It isn`t without reason that Railways has a separate budget. No, it isn`t because Indian Railways Ministers have always wanted to have a wallet (or a purse when it was Mamta Banerjee) of their own. It is because Indian Railways is an integral part of the Indian psyche and needs a special treatment.
I have travelled in trains from 1976, when as a chubby one-year old we shifted from Jamshedpur to Jhallandar (father being in the Indian Army), to my recent trip to Kerala which happened like…yesterday.
In the earlier days, we used to travel for four days in steam engines, all the while covered in soot (steam engines used coal to heat the water and generate steam), to reach our destination. We would take bath mid-way through our journey – sometimes a quick bath in the second class waiting rooms & sometimes a shaky bath in the train`s washroom – but the pleasure lasted only a few hours for we would be covered in soot again.
Being a dark South Indian family, this did not affect us much but I shudder to think of the mental anguish the fair North Indian families had to undergo in such trains. Back in those days it was not hard to spot North Indian families with a bit of sense of humor, ask their kids racist questions like: “What? Now, you have become a South Indian?” More often than not, the kid would cry himself to sleep.
Having traveled by trains for 40 years, I am now what one would call an authority on train travel. Don`t believe me? Read on.
Here are the findings of my 40-year old research on train travel. A successful train journey consists of six stages. Let us take a look at each one of them:
Stage 1: Finding your train and getting on it
Finding a needle in a haystack is easier. Especially, since now-a-days hay stacks are smaller and needles bigger (esp if you happen to be my daughter`s doctor). But seriously, have you ever walked into a railway station knowing fully well which platform your train would be on? I have never managed that. You can listen to the announcement being made about your train – but that`s possible only if you have the hearing ability of a dog or Superman. In their attempt to hire an announcer who knows English, Hindi and the local language the Indian Railways ends up hiring bad speakers. To make the matters worse, the speakers (read loud speakers) that blare out the announcements croak like frogs. If you thought the board that displays the train name & platforms is good enough, try craning your neck at 65 degrees for five minutes for your train`s name to appear. The easiest way, I have found is to ask a porter, and that too politely for he can lead you to exactly the opposite platform. Mind you, all men wearing red shirts (or T-Shirts) aren`t porters.
Stage 2: Finding your place in the train
Indian Railways is impartial. You may have a reserved ticket or an unreserved ticket – to find your place in the train will be equally difficult. The search for your seat starts with the need to find your coach, which can be right behind the soot-spewing engine or be the last compartment of the train – depending on if you have been good that year.
Your first objective is drag your bag which besides the 3 Kgs of sweets for your mom, neighbor’s house and sister`s family, also has your dumb bells because you don`t want to miss the workout, to the right compartment. Your second objective is to get inside the compartment. But can you? Can you walk in without confirming your name on the list pasted outside the door? And that`s not possible because either the list has not been pasted yet or if pasted it has been washed out in the rain. If you find the list, rest assured there will be a pan stain exactly where you think your name is. Defying all this, even if you make it inside your coach, you still have to find that seat number 45 (I am talking of second class here).
You will always find somebody else sitting or their luggage on your seat. After a bit of hesitation, you blurt out “Excuse me, thats my seat. Number 45.”
“Is it? Please be seated. I will keep my luggage below.” The innocent looking old man is most likely to say.
Stage 3: Finding a place for your luggage in the train
Now that you have found your seat, you look around for a place to keep your luggage – one Samsung Television set you have bought for your grandma, one bag full of clothes that you need and another suitcase which has your wife`s clothes which she has forced on you. You look under your berth, and you spot an opportunity. There is space enough to squeeze your stuff in. Unfortunately, this is the furthest slot from your seat. You have second thoughts – will I be able to keep an eye on my bags from where I will be sleeping? Does any of the co-passengers looks like he could unzip and pick up some of my old jeans in the middle of the night? You push your bag under the seat, and relax a bit. You keep the Samsung Television set on your seat, for you can`t stuff it below the seat. Now comes the difficult part – you have to spread a newspaper before pushing in your wife`s suitcase. She had specifically instructed you to do so, to keep the suitcase clean. You follow the orders to the Tee but plan to NOT tell your wife that you could only get ‘The Times of India’ and NOT ‘The Hindu’ as she had suggested. Now is the time to chain your bag & your wife`s suitcase to the security hook provided by the Indian Railways. This will ensure you have a peaceful sleep. Well, almost…for you will be sleeping with your legs on the Television set you bought for your grandma.
