It was late morning when I reached Ledo railway station in Tinsukhia district of Assam in eastern India.
Just a few hours earlier, I was running late for the Dibrugarh-Ledo passenger train. I was so late that the booking clerk at the counter asked me to buy the ticket at the next station.
‘Nahin toh train nikal jayegi’ he said, warning me that the train would leave any moment.
I obliged and obediently bought the ticket at the next railway station as well.
Now in Ledo, I wondered why the station had no signs boasting of its status. This was the final passenger railway station in the eastern end of the great Indian railway network. It was the young and stylish station master who informed me that Ledo was only the last passenger railway station of the network. There were two more stations on this Lumding-Dibrugarh line in the state of Assam. The one next to Ledo was Tirap which was still used for loading coal on freight carriers. And the original last railway station was Lekhapani, which was out of use after the gauge conversion happened in the nineties.
That I had made it this far, and that too by traveling only on trains from Mumbai, was exciting enough for me. After finishing the southern leg, this was the second major milestone on my trip. But something told me that Lekhapani was important and could not be ignored. And just like that, I decided to start walking towards Lekhapani looking to explore small town Assam.
The town of Ledo wasn’t exactly charming. It seemed like things did not move there at all. People ate oil-laden stir fried noodles and looked melancholic. A man reheated tea at his small shop on his coal fired stove, there was soot all around him. The pointless yet refreshing joy that I had noticed in other parts of India was missing there for some reason.
The place also deceived its historical importance and held no air about its own significance.
As I walked the tracks towards Tirap, I met two kids waiting for their bus to take their home. The tracks doubled up as their playground. A little while later, I met a group of gangmen who were working on the tracks. They were all getting some rest from the scorching sun.
I could locate Tirap siding from far away since it was covered in black soot. And now I began to wonder what Lekhapani looked like.
Some men suggested that I take a tuk-tuk or Vikram to Lekhapani. I agreed.
Less than thirty minutes later, I was at a temple. Right opposite was the Lekhapani railway station.
There it was the final frontier of the Indian railways in Assam.
Nothing announced that I was looking at Indian railway’s great heritage. On a closer look, however, I did find a concrete mini monument which shared information.
Small shops had come up next to where the platform once stood. The railway tracks had assimilated themselves into local life. Clothes were hanging dry in many places around the station and on the tracks. Some girls who sat nearby giggled as I started clicking pictures. They were probably thinking, ‘one more fool has come to Assam for this last railway station nonsense.’
In a way they were right. But for me, this is where it ended, the otherwise seemingly unending & unfathomable great Indian railway. That it faded into nothingness at a small village in Assam, only a few kilometers from Arunachal Pradesh not very far from Burma.
But what makes Lekhapani even more special is the Stilwell road, named after the US army general who commissioned it. This road connects India, Burma and China, and was built to help get supplies to China during WW II. Around 50,000 men worked on building this road, most of them locals.
Somehow in this small village in eastern India – geography, history, engineering and bravery come together. And the humble meter gauge railway track in Assam was there to witness it all.