One by one, the entire community has deserted the scruffy junction. Well, almost. What else would you say if only four Anglo-Indian families trudge on in Mughalsarai from the initial 70? But even today, beneath the wrinkles and the existential pangs, a kiddish zest lurks inside ex-shuntman Ashley Reginald Wills. "Man, I'm here since '47 and will be forever. I'll take the memories to my grave." Those sepia-toned, musty recollections of weekend billiards sessions and live bands at the Barkley Institute circa 1955 and house parties by the river. The past has devoured all the splendour. The present? prosaic.
Even the 9-km-long marshalling yard—the largest in Asia and hitherto a key hub for the mineral rich 'Rurh belt'—wears a forlorn look. A shift in the railway freight policy from piecemeal to block rake movement has made the slow death inevitable. From a peak handling of 5,000 wagons daily, the numbers have dwindled to a mere 1,500 and with it the Up Yard has been uprooted. "Earlier, we felt the eight hours go by in a flash. Now the shifts seem inordinately long," says the chief yard master, Down Yard, P.K. Saini.
But with 200 trains, both goods and passenger, passing through this key portal of traffic transaction daily, Mughalsarai still typifies a rail bazaar. And a pretty busy one at that, being the intersection for four double-link trunk routes—two each from the Northern and Eastern Railways.
In critical retrospect, the place comes across as a town disjointed in time, a junction whose different ages lay suspended side by side. Layered, chequered and bustling.
The colonial remnants—the bungalows, the churches and graveyards at the European colony are somehow juxtaposed with the technological blitzkrieg—mobile train radio communication system, biggest route relay interlocking and even a homepage—that Mughalsarai has witnessed. Like odd pieces of jigsaw, they just don't fit. But strangely, they chug along...
Had we been 10 minutes late, we would have missed the train. At dot 6 in the morning, the Howrah-Kalka Mail saunters in at platform 3. The day begins quite early and so does the business. The cacophony of the vendors (mostly illegal), the mad scramble of the platform staff is enough to wake one up with a start. But the box porter, responsible for transporting the guard boxes to the specific trains, has begun his day even earlier. For the rest, Kalka sets the day in motion.
From chai, kopi (coffee), aam papad, cashewnuts to puri-sabzi, porcelain toys, the six platforms are perennially bustling with frenzied activity. It's a gastronomical carnival for the early risers. Bengalis—you can make them out for the dexterity in which they do two things at a time—stroll on the platform while foaming in their mouth (literally, with all the toothpaste) and simultaneously bargain with a vendor over a dozen bananas. After a lull of six hours, hyperactivity storms the entire area.
6.35 and the engine is about to be changed. It does. And wasting no time, shuntman Bhagwan Das gets down to the disgustingly sludgy tracks to complete the "coupling". Usually, the engine and the crew are interchanged in Mughalsarai and this can stretch from 25 to 45 minutes. So now you know why invariably the train waits for so long. Precisely 13 minutes later, Kalka wakes up from slumber and moves out just the way it moved in.
Last-minute transactions over, a tea vendor yells: "Arre, mera ek rupaiyya de do, mera ek rupaiyya. ... (Give me my one buck)."
...Eager to shun its welfare credo, the management is desperate to slash the bloated personnel which, in effect, has only widened the chasm. "Yeh log workers aur staff ko hi nikaal rahe hain. Lekin afsaron ki sankhya badha rahe hain (Only the workers are getting the boot. The number of officers is increasing)," complains a peeved worker at the locomotive shed, paraphrasing the vox populi. The two rail colonies—northern or the European or simply the officers' block, and the southern or the staff quarters—demarcate the two zones. One for the privileged and the other for the not. Clearly, in Mughalsarai's railway lexicon, the address acts as a prefix to one's social identity.
The workers' wrath is perfectly understandable. Their feeling of neglect and humiliation justified. Although the officers repudiate such accusations, the feeling of regimentation does seem overwhelming. And a casual rendezvous through the tatty Loco or Shastri colony will make it starkly clear where the priorities of the welfare inspectors lie. It's a study in contrast. Of a manicured world and that of a chaotic jungle for the hoi polloi.
The search for the town's historical past draws a disappointing blank. Unfortunately, there are no Mughals and there is hardly a sarai. Not even the notorious bordello that masqueraded as a tavern for the tired traveller. In its place stands a sprawling vegetable market at Nai Satti. And that's a dampener. As for the once-thriving opium industry, the locals have peacefully swapped it with a coal mandi.
Even the saffronisation exercise has done its bit to wipe clean the last remaining fragments of the Mughal era. It now even boasts of a new name, Deen Dayal Nagar!
The only thing that still acts as an umbilical cord with the past is the Sadak-e-Azam or the Grand Trunk Road—a key communication avenue. Its been the only survivor.
To be quite frank, the place sleeps, eats, dreams and even breathes railways. It is intrinsic. A town that doesn't care much about anything else. "Kisi na kisi tarah sabhi railwalle hain (In some way or the other, everyone is a railwayman," informs our rickshawpuller, Santosh.
But with no proper school and shrinking employment options, the younger generation hardly hesitates to dump their hometown for greener pastures.
Just like the trains, everybody loves to move on, deserting this "bypass" junction.