Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Little Train that Can ... The last Train in Nepal.

During the time of  empire, The British ran a line of boundary stones along the border between  India and Nepal. Wood from Nepal had to be transported to  India, so they built a Railway to do the heavy work required in this. The British have left and the trees  have long since been stripped, but the railway remains. 

The journey is 20 miles, there are no gates or fences where customs or immigration might stand guard and yet there is a huge problem on the line. The Nepal Railway company are stone cold broke. The single train is totally dilapidated and minor derailments are common, but disastrous for passengers and  the company staff  alike.Once owned by the King of Nepal, which was never colonised by British, the stock and railway tracks are now in a horrendous state.

For eight days the twice daily service has not run and regular passenger Regina is less than impressed. She is a courier for shop keepers in Nepal smuggling in clothes, biscuits, plastic mats and other sundries. She is a woman of great spirit . Married at twelve , and a mother at thirteen.  She was left at age nineteen by her husband who has remarried. With two teens boys and her mother  to support, the lack of trains is impacting her survival. No transport of goods means no commission and those  few  rupees are what keeps her head above water.

Amaan is no better off, and he is actually staff. A  ticket collector, he has not been paid by the company for four months. He has a young family to support and has obtained loans from lenders and bought food on credit. He gets some small assistance from his father , an itinerant Barber, but he has found it increasingly hard as his creditors are now demanding repayment. 

The company headquarters in Katmandu are fully aware of the dire position. The plan for Nepalese train transit is simple, connect India and China via a direct route through Nepal. The plan needs substantial foreign investment and as yet it has not been forthcoming but the little twenty mile stretch between Jaynagar and Janakpur towns is not even on their maps let alone the list for funding requests.

The railway staff back at the Sharp end decide to work unpaid to get the train running again, without a service, they will never get paid, so they ask the repair yard to look at the train.

80 year old Basudev Mandal is the last surviving driver of the steam engines that were replaced by diesel when four engines were gifted to Nepal by the British , but these presents were left to atrophy next to the repair yard. Basudev looks on with dismay as she walks around what is like a grave yard for locomotives , he says in his day the service was top dollar too, not half the break downs.

With these dormant engines lying about.  Engineer extraordinaire Vilas Mandal is able to cannibalise them for parts so that they can get the engine working and pulling carriages again. 

Excitement builds and traders return to the station, tourists, immigrants and animals all pile onto the train, into seats, goods wagons, on the roof and hanging off ledges. The train travels  at ten miles an hour and with stops, it is  scheduled to take three hours but it is rarely on time, but passengers care not, as long as the ruddy thing runs!!

Twenty  Nine Nepalise  Rupee will buy a ticket which is about 20p and 10 more rupees is added for bikes and animals.  Bikes are tied to the side of the train and animals in with the passengers. Fare dodging is rife however, so part of Amaan’s job is to get people to buy tickets and cajoles and threatens to throw people without tickets off of the train. Every rupee he gets in revenue will bolster the likelihood he might actually get paid eventually!

Regina contacts her employers and tells them she will be travelling today. She is a feisty young lady saying she no longer fears the men on the train, that smuggling goods has cured her of all fear. Women like her are known as Blackinya,  black marketeers. The word smuggler is reserved for those bringing drugs or weapons across borders.

At dusk the train arrives in India, it is only two hours late. Regina slips off into the night to conduct her business. 

The town of  Jaynagar was once sleepy with only 30,000 residents, but now with a double gauge line, it  is a junction for many express trains out into India. People begin new lives in India the minute they step off the train here.

On returning from her rendezvous , Regina finds a spot on the empty train that in the morning will go back into Nepal, using sacks of goods as a mattress and draping a mosquito net over herself, she has a relatively comfortable bed for the night.

Joining Regina on the journey home will be a group of Pilgrims from Rajasthan, who have been travelling on Indian Railways for twenty four hours straight, they seek first class but seeing the train are dismayed by it’s degraded state. Having travelled twelve hundred  miles and having to sleep on the platform overnight they are quite grumpy as first class does not meet their expectations. They travel to Janakpur to visit the birthplace of the goddess Sita. 

The land was once traversed by the  Pilgrim routes, decreed by Gods and Goddesses not Kings who divided the land for their own ends., Now, as then, pilgrim travels were hard but showed commitment and devotion  to the Gods. The Tales of Rama and Sita bring many people to town. The return of the train service has invigorated the town and so Regina’s transport services have been much in demand from the shopkeepers she supplies. She is able to feed her family and repay her debts.

Amaan's fortunes are not so rosy, despite a successful religious festival the train has still not generated enough revenue for the ticket collectors to get paid and his debtors are circling and his frustration is clear as he attempts to fend them off. It may be he needs to join thousands of his countrymen and women in seeking employ abroad in India, now economic Migrants are creating thriving business in Jaynagar, employment agencies, money transfer shops and travel agencies have sprung up everywhere.

Nepal once exported Timber, Tea and Herbs, now is is haemorrhaging manpower. A quarter of the Nepalese National income is from monies sent from family members who have found work abroad. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and beyond are popular destinations for Migrant workers. In order to get abroad, poor rural folk need to get loans and the money lenders charge 60% per annum. Debts that prevent return if things do not work out as planned. 

As if on cue the train which has offered eight weeks of uninterrupted service is derailed. No one on is hurt and passengers are good natured enough to lend a hand with getting it on the move again. The rails are bent so track repairs are required.

Enter Janeshwar who takes his trusty push bike and cycles the ten miles from his home to the site of the accident.  His team takes only one hour to fix the rail. The tracks are taken to the site by the emergency cart  and they get to work.

He is always on call and he needs the income as his second son Sarya wants to finish school and go to work in Qatar with his older brother. Janeshwar has only just finished paying off the loan for his older son  and does  not know how he will manage. Sarya goes into town to have a medical test so he can travel.

Meanwhile back at the station and unbeknownst to Regina who is aboard the train with a big consignment and her son who is holding himself in readiness to take it off from her, a huge government raid is being prepared, customs and fare collectors are going to take everyone off the  train to seize  illicit goods and charge fare Dodgers.

Bedlam ensues as Regina tries to flee with bundles, her son and she are both manhandled and all  her  bundles are seized and it  is only through sheer tenacity and cheekiness does she whip one off the customs cart and abscond with it. The customs officers are unrepentant and she loses £100 worth of goods in that one seizure.

Amaan's day improves when the company accountant counts all the takings and fines and say that staff will be paid a month’s wages the following day. The timing is perfect as it corresponds with the day of Thanks giving in the Festival of Dashain . Hindus traditionally sacrifice a goat  to the Goddess in penance for their misdeeds. With the amount of a month’s wage totalling about £60, Amaan pays his debtors and treats the family to a trip to the fair. He does not have the money to send his children to school.

Regina although a Muslim also sacrifices in thanks for her small wins this year.

However Catastrophic news comes from India in the plans to upgrade to a large gauge rail line the whole Current line will be demolished so that new infrastructure can be built. The
tenaciousness of the staff is laudable, they still graft away to fix the line and run the trains until the eleventh hour.  Their dedication to the line that has been their lifeline is moving and poignant.

The children step up as it become apparent that their parents will be in dire straits. Regina’s son gets a job, Saraya forgoes his overseas plans and starts a black market ring of his own. 

Life goes on despite the disaster for the towns of Jaynagar and Janakpur.

Part of Indian locomotive History gone forever but not  the spirit of  the region and the good hearted people who try to exist there.

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