Stage 4: Getting confident about yourself & your stuff in the train
With your baggage all stuffed away safely, it is time to take out that India Today you bought for the purpose. But before you take it out you look around at what your co-passengers are readying around you. Will India Today make an impression or do you have to take out Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand which you have reserved for train journeys with young girl co-passengers. You do have Chetan Bhagat’s Two States but you don’t want to be judged by people around you so you push it deeper inside your bag. Since everybody is reading vernacular magazines, India Today makes an instant impact. You instantly become the upper middle class who made it to the second class compartment only because the 2-Tier AC & 3-Tier AC tickets were already sold out.
Having become the alpha male (or female) in your bay, you decide to take a second look at your luggage – it is all safe. Now you need a safe place for your wallet, your mobile and that Wrigleys chewing gum you have for that one-in-a-million chance that a pretty girl will sit next to you. You find a safe place for it in the side pouch the Indian Railways started around the early 2000s.
Stage 5: Knowing your fellow passengers
There is no better tool than a spread-out India Today in the front to start gauging your fellow passengers. You lift your eye lids a little above the magazine to measure up the rest of the gang – there is a old couple, there is a young software engineer displaying his provided-by-office IBM, there is that 11-year-old girl slumped over the latest issue of Tinkle and there is the 40-year-old-just-getting-to-know-spirituality guy with a copy of Vivekananda`s speeches bought at the Ramakrishna Math book store at the Railway station.
Quite a motley crowd – in your heart of hearts you chuckle, for this crowd could have passed off as the cast of Good, Bad & Ugly if the movie was re-made in Hindi. The non-availability of a perfect girl of your age dampens your interest in your co-passengers. It does not matter that even if there was a girl, she would have buried herself in her mobile rather than exchange glances with a wannabe with an India Today in hand. After a few hours of I-won`t-talk-first attitude one of you breaks the ice and all others fall in. Soon, everybody is telling impressive lies. Lies they don`t need to remember or justify the next day. The evening goes well. During dinner time, the thought of railway robbers with sedative laced biscuits forces you to say an emphatic “NO” to the family that`s willing to share their poori and aalo subzi with you. You eventually end up buying an egg briyani from the vendor for Rs 75, and eat with your hand. Soon it is sleeping time – which you do indulge in but after re-checking our bags. Just to be sure that nobody steals your wrist watch when you are sleeping you tie your hand kerchief around your wrist.
Stage 6: Bidding farewell when your destination arrives
Sleep isn`t peaceful because of the TV. Who says TVs have to be switched on to cause sleeplessness. But this has been a blessing in disguise, for you have been able to check your luggage six times in the night. Four times out of six you switched on the lights because you could not see your bags in the dark. As the night ends, you are more cautious because your parents have told you that the best of Railway thieves strike around 4 a.m.. when everybody is in deep slumber. But you are happy to see that it is 5 a.m. and your bags are still there. The train will reach your destination at 5.30 a.m. sharp and people start getting up at 5 a.m. for freshening up. If you are a girl, you have already freshened up at 4 a.m. (when the washroom was dry, and nobody is knocking on the doors) but if you are a man, you definitely will get up at 5.28 a.m. to rinse your face. And if there is time, gargle. Half of your co-passengers are sleeping for their station arrives only at 8 a.m.. “Lucky bastards,” you utter under your breath and walk out of the coach.
As you get out of the railway station, another adventure awaits – bargaining with the autorickshaw driver.