Deep in the rain-fed forests of Malanad (Rain-Land) lies the magnificent Jog Falls, the highest one in India. One fine day, I suddenly decided that I wanted to see it. I took an overnight express from Bangalorethat reached Shimoga at 5 AM.
This part of Karnataka relies heavily on buses for transport. There were many buses from Shimoga to Sagar and from there to Jog falls. But then, I discovered something that morning. A little known, tiny and beaten piece of machinery leaves Shimoga railway station every morning at 6 AM, except Sundays. This one takes three hours through eight little stations on metre gauge tracks to cover 75 km of the Western Ghats. Through lush forest and vegetation, it goes all the way to Talaguppa. Talaguppa is about 9 miles from Jog Falls. This little thing is a rickety old Ashok Leyland rail bus that used to run between Yelahanka and Whitefield in the days of metre gauge.
The rail bus consists of two small-articulated coaches with the engine and the controls placed at the end of one coach. This tiny fellow accommodates 57 passengers. They comprised mostly of the hinterland gentry with all the rural paraphernalia, including coconut saplings. The ticket cost 20 rupees, much cheaper than the bus fare. At six, a guard arrived from nowhere, wearing a crisp white suit and a peaked cap with two neat flags in his hand. He blew a sharp whistle and waved the flag…a mere tradition, since the guard could as well speak the signal to the driver…so small being the train. The next moment, the bus created quite a ruckus as it charged ahead, like a bull picking up speed in no time. The bus is a corkked piece of machinery; hardly as any shock absorbers and the condition of the tracks do not cushion the ride either. All kinds of noises erupted…snorts, bellows, creaks, shudders, rattles, crashes...and massive vibrations! And I coined the term The Bull Run.
This tiny fellow was the sole lord of the track he used. The tracks were more than 100 years old and did not have a loop line anywhere in the run. The British had built it for the purpose of being a ferry line for the dam being constructed at Linganmakki. The Bull rocked and rolled and charged ahead into one of the loveliest countryside I had ever seen.
This was Malanad, a rain-fed, green country. The recent rains left a cover of wetness on the earth and all the greenery making it colorful and pleasant. The Bus rumbled through virgin rain forests full of deciduous trees covered with moss and lichen. The little hamlets with tiled huts added an earthy touch to the scene. The countryside was interspersed with thick woods and lush fields looking like golf courses. This was beautiful India. Small stations had passed, with the Bus making short halts, enroute.. People somehow filled up this train and it ran full all the time. A cheap and efficient service was what it provided to these good folk. Everybody on the train knew everybody including the guard and the drivers and there was always a bonhomie exchange of niceties.
At seven, we rolled into a small station called Kenchanahalli. This was a typical one-horse town with a small platform and a tiny station house. The Bus halted just after a small level crossing that was probably used by bullock carts and two wheelers. Here I followed guard and the drivers went across the track to a small tea stall and sipped some fine tea on a cool misty morning. So small is this railway and so insignificant that, there are no amenities or hawkers all along the route. The stations are just heaps of earth lined with flagstones or cement embankments.
It was an earthy combination, a small rural train, a green countryside, beautiful rural folk and picturesque villages. Anandapuram was a bigger station. It had a neat and old station house. Just beside it were lush green paddy fields. The Adderi station housed trees of teak and jackfruit. Balegudi was my favourite. It was a small station with a tiny station house dwarfed by a number of huge teak trees. The ground was covered with lichen. There was no road to it. The station was always there, never changed and never grew. It stood still in time as if nature had stopped metamorphosing. A rural peasant boarded the train here. A young lad got down and retrieved his bicycle from nowhere and disappeared. The soft wind swished about before being subdued by the Bus’s charge. Having been in cities all my life, this little moment was a special one and would be etched in my memories.
After two and half-hours the Bus rolled into Sagar, a major town of Malnad. Sagar had a decent platform and the station had a Station Master and a compliment of staff. The bus looked odd on the tracks here where the platform was meant for a larger train. Practically all of the folks in the train alighted here and went out. The Bus started 20 minutes later, almost empty. Instead of speeding up, it ambled on lazily for the last 8 kms of run. At Kannale, I saw something that summed up the quaintness of this lovely railway. Kannale was unlike the other stations, devoid of any vegetation and lay on a plain. The platform was a mound of earth and the miniscule station house was a ruin. On the platform stood a man clad in a soiled vest and a faded red lungi, looking every bit like a mistry on a construction site. He was beckoning a couple of people far away to hurry up as he chatted up the driver. Once the people neared him, he pulled out a neat bundle of tickets, handed them each one ticket, collected the money and bid them a goodbye as they boarded the railbus. He was the one-man station-master-cum-staff of Kannale. I had traveled the length and breadth of Indian Railways. Never had I seen a lungi-banian clad Stationmaster before.
At 9 am, the Bull finally rolled into the 100-year-old tree-lined Talaguppa station, one of the cutest ones I had seen. This, apart from Shimoga, had the only loop on the line…to reverse the bus. At the end of the station where the tracks terminated was a tiny and cute turntable. This was used to turn the engine of the bus around for his onward journey. India has the second largest railway network and the largest passenger network. In pockets of India, there exist many stations and routes like this one, that are devoid of any attention, but continue to charm the people on their own with their quaint ways. The Talaguppa –Shimoga line will soon vanish thanks to the Project Unigauge. Or it may go into disuse and obsolescence. But as long as it exists, the Bull Run, its little stations, the green country and the gentlefolk who dwell here shall be a fantasy.