YOU CAN’T possibly ride a snail. Nor can you board something metaphorically slower – Dhubri Mail.
Dhubri is Assam’s westernmost town and headquarters of a district with the same name. It features in songs, poems, fiction, non-fiction and rhetoric as a geographic and demographic extreme. Almost always along with the other extreme Sadiya, the easternmost settlement, where the river Brahmaputra begins.
Geographic, because Dhubri stands close to where the Brahmaputra dissolves into the Yamuna after flowing past the Indo-Bangladesh border.
Demographic, because it is one of India’s very few Muslim-dominated districts, and is often cited as an example of how unchecked influx of Bangladeshis – most of its 75 per cent Muslims are Bengali-speaking – can overrun indigenous Indians.
Optimists, though, hail Dhubri for being a religious confluence. Not without reason; the Gurdwara Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib here is a neighbour of the Panchpeer Dargah and Mahamaya Temple.
Romantic or cynic or alarmist, all agreed nothing on earth was as sluggish as the Dhubri Mail. A ‘Dhubri Mail’ tag meant you were a slowcoach or worse. That was before the last train chugged out of Dhubri Railway Station two decades ago.
It wasn’t exactly the Dhubri Mail that Indian Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee revived on September 13. She flagged off the 810 Dhubri-Kamakhya Fast Passenger at 11 am through video-conferencing from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station in West Bengal.
Kamakhya is the westernmost railway station within the municipal limits of Assam capital Guwahati, 290 km east of Dhubri. And New Jalpaiguri, 220 km north of Dhubri, is a strategic railway junction for trains connecting the Northeast and India’s ‘mainland’.
For some 70,000 residents of Dhubri, the revival of the train service means a lot. For old-timers in particular who couldn’t get over the town’s slump as a pre-1947 communication hub to a post-Independence dead-end.
To understand Dhubri’s location without a map, place the town at a bend on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. Imagine the town hemmed in by water bodies on all sides except one that allows the railway track, almost parallel to a road (lifeline), to connect it to the country beyond.
For those not familiar with Dhubri’s pre-1947 status, the town had an airport and river port besides being a railhead. Prior to 1947, almost everyone who traveled west from present-day Northeast took a train from Dhubri to Kolkata via Lalmonihat (in Bangladesh).
They had to come to Dhubri for the other options too – ferry to the Bay of Bengal and beyond or a flight from Rupsi Airport, 15 km north of the town.
Partition put paid to the Dhubri river port. The airport, built by the British during World War II, sporadically serviced small passenger planes with flights to Guwahati and Kolkata until it was shut down in 1983.
Five years later, a devastating flood damaged the metre gauge track leading to the Dhubri Railway Station. The track was restored in 1993, but train services were stopped for good after a tribal militant outfit blew up a locomotive in 1995.
“Never thought I would live to see Dhubri back on track,” said 83-year-old resident Tarini Roy after the 801 Fast Passenger toot-tooted past his house in Gauripur town (where the road leading to Dhubri branches off the National Highway). “Wish the river port and airport were also made operational again.”
The Inland Water Authority of India, having declared the Brahmaputra an important national waterway, has long been planning to restart river transport. The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region has also taken an initiative to reopen Rupsi.
But both IWAI and DoNER seem to be ailing from the Dhubri Mail syndrome. Then again, Dhubri is used to things moving slowly.