NEW DELHI – The main train station in the north Indian city of Varanasi is a sprawling building that has witnessed its share of delays over more than a century of rail travel. Sometimes the waits are long, and sometimes they are pleasantly short. But it has never seen anything like this.
Inside a high-ceilinged room, a group of travelers from across India has waited in vain for more than three weeks for trains that never come.
They are parents and children, construction workers, managers, pilgrims, students, a lawyer and a marketing professional. They have one thing in common: They were all stranded hundreds of miles from home when India abruptly suspended its passenger trains, which carry 23 million people a day, then imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Ever since, the passengers have spent their days confined to a waiting room in a state of uncertainty worthy of an existentialist play, unable to continue their journeys and forbidden from leaving the station.
In some ways, they are lucky. The station staff, accustomed to handling more than 100,000 passengers a day, have busied themselves taking care of the fewer than 50 who remain. Those stranded get three meals a day, hot tea, a morning yoga session and nightly showings of Hindu epics on a newly mounted television screen.
But they are stuck. “Is this life?” asked Laxmi Adiman Gaekwad, 30, a mother whose three older children are waiting for her to return to their home in the state of Maharashtra, 700 miles away. “We have nothing to do.”
Millions of Indians have fared far worse under the lockdown, which began March 25 and has been extended until May 3. Workers have streamed out of Indian cities on foot, fearful of their ability to survive without jobs. Shelters for the needy are overflowing. Activists warn that many in this nation of 1.3 billion will go hungry while the economy is shuttered.
Absent a plan from the central government to help those stranded by the lockdown, local officials scrambled to improvise a response. One such official was Anand Mohan, 36, the station director in Varanasi, an ancient city on the Ganges River that is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus and draws millions of visitors a year.
Mohan and his team at Varanasi Junction, all government employees, were caught off-guard by the rail stoppage. They had just hours to prepare for the unprecedented suspension of India’s 13,500 daily passenger trains March 22, combined with a shutdown of all nonessential services.
“We were just brainstorming, what to do, what to do,” he recalled. “Every damn thing in the city will be stopped.”
Mohan arranged food from the canteen that usually serves the railway station’s own staff. With the cooperation of local administrators, he coordinated transportation for passengers whose destinations were less than 100 miles away. But that still left a group of about 50 people who were en route to far-flung destinations in other parts of India, including Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi.
Some had harrowing stories. Raghu Uttam Shinde, 25, a manual laborer from Maharashtra, was traveling home from a job laying cable in the state of Bihar with 10 members of his extended family, including four children. Their train stopped in the middle of the night at a station outside Varanasi, and all passengers were ordered to get off. Shinde and his family walked four hours to reach the main railway station in the city, hoping to catch another train.
Narendra Singh Dhakre, 35, a lawyer from the central Indian city of Ujjain, made the fateful decision to stop for a day of sightseeing in Varanasi on his way back from a work trip. He, too, was stranded. He slept outside the station for a night, hoping to find a way home, and struggled to get something to eat with all restaurants shut and no taxis on the roads. Now he desperately misses his wife and two children, ages 3 and 7.
Several days into the lockdown, Mohan, the station manager, realized that his new charges were “mentally very down.” He decided some entertainment was required. He had a television installed in the waiting room and had a member of the railway staff begin holding daily yoga classes. He urged the passengers to avoid the news – too anxiety-inducing – and instead watch the multipart serials of two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Such stories “show that evil always dies, and good always prevails if you have faith in yourself and your god and do the right things,” he said. “So that is motivational.”
The stranded passengers have fallen into a routine: yoga, followed by a simple breakfast of cooked vegetables and fried bread, then lunch, and dinner in the evening. People sleep on the metal benches or on thin rugs on the floor as fans whir overhead. Everyone wakes and goes to bed at roughly the same time, trying to keep quiet in a cavernous room where even small noises echo. The bathrooms have basic showers and buckets to wash clothes, which now dry on railings leading to a shuttered ticket booth. There are regular medical checks, and the room is disinfected each day.
Unexpected friendships have formed, and occasional frictions have erupted, including over the appropriate volume to play videos on mobile phones and how frequently fried food is part of the menu. “We are sharing this room with complete strangers from around the country,” said Shinde, a slender man in a white polo shirt. “We talk, share our pain and our concerns. We have become a family.
“I will never forget these people,” he added. “The day we say goodbye, I will be very sad.”
In recent days, a few of the passengers have managed to arrange transportation home with the cooperation of local officials, quietly circumventing the lockdown. One passenger from Delhi was taken to a hospital Tuesday for testing after he interacted with a family who had approached the station and appeared ill.
Meanwhile, inside the station, the signboard listing the upcoming departures is blank. Freight trains chug past the deserted platforms. The news that India would extend its lockdown until May 3 came as a bitter blow for those inside the waiting room. Dhakre, the lawyer, was heartbroken at the thought of being separated from his wife and children for several more weeks. “But then I realized that the situation is not under control,” he said, “and this is the need of the hour.”