I am at Howrah station, 8 am on a sultry morning of June month. Of the several distinctive things about our country, of great contrasts and varying sights and sounds, one which characterizes a very Indian way of travelling, is the Great Indian Railways,and the cornerstone of its activities in the Eastern part of the country is the iconic Howrah Station.
Passengers scurry about, porters bear down like speeding express trains, hawkers are peddling their wares, groups of people are sitting , standing and squatting. The general Railway filth is all around. And not far off, is the Railway Orthopaedic Hospital where I had started my career many years back.
Howrah station was set up in the year 1852, a legacy of our erstwhile colonial masters, who tied up the entire country in a maze of railway network and effectively brought about the unification of this country. It is till date the largest railway station in India. Stretching across 23 platforms, it is one of the three terminal stations of the Indian Railway Network, the others being Chennai and Mumbai. An imposing Indo- British structure, built in the typical pattern of our former colonial masters, it is an ever-buzzing hub of activity, not far away from the imposing Howrah Bridge.
But ,all is not so idyllic as it seems. The imposing structure barely masks the story of anarchy, from cooly hooliganism to ill-kept toilets, from the ticket tout- railway nexus to systematic filth. Having seen the innards of this place, including the day my scooty arrived from Mangalore in 1999 at the cargo hold after a tiring journey across half the country , I can vouch for the fact that this can be a most exasperating place to be in. Probably true for the Indian Railway Network as a whole.
Of course, things have improved over the years. The prepaid taxi stand, the cafetaria, increased checking, parking facilities etc. And we hope it will be better with time.
This station connects an astonishing variety of regions. From Jammu to Kanyakumari, Guwahati to Ahmedabad, this station connects them all. And it serves an amazing number of more than a million passengers every day, more of whom travel to and from their places of work, dependant on this station in a very umbilical way. The footfall in the station area is 1.5 millon per day, huge by any standards.
For now, I am travelling to Bolpur, the abode of Rabindranath Tagore, on the Howrah Suri Express. And as I leave the grime and hustle bustle of the station to enter my AC chair car coach, I look forward to yet another journey on the Great Indian Railways.