Preface: At 130 am every night, the Goa Express toots in majestically into a small station called ‘Belgaum’. It is coming from New Delhi, and will finally stop only at Goa’s largest town, Vasco. The station busies itself every night at this hour. Tea sellers move hurriedly on the platform, peering into windows, their kettles steaming. Outside, the autowalas are all ready, hoping that some student will want a drop-off to one of the many colleges in the town. And Agarwal uncle, well he is back in his shop at the far end of the platform. At this hour, his shop is arguably more sought after than any other shop in the country.
Belgaum, lying on the Maharasthra-Karnataka border, has long been a disputed land. It has also consistently shown signs of being communally sensitive. And yet, there isn’t one soul in town who wouldn’t swear by Agarwal’s delicious omelettes. In every conflict, a calm wallows inside.
And that’s why, that night, right before the six of us got into the general compartment of the train on Belgaum station, six shadows stood close to the counter, and a furry canine polished off any crumbs or yolk that dripped from their paper plates.
Three hours later, round about 4 am, we were standing on a desolate platform, in the middle of nowhere. Well, geographically we were in the Western Ghats but far, far from civilization, in the middle of the hills. A dirty yellow board at the fag end read “Castle Rock Junction”.
“Right” said Sanju, his stubble glimmering in the moonlight.
“Right.” said I, scanning the length of the platform. And “Oye” said the approaching station master, adding some much needed variety to the conversation.
“You want to trek to Doodhsagar falls!!!!” he exclaimed loudly, right after we had precisely told him the same. “And then we’ll go to Goa” nodded Murali enthusiastically. He looked a lot less enthusiastic when the officer told us that the falls were 16 kilometers away, and soon became completely quiet when the officer asked us if we were carrying any food or water. I was grinning, I like situations of no security. My sister says I like being a jackass.
It was pitch dark, that September night. Since we did not believe in maps, we decided to follow the railway track. And we did, chattering and laughing like all boys do when on an important mission. Fifteen minutes later, we were standing outside a tunnel. ‘Pitch dark’ cannot describe a mountain tunnel in the night. It would, in fact, be foolish if a writer describes it so. It was a different black, ominous and eerie. A black that did not allow us to see anything. Forget the track, I put out my hand in front, and I could not see the end of it. We tried walking a few steps on the rail, assuming that judgement would fare us well, but it was hopeless. In the hills, the tracks curve, so attempting to walk in a straight line was of no help. From the roof, there was water dripping and the stones were very slippery. For some reason, we could smell oil too. Someone fell at the back of the line.
The only way to cross it, we decided, was to stand facing the side walls, and push out one foot and then the next. We couldn’t see each other, so we held hands to help balance ourselves.
“I never thought a day would come when you and I would be holding hands” Sanju grumbled. “I wonder if he thinks I will treasure this moment forever” I informed the figure behind me, and promptly bumped my forehead into his, in the darkness.
“Hark! I hear a noise” shot Hemang. I couldn’t, but I felt a weird knot in my stomach, or a vibration. In half a minute, the vibrations grew stronger. Hemang put his ear to the track then. “Shit, it’s a train” he screamed.
In the still night of the hills, on curving levels, a train’s sound is magnified several times. It is impossible at such times to ascertain how far it really is, could be a kilometer, could be four. But we knew it was close. We were not even halfway into the tunnel and there was no way we would cross it in time. Someone shouted, and we all jumped off the track and clung to the walls. In seconds, the train came in charging. Flattened against the walls, we saw it pass us by, just inches away from our bodies. Most of it was dark, but at intervals a few windows were still lighted and as the train passed us, it created a ghostly, spooky effect. There was a bulb on the top of the engine that illuminated the whole tunnel, so as soon as the train crossed us, we sprinted behind it. Sometime, we finally came out of tunnel.
We walked ahead, and a light shot across the sky. And before I could ask my friends if they saw it, another streak flew across. And then another. In a matter of minutes, we saw forty fifty shooting stars flying all across the sky. I had never seen a sight like that before, and I haven’t seen it since. It was beautiful. ‘Surreal’ had found an illustration. It takes something to silence a group of young men, and it had. We gazed on, fervently.
When it stopped, we resumed walking in silence. Later in Goa, someone told us that there had been a meteor shower the previous night.
Dawn came soon, and the sun came out of the clouds, slowly, teasing us, acting pricey. Soon, the birds began to chirp and the hills were full of their sounds. At the sight of the first stream, we threw our bags and ran to it, competing as to who would reach the first. When I put my head under the water, a piercing scream left my lungs. The water was blisteringly cold, and each time we immersed ourselves, it chilled us to the bone. Refreshed, we left the stream after some time and resumed on our quest.
I don’t remember how many tunnels we crossed before we finally reached the falls. Google tells me there are fifty seven tunnels overall in the Western Ghats. But at the end of six hours, we were there. There was a small room posing as the station master’s den, and he comes out twice a day to wave a flag and let the trains pass his lair. It is well known that when the train crosses Doodhsagar falls, the driver slows the train so that people can stand at the door and click the falls’ pictures. When we crossed the ‘den’, we saw ourselves at the top of the falls. It was a beautiful sight, and as the name suggest, it really was a flow of white milk. The water churned furiously, falling down with magnificent, imperious force, decimating everything in its path. As soon as we saw it, we realized there was no way in the living world we could ever swim in it. Down below, some tourists were swimming in the lake at the base. Sanjay and I tried climbing down the steep hill, hanging and slipping off tress, hoping to reach the base but it was impossible. So we just sat there, looking at the mighty falls do its own thing. A fine spray, flaying off the rocks, drenched us but it felt great.
A couple of hours later, a small engine crossed the falls. We flagged it down, and the good driver agreed to drop us off at Goa.
That I drove the engine for almost half that journey, is another story.