Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A journey by train

Going through my old email archives, I found this story from 2012 which I never posted. Now that I've this blog, here it goes after some formatting. 

After getting the news that I have a job offer, I spent friday idling my time away in office. Though I had earlier applied for a holiday for Friday since I was flying in the morning, however my KingFisher flight was cancelled and so I turned up in office for the basic necessities - Free AC, high speed internet, and people for company at lunch time. And thus the wheels were set in motion for an epic train ride.

Saturday started at 11am. I had tickets for two trains for Saturday booked via irctc - one for my hometown Jaipur and another for Kota, 3 hours from Jaipur. Both were in waiting list, the trains separated by an hour. Both of them were booked in July, 118 days before the date of travel (the booking starts 120 days before the day of journey). Neither had been confirmed yet, on the morning of the date of travel.

It was 3PM by the time I left my home. The chart for first train would be ready at 4. I reached the station at 4.10, only to find that my ticket was not confirmed.

I had hope - there was another train, and who knows, one of the TT's might have a seat to spare for me in this train. Standing at the junction waiting for the trains was an experience in itself. Rows of men and women sitting and waiting for trains to arrive in serpentine queues to take them to their home. With the occasional babies and oldies dotting the lines.

After some 30 minutes of queue watching, the charts for the second trains were up, and I got the confirmed news about my second ticket remaining unconfirmed. I didn't know what I should do next - I had a confirmed ticket for departure the next day, but I wanted to leave the same day.

Another 15 minutes were spent in consternation, when the first train arrived on the platform. I saw the TT and started walking towards him. Many others saw him as well, and everyone rushed to bribe their way through. After some tiring rounds, each of which saw me and a horde of others pleading with a different TT for a seat in his bogie, I realised - these TT were acting tough, more so because the train had only AC coaches, and chances of getting a seat were nil.

Lesson learnt - Sleeper me dhandhli hoti rehti hai, AC me mushkil se hi hoti hai. And that the system does work, though sometimes it may not work, and at other times it may work against you.

I was frustrated with the situation I was in. I had a confirmed ticket for departure the next day, but some part of me wanted to travel on the Saturday itself. Soon this minor part convinced the major part of me. And I literally ended up joining the ticket queue instead of getting out of the station, as I was on my way walking out of the station.

I thus bought a general ticket to Kota station. Papa had booked a confirmed ticket from Kota to Jaipur for me, just in case I was able to board the AC train. By the time I came back in, the second train was scheduled to arrive on the platform, and the first one had already departed.

Waiting for the second train at the platform, I found an aged man with a hardened face gazing at me. Roughly in his early 50's, with his white hairs and brown scalp dyed black. We established eye contact, and I asked him if he had a confirmed ticket for Sleeper class. He replied in the negative. He asked me if I had a confirmed ticket for Sleeper class. I replied in the negative.

A smile passed both our faces, and In that instance we both knew we would board the train togather once it arrived.

Luck was on our side when the train arrived. One of the coaches was locked from inside, and we were standing outside the one next to it. We quickly entered and occupied seats in the locked one, by travelling through the one next to it. Within minutes the coach was full with people without tickets, before the doors were opened to people, some of whom actually had reserved seats in the train. I was to learn later that this was typical of the trains in season times.

The train was doubly full even before it had left.

By the time we left the next station, every nook and corner of the train was occupied, with 3 people occupying seats meant for 2 and 5 occupying seats meant for 3. The upper berths, meant for sleeping in the night were being occupied either by luggage, or by mid age children, and occasionally by fat but athletic mango mans. The slim minded the corridor.

I knew it was going to be a rough journey, but hadn't fancied the rock and roll to start so early. 

I was sitting on seat number 6, opposite to the TT. Now the TT for this bogie was a character in himself. He was a veteran - almost 60 years old, nearing his retirement. The previous year, he had managed to escape an untimely death at the hands of the crowd aboard the same train. You see, it was his first time on this train after a recent transfer, and he had gotten down from the train to get a bottle of water and fetch the updated charts. Poor chap wasn't allowed to re-enter because the people inside had closed the door for people outside in the meantime, He ended up having to travel hanging at the window adjoining the gate for almost 2km, before someone pitied his screams and pulled the chain.
He also was an expert paan maker. Later in the journey, passengers would watch him patiently cracking the suparis, making his own paan with his bottles of katha and chuna, chewing a fresh betel every hour.

But that was not all - he was also an expert at hiding in the plain sight. He had left his coat in the bag, his charts tucked in the pants, and his shirt hanging loose. Even the 2 girls and 1 child sitting beside him didn't realise he was the TT, till he had to shout at them for occupying his side of the seat. He later explained why he wasn't wearing the coat - to protect himself from the swarms of the ignorant common man, who would eat his head asking if there was a spare seat, even though they could very well see there wasn't even half a feet of corridor free. He was a great source of entertainment throughout - when people complained about anyone else, train being full due to diwali, all he would say was "Uski bhi diwali hai, sirf tumhari thodi hai". When people started complaining about him, he changed it to "Meri bhi diwali hai"

Which made me have the lightbulb moment - the system doesn't work because people and resources are so heavily burdened. Neither the rail network, nor the RPF, nor the TT could do anything about situations like this - when they are outnumbered 1 to 100 or 1 to 200.


