Tuesday, 9 February 2016

India's Frontier Railway : Kolkata to Dhaka

If you have been a February Visitor to the Blog you may have seen a bit of a pattern forming, India has become my muse and after watching the cast travel by train in “The Real Marigold Hotel” I sought out more Indian Railway Adventures and luckily for me bbc4  has obliged.

This is what we expect Indian trains to be like:

In the first of a season of documentary about India’s Frontier Railways, we get to ride the train between Kolkata and Dhaka , crossing the border into Bangladesh.

 By way of a swift history lesson, when the British left India in the 1940s the subcontinent was split into manageable chunks and what had been collectively known as Bengal was divided and East Pakistan was created with India separating it from the rest of Pakistan, this little spit of land was to become Bangladesh.

Kolkota was a jewel in India’s Crown , a famous Trading port, situated wonderfully on the Bay of Bengal. Beset by  wars, the  railways suffered and for  40 years, there was no train travel between the countries , but in 2008, an agreement was reached and trains at last crossed the border. Twice weekly, a train makes the  journey from Kolkota to Dhaka in Bangladesh. The Train is the Maitree Express which means quite simply – Friendship.

This programme follows the train on one of those journeys and introduces some of the staff and passengers who travel the five hour route.

We meet Fish Loving, photographer and musician. Krishnenda Bashu Who also happens to be the train guard  on the Indian side of the border.


He had wanted to be a musician by trade playing the Tabla, but after the family entered difficult times, followed his Indian Father onto the railways, after his Bangladeshi mother thought there was not enough income in musical endeavours .Too short to be a railway policeman, he made his way up the career ladder to conductor from clerk. He cannot pass the border as he does not hold a passport. 

The 113 kilometre journey to Ge De is his responsibility. When he jumps off after an eight hour shift, he is finally free to have some breakfast of his own! Self confessed Foodie, he says he used to eat too much, but now he eats light and healthy! His food is made with love he says, boiled eggs are harmful in his opinion but because his wife made the food with love, it cannot harm him!

The 325 passengers  have been offered a hearty breakfast of omelette, vegetable cutlet, bread and butter and the obligatory cup of tea. This is a full train capacity is 326 people. 

He hands over to Guatam Bannerjee whose day has begun with the mountain of admin and form filling required for the job including a daily breathalyser to ensure that neither a Driver or conductors are intoxicated. 

A ninety minute stop in India, with the train penned in by gates and  is able to move the train. 20 minutes later the train passes into Bangladesh.The whole journey is 392 km and takes 12 hours with stops for immigration and customs at mid points.

Journalist and Writer  Urmi Rahman is a frequent traveller on the Maitree.  

She is fiercely proud of her Bengali Heritage and has refused to give up he Bangladeshi passport despite marrying an Indian and living in London for many years, now back in Kolkota she is “Going Home” to visit with family. She was in college in 1970 when the increasingly brutal methods of the Pakistanis to keep the Bengalis in Bangladesh under control, erupted into violence when it was decreed that Urdu was to be the official language. Annexing 30 million people was going to be inflammatory.

The Pakistan Army building forces in Bangladesh cracked down on the night of 25th March and escalated into a full blown war of independence. Three million people were killed and a further ten million sought refuge over the border in India.

Pakistan made it an offence to listen to any news on the radio so it was hard, but not impossible to learn what was happening, a Brave Tea Wallah named Kashim Mullah would secretly broadcast the BBC News via the World Service and so members of the Freedom fighter movement, the Mukti  Mahini and 16 year old Amirul Islam was amongst them, he remembers fondly when the back street where Kashim sold his chai was called the BBC Bazaar!

Back on the train, Partho Bannerjee  is Indian liaison officer and Inspector and is  following in his grandparent’s footsteps, railway employees from before Partition they joined Indian Railways from Bangladeshi Railways a year  before the split.

He asks the passengers about their experience, some bemoan the amount of luggage moving required at checkpoints, every passenger has to alight with all luggage to be checked at Ge De under immigration and customs rules. Others want air conditioning on the whole train.

First class  seats at a cost of £16,afford air conditioned compartments, but one elderly lady says she prefers to feel the Bengali air in second class  as this is her first return to Bangladesh in 75 years. This journey has cost her just £5

1 comment:

  1. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar made the Western world aware of the crisis in Bangladesh. It's nice to know that 45-years later the country is still doing well!