Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Odiya Odyssey

There have been very few instances when I have passed through the state of Orissa. Since my earliest memories, I only heard of this state from either the quiet shy boy in the classroom during my school days, or the humble co-worker later in life. Or it was the weatherman who often mentioned Orissa with gusto to announce the likely path of the latest cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.

The Patnaik clan have been the poster boys of this state while one occasionally does hear of the odd hockey player constituting the Indian eleven. But largely, this large maritime state goes unnoticed in the popular consciousness. Bollywood and Cricket, the major pastimes of this nation have seldom have had anything to do with this state. Nor does someone decide to do a ‘Poonam Pandey’ or a ‘Rakhi Savant’ from this land of brown skinned denizens, and so it continues to live in blissful obscurity of a back bench existence.

When I had to reach Paradip, a port town in Orissa, for a short engagement, my frantic search for flight to the capital city, Bhubaneswar threw up interesting results. The connecting flights were routed through Delhi making the travel distance more than triple. This was also reflected in the pricing of the tickets which ranged from 18-20 grand. Now, Visakhapatnam, where I am based, isn’t well connected to the rest of the country, so I guess, it might have to share a part of the blame.

The train route while had abounding options till Bhubaneswar, there existed no direct train to the second largest Minerals port on the east coast and thanks to my last minute demands, there were no seats available either. ‘Google maps’ revealed that the distance between the two cities ie. Visakhapatnam and Bhubaneswar was only 540 km so Bus travel had to be the next logical option. I recollected that several years back, I had travelled the Visakhapatnam-Chennai route in an AC Sleeper coach and so I presumed that a bus should surely be my life saver.

I went through the search engines of and learnt that there existed absolutely no bus services between the two major cities of the east coast. It shocked me to say the least. I looked through other sites such as as well to find a lucky breakthrough. All of it proved futile and it dawned on me, that the east coast had clearly missed the ‘India Shining’ bus.

When I recounted my unenviable position with a waiting ticket in the night train to a friend of mine, she mustered her sources to help me find a breakthrough. Few minutes later, I heard from her that there was the last bus to Behrampur (Orissa) that was scheduled to leave APSRTC bus stand an hour later, at half past one. I had to make a quick decision. The options were, either wait for the night train and risk travelling in the general compartment probably standing or take the bus and reach Behrampur. Bhubaneshwar was in the same state and was only 250 Km from Behrampur so at this point seemed a smaller journey in comparison.

I packed my bags in a hurry and decided to take the bus ride hoping it might show me some countryside on this route. I expected the Bus to be one of those above average ones which have good seating but no AC- much akin to the usual long route buses I had seen in Tamil Nadu in my childhood. But when I reached the bus stand I was in for a rude shock. This was the usual city bus, masquerading as a long route bus. It had no luggage room on top and had seating very similar to the city buses with no sun protection on windows and the bus generally very rickety and dusty.

The realisation soon dawned on me that there were no passengers save me, travelling to Behrampur. Every other passenger was a villager moving probably till the next town or village on the route. When I sought for a ticket to Behrampur, the conductor was very surprised and gave me a combination of several smaller denomination tickets to make it worth Rs 160/-. Thus began the drudgery of a journey to Paradip from Visakhapatnam.

The initial euphoria of the wintry breeze along the superbly laid NH-5, on which the Bus did speeds over 90 Kph, was soon replaced by boredom as the Bus began to enter every town on the way. Each detour would cost about 20-25 minutes as a new set of passengers boarded and I remained the sole old passenger. The bus had no scheduled halts like long route buses do, for dinner or tea en-route. The stops at the towns depended on the driver’s mood and hence even a hop out for attending to nature’s call was taken post reading the driver’s disposition and conductor’s body language. This had begun to wear away all the patience I had shown so far by being optimistic about this whole turn of events. Scheduled to reach Behrampur at 7.30 Pm, the bus eventually made it an hour later at 8.30, almost empty.

I cycle-rickshawed my way across my first Oriya town, which seemed immersed in festivities celebrating Lord Ram and Hanuman. Behrampur, apparently one of the largest towns of Orissa seemed right out a Malgudi tale with cycle rickshaws clawing their way amongst the other motor vehicles. The Cinema banners on the walls were a departure from the usual Bollywood fare and featured flat nosed, dark skinned, Oriya actors. On reaching the ‘New bus stand’, I learnt that bus services to Bhubaneswar aren’t a regular affair as I had conveniently assumed. so I could either book the 11Pm or the 12 Pm bus. Post having my dinner in a simple restaurant nearby, I stretched my back on the granite bench and caught a nap in spite of the ravenous mosquitoes. The state of affair in Orissa wasn’t encouraging, and I began to detest the lack of facilities in this state as the negativity about Orissa kept mounting my mind.

