Of a never-ending journey

Of a never-ending journey

 But no questions are asked, because the place is Kashmir and the train I am talking about is the one which runs from Nowgam station in Srinagar to Anantnag. But then how does one explain this apparently strange query from an elderly Kashmiri passenger, which left me wondering why they were surprised at my buying a ticket from the station counter.
“Look, this is our victory trophy as we got it after a 60-year-long fight for this particular mode of transport and we want all of you to see it. But tourists do not travel by train as they feel that militants may blow up the track anytime or else they think that what is there in a train,” says the passenger, who introduced himself as Mohammad Asif.
I could make out what Asif was trying to say once I entered the station, a real work of artistic marvel with wooden pillars and engraved artwork on the conical ceiling. Unescorted ladies wearing hijab, school children queing up behind their teacher, college goers huddling with their peers to take a quick entry and senior citizens trying to negotiate a little space with the youngsters — the common sight in every railway station, including this one. But what is conspicuous by its absence is the hawkers selling their wares and porters carrying baggage. Their space has been taken over by heavily-armed security personnel, who have formed a cordon along the edge of the platform.
The eerie feeling which one gets as soon as one enters the station because of heavy military presence melts away as one steps inside the platform. If one seeks to see Kashmir with all its colours, this is the place where they should pay at least one visit. My first query was like that of any tourist visiting Kashmir — “Is the train safe?”
“It is 99 per cent safe and the remaining one per cent you have to leave to the Almighty,” replies Mushtaq Ahmad, a passenger waiting for the train. “It is safer than the roads here and it is not only militant attack that we are scared of. It may be the movement of the Army convoy, which may block the roads for hours. They cannot do it here,” he says. And since it is extremely popular with the local Kashmiris, the militants cannot afford to blow up the tracks or attack it, Mushtaq observes.
The train service which started last October was initially from Srinagar, but was later extended to Badgam for certain services. The terminal station is however still Anantnag, which would hopefully be extended to Sudura and Qazigund this year.
“I prefer this hour-long journey over wasting three to four hours in buses to attend my professional coaching classes in Srinagar,” says Shaqir Ahmed Bhat, an aspirant for state services from Anantnag. It is simple arithmetic for passengers like Shaqir. A bus ride from Srinagar to Anantnag takes around three hours and costs Rs 20. Whereas the passenger train travels the entire 50 kms in one hour, with only a fare of Rs 10.
Time and hassle-free journey is also crucial for Nighat Banu, a resident of Awantipora, who has taken the train for a medical checkup in Srinagar. “My mother is not worried about my journey even though I am travelling alone, as there is a separate women’s coach in the train,” she says. So  has the train brought about a social revolution in a patriarchal setup?
“I do not know what you mean by revolution, but it has given us mobility,” says Nazar Begum, who was travelling with her son to her village in Bijbehara. It has also given access to the city and town markets to an ordinary Kashmiri villager as the train stops for a minute in each of the small stations like Pampore, Kakpora and Panzgam.
“We can take the morning train to any of the big markets, sell our wares and come back by the evening train,” says Mohd Iqbal, a fruit-seller. So it is not without reason that local Kashmiris take pride in what outsiders might consider a shabby-looking blue-coloured train, where the coaches look like discarded ones from Shatabdi Express. The train also faithfully follows Indian Standard Time, as it chugged into the platform at least half-an-hour later than its scheduled time.
Being a passenger train, it does not have any reservation system. Thus, it has to be the usual push-and-shove once the train, again escorted with securitymen, reached the platform. But once I was in and the train started rolling, the scenery that unfolded in front of me was magnificent. The security-cordoned platform slowly receded to give way to paddy fields, cedar trees and rivulets with the imposing mountain ranges in the background.
Through the glass window marked with innumerable scratches I could see a riot of colours — golden yellow paddy fields in the post-harvest season, pheron-wearing women arranging hay stacks, children carrying water in small water carriers decorated with colourful paintings. The streams meandering their ways through boulders and lush green forests was about to take me to a wonderland when suddenly I caught the glimpse of a bayonet being held high from a bunker just outside the Anantnag station.
The destination has come, but the journey is never-ending.
 SHRUBA MUKHERJEE

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