The indigo sky is tainted by the first strokes of orange as the Satpura Express leaves the ugly sprawl of Jabalpur behind. The clatter of the track gives way to a dull roar as it steps on to the mighty bridge that spans the Narmada. A bridge made of steel and stone masonry, blood, guts and ingenuity. The sound it makes is enough to wake everyone in the carriage. The chap on the opposite seat murmurs ‘Jai Narmada Maiyya’ in his slumber. The orange in the sky is blacked out the by silhouette of a monster. A new bridge is being built – from concrete and modern technology. The sorts that make no noise. Soon, no one will know they’re crossing their revered Narmada.
The morning sun lights up the forests of the Satpura. The green and gold landscape is a joy to watch. We pass through tiny hamlets with exotic names like Sukri Mangela, Shikara, Gudru, Lamta. Children run out of their thatched huts to wave at the train – some of them stop their frolicking in the streams as we rumble over them. Wherever the train stops – the town comes alive and goes back to sleep when it leaves. Life here is idyllic, life here is beautiful. This place moved Bhavani Prasad Mishra, Kipling and countless other poets and writers to create some of their finest works.
Not for long though – on either side, the forest has been dug up. Miles upon miles of steel rails and concrete sleepers are being brought in. Towering mounds of dug up earth block the view of the rolling hills. Progress is coming. The Broad Gauge is coming. The tiny narrow gauge train that wheezes at 30-40kmph will be replaced by its big blue cousin that will thunder past at 100 kmph.
‘Jobs will come, mobile networks will come. We won’t have to go to Jabalpur or Balaghat for everything’ – says Ashutosh who boarded at Pindrai. He runs a knick knack shop there and is going to Balaghat to take delivery of fresh stock. ‘My travel time will reduce by 4 hours. Nothing better can happen!’, he beams.
Pindrai will grow, so will Nidhani and Titwa. Huts will be replaced by brick and mortar houses. The labour needed for that will build shanties along the new broad gauge and line up in the morning, mooning the passing trains with a bottle in hand. Everyone will drive around on their motorcycles with their heads wrapped around their mobile phones. The forest will be something that lies in the distance. The streams where kids used to bathe will be clogged with plastic.
I seem to be only one who is not happy about the broad gauge. I am the only one who wishes Pindrai is not overrun by property dealers and mobile phone billboards. I am the only one who wishes that forests of Mishra’s poems and Kipling’s books stay the way they are. But I am a just silly romantic who takes a week off from work to travel in a tiny narrow gauge train rumbling through the forest for amusement. Why should anyone bother about what I want? After all, I will catch the air-conditioned Duronto Express in the evening and be back in the morning in my 14th floor office overlooking mankind’s towering achievements with a cup of coffee in hand.
Why should anyone bother?