The Bus to Bhubaneswar started at midnight promising me an early morning delivery well in time for me to catch my train to Paradip at 7.30 Am. I had secured a seat in the last row and so there was going to no recliner that the remaining seats had. The snoring man next to me seemed unperturbed by the buzzing mosquitoes. Once the bus began to move, I felt a bite on my lower back and turned back to inspect the culprit. What I saw would shock most of us, as there was a small army of Beg bugs ranging from micro mini whites to well fed brown adults, who had upon my discovery, retracted into the crevice of the seat, as if poised for the next attack. Bedbugs in a bus was a first for me and prospect of sitting with these creatures for the next few hours was unnerving at best.

I approached the conductor to explain to him my discovery. He was nonchalant about the affair and said that there existed no seats for him to replace me with. I asked him to provide me some diesel, spraying which actually deters these bugs, the conductor pleaded impossibility. Soon, things got to a boil as two fellow passengers joined the conductor to deter my increasingly belligerent pose. Before push turned into a shove, the conductor, who had taken the role of mediator by now, made a simpleton switch his seat with mine. I couldn’t help but pity the man. So the rest of the journey went uneventful as I chose to overlook the Odiya jokes these two passengers pulled on me, much to the amusement of other passengers.

I spent the two hours on platform No 1 of the Railway station awaiting my train. Bhubaneswar station was clean and well maintained and there was a team of civilians in a blue uniform on job continuously. With clock ticking by, when there was no announcement of my train, I approached the station master for the enquiry. He called up someone and then it was announced that my train was 15 minutes late. It did arrive after sometime and I located my bogie and got to my seat. Now, this was a short distance train and so it’s clientele were all locals proceeding for their day jobs. The place seemed replete with confusion as there passengers with no reservations also occupying some of the seats, luckily not mine.

Comfortably seated, I took out my laptop and surfed web for a while the train chugged from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack nearby. It stopped at Cuttack for more than 10 minutes and then resumed the journey. I was glad that I would be finally at Paradip in 2 hrs time, a rather long time for 100 Km distance. At quarter past 10, after a small nap, I enquired from my fellow passengers if Paradip was about to arrive. They began to mutter in Oriya and said that I was in the wrong train. My impression of Odisha which pretty much was in dumps so far, led me to imagine that there was something wrong with these people. I showed them the ticket and explained, as panic was beginning to set in me.

It’s then that they explained to me that the train, breaks into two parts in Cuttack and so I was in the wrong half of it and we were now 2 hrs in the other direction from Cuttack. This was the last straw and I began to curse everyone who every advised me to take this trip including the friend who suggested the bus travel. The first rule, I heard in some Discovery program, is to cool your head so that things don’t get worse, and so I calmly asked these fellow passengers as to how do I correct this mistake. They had by now begun to question my intelligence in their Oriya banter. Taking a deep breath, I asked them to think and help me out rather than discuss my clumsiness.

So it emerged from the discussions that the train was now headed towards Keonjhar and the stations that we were going to encounter en route were too small to provide any Bus service to Cuttack, from where Paradip was going to be another 3 hrs by Bus. Things were pretty bleak as I texted my friend in Paradip that I was in the wrong train and would be 2 hrs late- a rather positive statement. The fellow passenger assured me that Keonjhar was a district HQ and will have Bus services aplenty. I recollected from my class 9 geography text book which said good things about Keonjhar Mines and hoped well of it. We reached Keonjhar at 12.30 PM.

Keonjhar, the district HQ had two platforms and a rather muddy road headed towards some industrial township at a distance. Not the kind of bustling town I was expecting and so my hopes kept dipping. I noticed the bustle at the ticket counter across the other platform and that did light up my hopes though. Scurriing across the platforms, I found that there was in fact a train in 5 minutes that was headed to Cuttack. Winds were finally blowing my way.

The train chugged into Cuttack at 6 PM. I marched across the railway tracks to locate a bus for Paradip while a person I took directions from suggested that I take the lone train that runs at 7Pm. I wanted to get home as soon as possible even if it meant Bus travel, as by now I was sick of train having sat in one from 8 in the morning till 6 in the evening with 0 Km gain. When I got to the Bus stand sweating with my two bags, the sight of the tiny mini Bus with cramped seating, which would probably comfortably fit only a Lilliput, gave me claustrophobia. I picked my bag and headed back to the station bought a ticket and awaited my 7Pm train.

Finally, at 9 Pm, I had made it to from Visakhapatnam to Paradip, a journey of about 540 Km in over 30 hrs with average Speed of Advance (SOA) of 18Km/Hr. Can anyone here run at that pace?

PS: The two week stay at Paradip taught me better things about Odiya people and their simple ways. I left Odisha with no bitterness at all.

No comments: