Friendship (S)Train

It has taken 43 years of hard and patient waiting to link a scarred and divided Bengal. First it was in 1905, under the pretext of administrative conveniences; then in 1947 under religious grounds and then finally, when it seemed that Bengal would be ‘re-united’, if not politically, but at least culturally, socially and most importantly, as the land of Bengalis sharing not just a common language but a common culture as well. 1971 had closed doors to all sharing between the nations. That is not to say that Bengalis on both sides of the border were not in touch, but there was a complete lack of communication. However, a physical link has now been established itself again with the Maitree Express is of special significance.

The first Indian passenger train to Bangladesh and to Dhaka, a distance of 372km, is running in remembrance of things of the past. Without a shade of doubt, its symbolism is greater than the distance it will cover. Bangladesh was not born at the time of the last passenger train service to this side of Bengal. In 1965, it was still East Pakistan and war was just breaking out. And its start on Poila Baisakh, the Bengali New Year has brought in hope, that Tagore’s ‘Sonar Bangla’ could be achieved if though a little diluted from his original vision.

The memories that the train to Bangladesh evoke are distinct from the trains that ran the rivers of blood at the time of Partition between the two Punjabs. Coaches full of bloodied bodies pulled into stations on either side of the border, inciting more violence. In contrast, the East Bengal Railways in British India was commercially viable almost from the year it began. In later years, the trains bound the two Bengals together despite the Partition on 1947 and the exodus of refugees from East Bengal and East Pakistan that continued till the foundation of Bangladesh in1971.

If there is a parallel, it is in that infamous line called the 38th Parallel, the Korean border. In December 2007, just four months back, South and North Korea began the first goods train service across the de-militarised Zone that Bill Clinton called the scariest place on Earth. Same as the inter-Korean border, here too is a border between the same people. There is, in fact, a real possibility that the Maitree Express is the harbinger of a Bengal that goes beyond borders.

The Maitree Express is the latest in the list of communication links in formerly colonial countries that are making room for reconciliation. But the emotions that accompany the opening of such connections are scarcely strong enough to stand the test of time in the Indian subcontinent. As a second generation East Bengali, I have never felt a strong emotional link to my native land. Sylhet, where I come from was a part of colonial Assam and as such my feelings lie more towards the country that I am born in, than towards a grand unified Bengal, a cause for which my grandfather died.

Finally for most of the post-Partition second generation Bengalis, our perceptions of East Bengal are very flimsy. Embossed in the collective Bengali memory is the scene from Ritwik Ghatak’s Komolgandhar where the protagonist Bhrigu is looking into the middle distance of a snapped railway line and telling his theatre group: “At one time, these tracks were like a plus sign, adding Bengal with Bengal, now it looks more like a minus.”

Anupam Dhar

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