The month was September; the year 1983. There had been a mining disaster in the Jharia coalfield and Dhanbad’s hotel rooms were taken up with reporters and PR men from Coal India. Quite possibly, the Bonanza was the best hotel. I remember I shared a room with the Statesman’s Ranchi correspondent but otherwise my memory of those days is fuzzy; the time of clarity comes a few days later, when pain made the minutes stand out sharp. I remember the pithead of the Jharia mine like something out of 1920s South Wales, and a restaurant, possibly known as the best restaurant in Dhanbad, which was an outpost of something grander in Calcutta with a name like Trinca’s. On my last evening, I went to the house of a young Anglo-Indian family where the children were encouraged to call me ‘uncle’. One of the children was called Ashley. His father had wanted to call him Adolf, but there had been family opposition, and so he settled for another ‘A’, from the Leslie Howard character in Gone With The Wind. The father was uncomprehending when I laughed. Hitler had made no pejorative impact here.
Then I took the train: not a through train, but the Damodar Express, which began in Dhanbad and ended in Patna and spent the whole night toiling over 150 miles (Here Be Dacoits—lock the door). When I think of this train—its place of origin and its place of arrival—I think how intrepid I must have been, and for what? I was going to Patna to try to find the lawyer who had represented (and eventually freed) a man who had spent 30 years in jails and lunatic asylums for the crime of being found without a ticket on the Assam Mail.