Principal C N Yadav. The single-floor buildings are now crumbling. “Like Ganga rejuvenation is a lost game, so is our school,” grins an employee.
The 80-year-old Christ the King Church nearby has fared better. A chance meeting with Mother Teresa led Father Stanley D’Souza to set up the Infant Jesus Shrine here in 1984.

Such cultural diversity of Mughalsarai, however, is now under threat. While localities like Kasab Mahal have had Muslims and Hindus living together for generations, Sanjay Kumar, a local journalist, says, “the VHP and Bajrang Dal have now started calling the town Deen Dayal Nagar in their communications and programmes”. It was at Mughalsarai junction that the body of Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader Deen Dayal Upadhyay was discovered in 1968.

Then there is the infamous Chandasi coal mandi, a couple of kilometres away from the station, where the legal and illegal aren’t easy to discern from the dust clouds raised by the trucks that ply here at all times.

About 30 lakh tonnes of coal is received annually at this mandi, spread over 200 acres, from mines in Dhanbad, Asansol, Ranchi, Singrauli, etc, and then sold to other businesses for a commission. “Coal saved us, else the youths of a hundred villages in these parts would have been wooed by Naxalites,” says Kailash Kishore Poddar, who runs a coal business.

It is almost 5 pm — 12 hours later — and the Mughalsarai station is now at its most chaotic. The most action this Sunday day so far has been around the Delhi-bound Shramjeevi Express, which arrived from Rajgir in Bihar at 2.20 pm.

Farakka Express from Old Delhi arrives, headed towards Malda, West Bengal. As pilgrims get off, swarming the platforms, other travellers peer out of windows to see what the fuss is about.

At about 7.30 pm, the station resonates to the sound of a qawwal troupe. “Aisa karishma karen mohe khawaja, reh gayi re dang Raja Maharaja,” bursts out the lead qawwal, his paan-stained teeth showing, a harmonium dangling from his shoulders. A great “personal and business” wish has been fulfilled, and Sunil Singh is offering a qawwali to the Hazrat Sayyad Line Shahid Baba, whose small, roughly 10-by-11 ft dargah is where Platform No.s 1, 2 abruptly end.

A story lies there too. “The British tried to lay a railway line over the grave, but each morning, it would be found uprooted by the djinns of Shahid Baba,” says Mohammad Azad, the keeper of the dargah.

The grave soon started attracting multitudes, and someone built a room and made it a dargah, where people now offer “chadar, murga (chicken, both raw and cooked), qawwali” if their wishes are fulfilled.

It’s 9 pm, and a few passengers are waiting at Platform No. 2, having arrived too early for the Jammu Tawi-Sealdah Express, due after midnight. Abdul Qayyum, 65, lugging a heavy bag, is headed for Gaya. “Six of my family are leaving for Hajj. I am going to see them,” he says.
As the train finally arrives, Rajeev Lochan and Ram Sewak, both 35, with long beards, wearing only saffron dhotis, get off. They are here after a week-long pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. “We are mahatmas, we go every year,” they claim.

Anil Kumar Maurya, 24, and Sanjay Mishra, 22, are bidding each other goodbye. They met in the general compartment of the Jammu Tawi-Sealdah Express, and have became “friends”. Sanjay, who boarded the train at Shahjahanpur, is getting off, while Anil, who was visiting his brother in Jammu, will continue onto Bihar. “We have exchanged phone numbers, we will be in touch,” says Anil. Just as the train moves, they embrace in a bear hug.

The station is settling down for the night again, and ‘Sunfix’ has been fished out. A GRP constable is doing the rounds of the bridge between Platform No.s 6 and 7, the usual hangout of the vagrants. A ‘dead’ body is suddenly discovered on Platform No. 5, and the constable sends the gadai off to fetch a certain youth. The constable nudges the ‘body’ with his feet. The head moves a little, so he pours water over it. The man, a thin frame in ragged clothes, wakes up, unaffected. The constable shoos him away.

Meanwhile, the gadais have brought the summoned youth. “They call me to pick up dead bodies,” he says.

“I have picked up parts of people, separated from their bodies. Some die on the tracks listening to music, some die intoxicated.” His steely gaze showing a slight chink, he adds, “And some, like the handsome Varanasi youth whose head I picked up, they say he must have committed suicide due to unrequited love.”

The boy who was once a runaway kid, having left home in Bihar at age 7, has been doing this for 14 years. “They pay me
Rs 1,000, for picking up a body to cremating it, plus money for beer. I cannot pick up the pieces without having three bottles of sharaab.”
“Jiska koi nahin, uske hum hain,” he adds. And his name? “Amar.”