I was viewer number 516,341. At 9 pm on 11 February 2017. Five days after The Statesman carried a report on this beautiful BBC documentary. It is on YouTube; “The Kalka-Shimla Railways.” Even without watching this documentary, I knew of the Himalayan Queen, the toy train that runs from Kalka to Shimla.
My wife and I had planned the start of our New Year traveling through Himachal Pradesh, starting with a ride on the Himalayan Queen from Kalka to Barog.
Lady Luck was not with us. The New Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi decided to depart New Delhi about five hours after its scheduled time; at 12:30 pm on 2 January. We learned of this when we reached the New Delhi railway station around 7 in the morning. We gave up. There was no way that we could catch the toy train from Kalka.
So we travelled by bus to Barog – where we had decided to spend a night – from New Delhi. We decided that we would take the toy train on our return. Even that was not to be! The train was similarly delayed on the day of our return, and we couldn’t afford to wait. Therefore, I had to be contented with being the 516341th viewer.
We enjoyed our travels through Himachal Pradesh. We returned to Shimla on the last leg and had deliberately chosen a hotel high up on a hill. One had to climb about 250 meters up a steep slope to reach the hotel; no car would reach. I was, of course, not aware of this when I had booked the hotel. We checked into the hotel in the afternoon of 6 January and went for a walk in the evening. It started to drizzle. We hurried back. It was cold and was getting colder.
Soon, through the window of our hotel room, we saw white flakes coming down. The pines and firs were soon covered by the white powder. The snowfall became heavier. There was a snow cover of many inches. The landscape looked beautiful. Around midnight it got scary. The town went pitch dark because of power outage. We were to leave Shimla the next morning. The prospects seemed bleak. It was still snowing heavily.
Reality struck us at dawn. The entire town had come to a grinding halt. The hotel door could not be opened because of accumulation of snow. No cars were plying. We were told by staff that they had not seen such snowfall in a decade. We were, of course, going to miss our flight from Chandigarh to Kolkata. We stayed put in our room. However, after noon the front desk of the hotel started to call us to vacate. We had booked for one night. We couldn’t overstay because our room had to be given to another guest who was expected to arrive. How would the guests reach the hotel and even Shimla if they were arriving from elsewhere?
The front desk called again around 3 PM to inform that some buses had started to ply from the local bus station and we could go to Kalka. How were we going to get to the bus station; a walk of about one-and-a-half kilometres through two feet of snow? The hotel agreed to provide us with a porter who would carry our suitcase.
My wife and I are both over 60 years old. She has a weak knee; climbing down is a chore. Walking on snow and patches of ice can be dangerous. We had lived in Pittsburgh – that gets heavy snow each winter – for a few years, and we knew. If one of us fell and got a fracture, how could we go to the hospital? On the other hand, we really needed to return as quickly as possible.
We decided to hit the road. We were not alone. Some local people and a few tourists were also on the road, trying to reach their destinations. With a porter guiding our way, we inched forward. Slowly, but steadily. Until I slipped and fell. No damage done. I fell a couple more times. My wife also had a few falls. No bones broken; lucky us. Slowly, but surely, after a three-hour walk we covered the 1.5 km to the bus stand. We saw many buses parked. But no bus operators. Hundreds of tourists wanted to leave Shimla. The sun was setting. There was no electricity. We had to find a hotel. Grand Hotel was the nearest. We climbed up to the reception desk, but sadly they were sold out. We requested the Manager to allow us to spend the night in the reception lobby, even if for a fee, but he refused. Just then, the person behind the desk informed the Manager that there was a cancellation of a double room. We jumped with joy. The hotel charged us a fortune, but it was worth it.
We woke up to a bright and sunny morning. We went out and saw a huge traffic jam was building up. We were desperate. We needed to leave Shimla. We checked out of the hotel and asked for a porter to take our suitcase to the bus station. A handsome, well-built guy came and introduced himself as Kamal. He carried our suitcase. Things at the bus station hadn’t changed. Kamal went searching for a taxi to take us to the Inter-State Bus Terminal (ISBT) about 3.5 km away. All taxis near the bus stand were stuck in snow.
Kamal said he would leave. I paid him a handsome amount. Before leaving, he shared his cellphone number and said that we could call him if we wanted his service again.
We waited for about an hour but there was no transport. We overcame our hesitation and decided to walk. We needed Kamal to help us carry our suitcase. I called him. He said that he was about 15 minutes away, but would come. He took our suitcase and started to walk. We had hardly walked fifty steps when he stopped to talk to someone. Then he told us that he had found a taxi that would take us to ISBT for Rs. 500. Kamal was our hero. He loaded our suitcase into the trunk and looked at me. I reached into my pocket, but found Kamal shaking his fingers at me. Kamal came forward to me and said “Sahab, paisa sab kuchh nahi Hoya hai;” Sir, money is not everything. He left and our taxi started to roll. Eventually we reached Kolkata the next day.
Kamal occupied my thoughts for the next few days because I had encountered a similar soul many years ago. In September 1980, I had gone to Houston (USA) to do a postdoctoral. During the Christmas break that year, I decided to visit some of my friends around America. I didn’t have money to fly. I also wanted to see the U.S. So I decided to take the Greyhound bus from Houston. I was to travel to Minneapolis, with stops in many cities to meet friends.
It was snowing heavily when I reached Minneapolis. My friend was to pick me up from the Greyhound station. When I disembarked, I couldn’t see him. I waited and then called him from a payphone. He said that he was unable to take his car out because of snow. He had even failed to book a cab for me. He was lost. I too was lost. The snowfall was relentless. Spending the night in the bus station didn’t seem like a safe option.
An African-American guy came up to me and asked, “How you doing man?” He came back in a few minutes and asked, “Man where you going? I drive a taxi. I can give you a ride. No fear, man.” I didn’t feel safe in spite of his assurance. Since I didn’t see any other option, I told him. He went away and came back in a few minutes driving a taxi. I boarded and sat beside him. He turned the fare meter on.
“I am Benji. And you?” I told him my name. It was a difficult drive. The taxi skidded every few meters. He asked me where I came from. “India! I love to go to India someday.”
“Man why are you traveling by Greyhound? It takes so much time.” He was very happy when I told him that I wanted to see his country. We talked about his family, my family, about India, about Calcutta, about post-doctoral – “Oh, so you are a doc? You never told me this, man.” I protested, but he was not to listen. “Doc, you save so many lives. I like docs.” I protested again, but to no avail. He suddenly stopped and said that’s your friend’s house. “Relieved, I reached into my back pocket. He started to shake his finger. “No man. We are friends. Money ain’t everything. Go have fun with your friend. I go home now. Not far.”
I met Kamal 37 years after I met Benji. Kamal and Benji live 10000 km apart, in disparate cultures. Both have large hearts. I consider myself fortunate to have met them.