Some trains are moving. Some trains are still. A few passengers here and there, walking with their suitcases and kids. And suddenly, a rail engine whistles.
The sounds of trains have always evoked the mysteries of travelling, and of escape—this is particularly true when one is living in such a seemingly endless city as Delhi. Yet, these sounds have become rarer in the times of the coronavirus pandemic. No passenger trains were running during the weeks of lockdown (except for the ones carrying migrants from their adopted cities to their home districts). And only a few are back in operation. Gone are the days when the ‘Delhiwales’ could, on impulse, book a ‘Tatkal’ in a Shatabdi to Agra or Kalka as the weekend approached. One is bound to grapple with all the tiresome questions—how crowded will the coaches be? How high are the chances of catching the infection in them?
Until we can again have the semblance of a normal time, there is a place from which you can experience the thrill of rail travel without even stepping inside the rail station. This is the overbridge that runs over the New Delhi railway station. The unique destination was briefly mentioned on these pages some years ago but now in these extraordinary times it has acquired a more profound significance. Usually busy with traffic, the bridge has a broad sidewalk that makes it possible for the pedestrian to spend a long time looking down at the station. The platforms are as close from here as if you were standing on the footbridges of the station itself—you can even spot the resident rats.
The vantage point also gives a bird’s eye view of almost the entire railway station. This late afternoon, you can clearly see the destination plates on the red AC coaches of a train—that’s Mumbai-bound Rajdhani Express. And see, over there, a group of porters are dragging a trolley. In another train, a woman is sitting by the window, her head resting against the grills, her face masked.
And now the air fills up with the echo of a railway station announcement—the arrival of so-and-so Express on platform number so-and-so. This computerised female voice is so familiar, and one has heard it so many times in so many railway stations, that it instantly evokes those carefree days when we lived without the sword of coronavirus hanging over our head. The moment painfully brings back the memories of a life we have lost due to the ongoing pandemic.
Some minutes later, the Rajdhani starts to leave.