Photographs: Courtesy Subrata Majumder/Business Standard Shine Jacob
At Begun Kodar in West Bengal, a mysterious woman in a white saree walks along the tracks of a lonely railway station.
Faces full of disbelief and fear eye me as I ask locals for directions to Begun Kodar in West Bengal's Purulia district, popularly known as the ghost station of the Indian Railways.
One needs to travel back in history to delve into the mystery behind this strange name.
It was in the early 1960s that Lachan Kumari, a queen of the Santal tribe that inhabited the area, donated a large chunk of her land to the Railways for the upliftment of her people.
Soon the Begun Kodar railway station was up and running, acting as a lifeline for many commuters.
However, the dream ran into unforeseen trouble in 1967.
Locals believe that this was the year that the station master spied a woman in a white saree on the tracks for the first time.
People were agog when he died the very next day. Rumours engulfed this tiny railway station, with news of the spooky events travelling far and wide.
Both passengers and the Railways deserted the place. And thus began the tale of the ghost station, which has been tagged as "haunted" in railway records.
Cut to 2009, when another lady in a white saree tried to rescue the station from ignominy.
Mamata Banerjee, the then railway minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo, dared many in the state to visit the place by reopening the station after 42 years.
"Ami bhoote bishshas korina (I don't believe in ghosts)," said Banerjee.
"It was three ladies -- the Santhal queen, Mamata Banerjee and the ghost -- who turned the fortunes of this station around in the past five decades," says Narayan Mahato, a local from the nearby Baamni village.
"People are curious and some still believe the stories of paranormal presence here. You should leave the place before 5.30 pm, no one stays here after that."
Surrounded by paddy fields, with no signs of human life evident for miles, the station and its building look strange and forbidding.
'Several railway employees claim to have seen a ghost here'
Photographs: Courtesy Subrata Majumder/Business Standard
With changing times, Begun Kodar has transformed as well.
"At least 700 to 800 passengers descend on this station on a daily basis, despite all the scary stories," says Swapan Kumar, who owns a hand-pulled cart stocked with food and several other essential items inside the station.
"My livelihood depends on the travellers of the five trains that stop here. The passengers include those who come from distant corners of West Bengal to see the ghost station."
He assures that he has never had any bad experience in the last two years.
However, locals tell a different story.
"Not just one, but several railway employees claim to have seen a ghost here," says Kailash Sahesh, one of the many commuters.
However, there could be a twist in the tale.
"Probably, no one wants to work here as it lies in the Naxal heartland and they have fabricated these tales to scare people away," he adds.
Indeed, the station lies at the edge of the thick forest range that forms a part of the "red corridor" -- areas affected by the Naxalite insurgency.
Purulia is believed to be the gateway to Bengal for Naxals from Bihar and Jharkhand.
The reopening of the station has been broiled in controversy as well, with CPI (M) supporters accusing Banerjee of cashing in on the efforts made by Basudev Acharia, a CPI (M) member of Parliament from Bankura.
"Since the 1990s, Acharia had been working tirelessly to get the station reopened. Just before the state assembly elections, TMC cashed in on the opportunity. The land has deep associations for the Santal tribe, which constitutes a major vote bank in this belt," says Bhajori Mahato, a CPI (M) supporter.
Santals account for over 62 per cent of the total scheduled tribe population of the Purulia district, according to official figures, underlining the interest shown by political parties in the revamp of the station.
Time stands still in this ghost station and you will find ticket cards dating back to the 1950s still in use here.
A trip here will transport you into a sepia-toned album of a very different Bengal.
The station has no full-time railway employees -- a major hurdle for the place to rise from the status of a halt station.
Begun Kodar, which falls under the Ranchi division, has a skeletal temporary staff that gets Rs 1 as commission for every ticket sold here.
Apart from the Bokaro Steel City-Asansol MEMU, Hatia-Kharagpur passenger, Ranchi-Asansol memu, Ranchi Garhbeta passenger and Hatia-Dhanbad passenger, none of the trains stop here.
Since passengers are reluctant to come to the station after 6 pm, the last train here is at 5.45 pm.
The building hosts pictures of various Hindu Gods to ward off evil and Dalu Mahato, a temporary ticket-seller, enters the station only after a daily puja.
After 5.45 pm, he too scampers from the station, with a prayer on his lips that the lady in the white saree never comes his way.