Sitting on the banks of a sacred river beside a massive Asian city, preens in splendor a rail station without peer in the world. At the Howrah rail complex, largest in India, 600 trains pass through daily transporting one million passengers. In many countries, this single rail station would be denoted as a city unto itself. But Howrah receives only passing notice in the larger world since it sits in the shadow of the Pride of Bengal, Kolkata (Calcutta), metro home to 14 million souls.
On any single day, Howrah station puts on a fuller display of ‘madding crowd’ than any in Thomas Hardy’s wildest fancy: desperate passengers, red-shirted porters, hawkers in operatic form, pickpockets, brakemen and cleaners, the infirm who live by the pity of the crowds, railway police with truncheons at the ready, the homeless who find refuge where they can, and assorted thousands whose reasons remain uncertain. The stage upon which this drama unfolds includes 23 platforms while the streets around quiver with busses, rickshaws, bullock carts, taxis, bicycles, lorries, three-wheelers, and daring pedestrians who dart through a fearsome haze midst the unbroken bawling of horns. The cacophony is stupefying, at once bewildering and somehow – well, inspiring.
The station houses hotels, lounges, beauty salons, restaurants and bars, clinics, purveyors of every sort, sidewalk cobblers, astrologers, tailors, ear-cleaners, left-luggage officers and a warren of ticket agents. Somewhere there is a nerve center where a white-collar army toils beneath the whoosh of ancient fans.
I remember once glimpsing there the ‘Fairy Queen’, world’s oldest steam locomotive yet in regular use. Landed on India’s shores in 1855 and now a national treasure, it gained renown for catering to well-heeled tourists at the blinding speed of 25 mph (40 km/hr) as it chuffed past the palaces and forts of the Golden Triangle.
At my last visit to Howrah I arrived on an over-night train. Threading through the complex I made my way to a bus stand needing a ride to the Chowringhee commercial district of Kolkata. The route proceeds across the landmark Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River. As we inched along in the morning rush hour, my eye fell on the back of a nearby bus. It was covered with a collage of movie posters, bills and notices of every kind. One in particular caught my eye. It featured a black-and-white image barely discernable as a human face. The headline read, ’Missing’. Some lines below told what can only have been a sad story.
It dawned upon me how extraordinary this was. In a city of many millions, a single individual had gone missing, whether as a runaway, through mishap, or by some evil hand. It brought me to the point of tears to think that however insignificant a life may seem in this swoon of human activity, its disappearance or loss elicits grief. And those who feel the emptiness will arm themselves with sketchy photocopies, plastering them on city transport in the hope that somewhere, someone will take pity on them with a shred of news. And all the while, millions course through the passageways and alleys of a train station which itself, like the missing soul, is one-of-a-kind.