Hale-Bopp Comet

It was April 10, 1997. At that time, I was working in Western India in the town of Vadodara while my family was based in Mumbai. Those days, I used to go to Mumbai once every month and the best mode of transport was by train. There were night trains that left around 9 pm and reached Mumbai early morning. I always had my reservations in place except this once or may be I missed the train but I clearly remember that I took an unusual ride that night on a goods train. Adventure would be an appropriate description of what unfolded.train

After I reached the railway station, I recollect spending a couple of hours trying to find a train to Mumbai but found nothing was available. Around midnight, I was considering returning home because the station was quite deserted and it was clear that nothing worthwhile would happen. At that time, I encountered a few others who were talking about a goods train that passed the station every night and that it would slow down enough for us to climb on board. They seemed confident that it would pass through Mumbai. These were guys that I would usually not meet because they seemed to be casual labourers and I was not sure whether to believe them or not. It was quite possible that the train may go the opposite direction and end up some where else.

Meanwhile, we could see the lights of a train from a distance and as it approached closer, it became clear that it was a goods train. In my mind, I was trying to decide what to do. Should I throw caution to winds and climb on board this train or should I go back home and try the next morning? As predicted, the train slowed down considerably as it approached the platform. The others at the platform were animated and talking among themselves that they should run alongside the train to match speed and climb up. I had a back pack and felt a sudden wave of panic. I had never done this before and also was worried about how many rules I would be breaking. What if I fell down? What if I got caught mid way by railway police?

The train kept coming relentlessly towards the platform and then it slowed down further while the others ran on the platform towards the train so that they could run along side it for the farthest and take their chances to match speed and climb aboard. At that moment, for some reason, I decided to follow them. I matched strides with them and with a pounding heart, hefted myself onto what appeared to be an oil tanker. The others were spread out among the compartments or tankers before and behind me. One by one the others on compartments behind me started slowly navigating between the compartments and passed me by towards the front of the goods train. These trains usually contain 100 to 125 compartments consisting of oil tankers, open top coal carriers and closed compartments for more valuable goods.

One of my fellow stowaways told me that it was better to go to the front because you get a chance to speak to the engine driver and he would briefly stop or slow down for us to get down at our destination. This was more than what I bargained for. It was unimaginable that I would risk life and limb navigating between compartments of a moving train. But I was getting anxious of falling down from the oil tanker because I was close to the couplings that connected the compartments and this part of the train rattled and shook the most as the train periodically picked up speed or braked. So I took all the courage I could muster and followed him slowly and reached an open top compartment. My journey in an express train would have taken 9 hours and with this slow train, I thought it would take, may be 12 hours, so I decided to lie down for a while in the safety of the open top compartment. There would be an opportunity later for me to run to the front compartments if the train stopped along the way for any reason. The sudden de-escalation of risk seemed welcome.

While I lay in the compartment, I looked up towards the Sky in the dark starry night, I saw a very bright disc like object. I was fascinated by the size and brightness of the object but was sure that it was too far out in space to be an UFO. I spent a good part of the journey looking at the object periodically and also at the passing stations. It was a strange feeling being alone in that compartment under the starry skies on a journey that will never be repeated. I remembered that by the time we managed to match the speed of the train and climb aboard, we were on rear end of the train. The usual train platforms accommodate at the most 12 to 15 compartments so I decided that I should make my way to the front of the train so that if by chance it stopped at any station approaching Mumbai, I could get down.

I discovered that as I moved forward, the air was getting sooty due to the exhaust from the coal fired engine. I was mortified by the thought that when I get down in Mumbai, my face and clothes would be covered in soot. There was no turning back so I kept moving forward and periodically resting and observing what I later found to be the Hale-Bopp comet. The hours rolled by along with the clanging of the tracks under the train and its echoes. We passed by tenements along the tracks. Looking into the windows of dimly lit houses, I longed to be in my own bed after a warm shower.

The train rumbled into the suburbs of Mumbai and fortunately for us, it stopped outside Borivali station. This station is one of the terminus for the Mumbai local trains. We took the opportunity to jump off the train and walk towards the station. From there I got a local train and reached home in an hour. I have never had another adventure like this and the Hale-Bopp comet gave me company through the journey.  In a way I am glad that I took this Journey because I know for sure that I never will dare to do this again.

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