Sunday, March 16, 2008

Haunted Junction

“Baidyanath led a lonely life as station-master at Begunkodor station on the Purulia-Jharkhand border. For miles on every side, hemmed in by the black hills of Chhotanagpur, all he could see was red earth, cracked and dry, with the odd tree for relief. Usually, he sat on the platform, staring at the railway track as it sprang from one horizon and disappeared into the other. Once in a rare while, a train would crash through his reverie and Baidyanath would rush to see the blur off. Occasionally, when a train would actually stop, a passenger or two would appear from the haze and disappear into the train. Baidyanath would wave and smile, until the whistle blew and the smoke flew; he was alone again.

The village stood a few miles to the south. Baidyanath would see villagers at the station on some days, though they generally seemed to avoid him and his station. Except little Manabanando Mahato. Manab would stop at the station on his way from school and Baidyanath would often tell him stories or teach him math. Usually, Manab was accompanied by his friend Utpal – a quiet boy who’d sit in the corner while Manab and Baidyanath talked. One day, bad news! Utpal had stepped on a snake – dead before he knew it. Manab was inconsolable. Baidyanath walked the child home, past Utpal’s house where people had gathered. Women were wailing while the men spoke in hushed tones. Baidyanath saw the mother – a sorry sight. Baidyanath left. Days passed. One night, while retiring, Baidyanath heard a sound. He’d heard it before – the sound of children playing. But whenever he’d gone to investigate, he saw nothing. He’d seen a lapwing though, and once a pack of dogs digging and pulling near the dead Mohul tree. Perhaps that’s what he’d heard. Away from human voices, perhaps his ears played tricks. But this night, there was something about the noise that seemed familiar… he’d heard it before… what was it? Was it…? Impossible! It was Utpal’s voice!

‘Baidyanath Kaku (uncle)! Kaku!’ Manabanando was looking for the station-master next morning. After searching for a while, he found Baidyanath lying in a shallow well, unconscious. The villagers helped him to a cot on the platform. When Baidyanath awoke, it was dusk. He got up, locked all doors and windows and returned to his bed but kept a lamp burning. He couldn’t sleep. So he waited. As the hour approached, Baidyanath’s eyes closed tight. His heart leapt and flickered like the flame of the lamp. He heard a voice again. Not a child’s but a woman’s. ‘Utpal? Kothhai… where are you? Aay… come to me my child’. Utpal’s mother?! The voice again, closer this time, now further away… near the tracks now, just outside the door… she screamed “Utpal!!” Right next to the door now “Kholo.. open the door, Station Babu.. open the door!” She was screaming. Baidyanath’s eyes closed tighter as he huddled inside the quilt. “Kholo! Kholo!!” The screaming whistle of the night train merged with the woman’s screams as they rose to a crescendo. The iron wheels charged along the rails, like rolling thunder; doors rattled, boards clattered and Baidyanath’s resolve shattered. He ran to the door, opened it, and stared at the tracks. His knees buckled. He fell, his body inert.

Ratan Gope was the first to find her next morning. Utpal’s mother, at least most of her, was lying on the tracks. The head, alongwith an arm was found further ahead. The station master was sitting on the floor, as if in a stupor. After that day, save little Manabanando, he spoke to no one. One day, he disappeared, and wasn’t seen again.” Why? What had he seen? “The Mohul tree next to the station was where the villagers buried their dead children. Baidyanath didn’t know. That night sitting on a branch of the tree, he said Utpal had called out to him. Utpal too had been buried there. Utpal’s mother came looking. Something went wrong. No station master came to take his place and no train has ever stopped at Begunkodor since that day, 30 years ago. Some years later, a villager was walking past the station. It started raining. He took shelter in the deserted station for the night. We found him next morning, delirious. He kept asking about ‘the crazy woman who was running along the tracks’. A week later, he died.” Night! The dark ominous silhouette of the hills merged into the inky blue sky. Standing by the village, I saw the tracks glinting in the moonlight.

Beyond the tracks, almost lost in the descending gloom rose the walls of Begunkodor station. The red brick structure, neglected and forlorn, had saplings on the roof, like wisps of hair on a bald head. Inside, the shadows seemed to hold many secrets. The toothless little man seemed tired. He’d been talking for long. I asked him his name. “Manabanando Mahato! School teacher!…Aashi!” The man turned for the village. In the dark, it was going to be a very long walk through the fields, across the tracks, past the station to the highway faraway. My flesh crawled and so did I.


While Manabanando had his own take on the history of the haunted station, local politicians are apparently trying their hardest to revive the station’s prior status. A local political leader insisted that he’s found audience with the Railway Minister whose office has promised to “look into the matter”.

On the other hand, Railway authorities say that although it is possible that the station masters in the past might have deserted their posts in Begunkodor for various reasons, it might be difficult to make the station operational now. This is because the narrow gauge line has been converted to a high-speed broad gauge line which makes it difficult for the train to stop at Begunkodor.

Most young people in the villages today insist that an operational station at Begunkodor would make life a lot easier for the locals. However, when pressed, many acknowledge that there have been a few inexplicable deaths in the distant past. “It was all so long ago,” they say. The elders in the village seem to remember the stories though, which have perhaps tempered their enthusiasm. A local MLA has a solution – to bring in exorcists to drive the dreaded spirits away. Today Begunkodor is being propped up by the politicians, pulled down by the railways, held against by the villagers and perhaps stands deserted by the spirits.


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