At the second station, 3 kids boarded the train(~8, 10, 14). They were somehow able to occupy a pie of the seats proportionate to the eldest's size. It was when the youngest one started crying, that their mother peeked from outside the window, trying to console him (she couldn't have managed to both enter and exit at the same station), when she started asking each of us (15 people sitting among those berths) where we all were headed, and if we could look after the boys. The sum total of all responses was that none of us were having confirmed ticket, and no one other than the TT should have been sitting in there. But hell, no one cares about the ideal case when they are at the receiving end of it.

When the TTs started checking the tickets, 5 of us happily paid a fine of some 400 odd bucks each for travelling in the sleeper class with a general class ticket.

And so the night began.

2 stations passed. It was an hour now since the train had started, and people had started settling down.
The TT took his coat out, and went for a customary round around the bogie. He could return only after 3 hours and another 4 stations had passed. By now it was 11, and people were feeling sleepy already. Of course, there was no place for sleep to come.

And then I heard the voice of an uncleji. "Kaha tak ja rahe ho?", he asked me. I responded "Jaipur". He told me that he was also going there. He asked me where I work. And then told me where he works. Some government bank he used to work at. He then turned to the person next to me, asked him the same questions he had asked me and had the same conversation as he had with me. He then moved on to the person next to the person next to me, and later, to the person next to the person next to the person next to me.
Half an hour later, he had broken ice with everyone in there. Or so he thought. For, the way he had interacted with everyone, it was obvious to everyone he was a person who could easily be pushed down in that crowd of humans. Boss, if this train was a jungle, then everyone knew they could outrun this man so that the tiger feeds on him, not the others.
After he had asked and talked about all of our final destinations aboard that train sharing a compartment with him, he started talking that he had a confirmed seat from ahead of Ratlam. I could only wryly laugh from the inside thinking of the fate his confirmed seat was going to have. And then I noticed a slight but devious smile on the face of the dyed hair uncle. And then I noticed similar expressions on the face of the kids. From kids to the oldies, everyone knew where his seat was going to go ahead of Ratlam - he had familiarised himself too well with everyone and convincing anyone to give away his portion of the seat would be an impossible task for him.

(*It later turned out, he lives only 2 km away from my home.)

And then I fell asleep. A couple of hours passed, when I woke up to find that the to-be-pushed-around uncle had somehow found some space in the corridor to himself, and had laid his bed sheet there in an attempt to rest. I was the only one awake, so he smiled, and talked how his life would change at Ratlam station. And I smiled back, thinking how wrong time was going to prove him to be.

Soon it was time for a major station to appear, and the sudden increase in decibel levels caused all the people to wake up. And then the station appeared. The Ratlam-se-seat-hai uncle climbed back to some seat, lest he be overrun by a suitcase or trolley. His bed sheet was however not that lucky - it hadn't been picked up by its master. It laid there, getting soiled under the shoes and luggage of the passers. And everyone knew the seat after Ratlam was a common property now - there was no chance this man would defend a seat when he couldn't defend his bed sheet.

And so the compartment went back to sleep again.

At about 5 in the morning, I was woken up by the violent thumping of the gates. A women's voice was audible, and she was shouting from outside "Bho*** ke gate kholo, Kholo ma*** c***". It was Ratlam, and the lady was from a nearby village travelling in family of 4, with confirmed tickets. She had been denied entry by the same rituals - gates shut from inside because the train was already over(overcrowded). Folks had managed to keep the gates closed for past 4 stations.

But she was no ordinary woman - she knew enough profanities to cajole the men near the gate to open the door. Of course, opening the door didn't save them - they were now delivered those colourful words face to face. Her vocabulary of the cuss words seemed unparalleled, and people couldn't stop laughing listening to the some of the utterances she made.

My laughter stopped when the bomb dropped - her confirmed seats included the the one I was sitting on. So, I had to get up, and sit on the floor and sleep now. Luckily, there was little luggage below the seats, and hence ample leg room, a fact observed only by me in the compartment. Because others had some why failed to notice it, I took this opportunity to go and ease myself in the toilet, and returned to sleep in peace. You see, folks with more premium space were afraid someone else would come and squat it if they vacated the space.

I had returned to find everything the way it was before Ratlam had arrived. The Ratlam wale uncle still did not have a full seat to himself even though Ratlam had already passed

After some 4 hours, Kota arrived, and the train's upper berths got somewhat empty. 3 Hours later, I finally managed to reach Jaipur after what was the most eventful and adventurous train journey I ever had.

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