Thursday, 14 August 2014


The advantage of the Manu station ticket counter is it's very unlikely you'll have to queue.


The trucks are loaded and overloaded these days, heaped high, rice grain, cement sacks, bananas or livestock. It’s a lily. It’s a lotus painted pink on the yellow cabin door – or a serene mosque in ghostly green with attendant crescent moon. There’s an eagle landed on a branch. There’s a magpie robin. Every truck is a canvas.

Non-specific flowers trail along the metal panels above the wheels. There’s the driver. There’s the attendant shouting out things. Every truck is an optimist ready to tempt its fate and ours. These are spiritual, personalised, grumpy machines. There are deadlines. There’s no time to lose. In the diesel stench they rumble, shoot like bullets along the highway kicking up dust and nerves all across the country.

Those trucks carry more than goods of course. They’ve loaded up that history and carted it away. Who will think of Manu now?

The Manu station timetable.


Shanti Lal Robidas, Manu platform.
There’s lethargy to the heat by the Manu River in rural Moulvibazar. The shiny singular line of railway tracks from Sreemangal to the south reaches Manu station on a long curve through fields, with a little box bridge over a culvert up the line. Beside the larger bridge in red-brown iron that crosses the Manu grand trees line the rustic platform. The trees are the best hope for conversation.

It’s not that the Manu platform is entirely empty. The stationmaster has gone home for lunch but Shanti Lal Robidas, 60 plus, is there. He doesn’t much wish to speak though. He’s brought his shoe shining kit from home – over the tracks among the collection of tin shed stores they call Manu Bazar. He’s waiting for any passing shoes that might need polishing or cobbling. It’s an effort that seems futile. The Mail, the Jalalabad and the local Kushiara... three trains per day deign to stop. Perhaps his is more a psychological business, something to get him out of the house. It’s a ritual.

Robidas lacks that engaging effervescence it’s so easy to take for granted. He’s really not a conversationalist – shy and reluctant. It stands out. He’s not Bengali for sure. “Five to six years ago all the trains stopped here,” he says, coaxed out of him, “Business was good.”

It's not certain he knows where his family come from.
Perhaps his heritage came via the tea plantations. Those workers’ families were lured and tricked from all over India by the British – many are no longer sure where their roots lie. They brought cultures and now half-forgotten languages; from his demeanour one can sense that anachronistic binding sense of caste, most often out of place in Bangladesh. It seems as if he doesn’t wish to speak because he’s ‘only’ a cobbler and cobblers can’t have anything useful to say. Perhaps that’s not it – nothing is sure. If he said a little more we’d know. But it feels oh so rural India.

Later, two of his friends arrive. They’ve noticed the sight of strangers on the platform. Cautiously Robidas confesses he’s been the Manu platform cobbler since the East Pakistan days but otherwise his friends take over, verbally encroaching to speak for him.

“Manu was more developed than Kulaura Junction,” one says, “All sorts of goods passed through – rice grain, timber, fish.”

“There’s no excitement like there once was – no business, no people,” says the other.

There's talk of a flood maybe fifteen years ago when the rail line was closed for seven days. Sometimes passengers slept and ate at the station.

The guy in the orange shirt was very keen to be in the photos.
Suddenly there’s the long bellow of a horn. A train is approaching from the Sreemangal side, acknowledging Manu station with the sound as if sending a little “hello, hi” to a friend from a bygone era. Or perhaps it’s a greeting for the cobbler? For the few on the platform there’s some interest in it: the strangeness of change!

I watch the train close in; the others watch me watching. But there’s no slowing down for Manu, no pairs of shoes to comfortably alight to be polished or cobbled. With a rush of wind; with passengers sticking heads out train windows, waving, watching rural Bangladesh rush by; with platform tree branches momentarily waving back; with kids train surfing on the roof... change is as suddenly gone – over the river, across the bridge, into the future. That change is bound for the bustling bazaar of Kulaura Junction and the modernised skyline of Sylhet City – express.

Stillness easily returns to Manu. Stillness has made itself comfortable there.

Express train passing by Manu station.


Manu was once a busy, commercial station.
In Kulaura there’s talk of a Manu River lined with godowns. Especially it was a port for fish and chingri shrimp sent by rail from Chandpur, Chittagong and Noakhali. Those goods got down at Manu to board barges on their way to market. In its heyday Manu was a commercial station with three rail lines, five station buildings and twelve staff working eight-hour shifts such that always a minimum of three were on duty.

Upstream is India, the Tripuran town of Kailashahar and beyond, oddly enough, another little train station called Manu. Indian Manu is on the Lumding – Agartala rail line opened in 2008.

Downstream is Moulvibazar town. But while these days there are river barrages on both sides, not to mention the border, in all likelihood it’s primarily the trucks that did the damage. With the ease of highway transport they packed up that history and carted it away.

Manu platform and the Manu River.


Md Badal Rana, stationmaster.
In the evening Manu is deserted. Only stationmaster Md Badal Rana, 35, sits in his office, several ledgers in front of him. There are six columns he needs to complete each day with the amount of whatever meagre takings he’s collected. There’s no need for signalling work.

“I’m alone,” he says, “The station is only here for the bridge. The river is here. I have twenty-four hour duty.” His manner is gregarious, clearly pleased for the company. It’s the sort of thing to take for granted – there’s no doubt he’s Bengali.

“The trains, including the expresses, are many,” he says, “but the line is only one. Often trains have to wait at Sreemangal or Kulaura Junction. Today the 6 a.m. train came at 11 a.m. and the 11 a.m. train came at 2 p.m.” It’s his personal phone he uses to find out where a train is when passengers come. “The worst thing is when people have to wait a long time.”

“It’s a poor area,” he says, “People work as rickshaw drivers and such. They don’t buy tickets much; and the Kushiara comes first – it’s a local service where you buy the ticket onboard.” It costs ten taka to travel 24 kilometres, 12 taka for 31 km and 15 taka for 41 km.*

The tracks towards Kulaura Junction.
Rana likes the locals. “Hindu or Muslim, they are good, simple people. We have nice adda, chatting, together. Everybody knows me. I’m invited to all the pujas and weddings. They all have my mobile number and I spend too much money returning calls to sell tickets. Sometimes I sell long-distance tickets to Chandpur or Dhaka.”

It took Rana some adjustment to get used to his Manu posting, which he took up in 2011. “There is no food system here. No rice. And I don’t like coming at night. After 10 p.m. there aren’t people around but if a train is arriving at 1 or 2 a.m. I am here. What will I do if people come?” At the least, with the help of a local councillor he managed to have the tube well fixed. It was broken for thirty years but now he has drinking water.

He points to the broken ceiling above us. “What if a woman was sitting there and it falls?”

*US$1=80 Bangladeshi taka.

Manu station, Moulvibazar District, Bangladesh.

Manu was once a station of 5 buildings and 12 staff.

The station. Manu. Moulvibazar.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Manu

Stillness makes itself comfortable in Manu.

The trucks have carted away the history.

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