This is a fairly long post so I have split it into two parts.
As a country , one belief that unifies all Indians other than the fact that India has the best cricket team, is that our trains never run on time. In fact, we snigger about Indian Stretchable Time when it comes to the railways and crack awful jokes about how trains are always reaching the platform half a day after the alloted time.
Jokes apart, traveling on an Indian train is an experience and achievement all by itself. My first memory of an Indian Railways train is running after a train loaded with luggage,much like in the movie DDLJ. I am pretty sure most of us have gone through a similar experience with the only difference being that most of the time one has to balance 3 suitcases and two duffel bags and transfer these onto a moving train while people are still getting on and hawkers are trying to sell you salted peanuts. As if this is not traumatic enough, sometimes your luggage might land up on the train but you might be left behind or vice versa.
The ambience of an Indian Railways coach has to be seen to be believed. When they are initially delivered from the factory, they shine and the seats seem as blue as the sea. Within a few trips, the walls are stained with betel-nut juice and the seats are a dull grey.One will find a few cigarette butts lying around with peanut shells lying on the floor.This is what greets us when we land up at a railway coach to stay for the next day or two.
The railway station itself is a teeming mass of strangers, all in a hurry to catch the trains. Indian railway stations show us a snapshot of the Indian populace with its beauty and faults.Any Indian railways station will have the following:
a) a huge bunch of people sitting / sleeping on the floor / running to catch a train
b) a bunch of hawkers selling everything from newspapers to nail-cutters
c) A huge bookstore (Wheelers in the North and Higginbothams in the south) with dozens of kids looking longingly at the books and parents dragging them away. One can also find the amazing predictions of Bejan Daruwala in yellow colored booklets for different zodiac signs.
d) Periodic announcements in an indecipherable accent announcing the departure of a train
e)Porters wearing their trademark red uniform
Immortalized in Bollywood by the likes of Amitabh Bachan and Govinda, these are the Indian railways equivalent of stevedores and are capable of carrying many times their own weight much like ants. Sometimes one can see a huge pile of luggage moving your way and you will have to search for the person carrying it. At the same time,porters are also the best source of information as to which platform the train is arriving on and where the coach is located.
Sometimes we have to approach the Enquiry Counter at a railway station. Officers staffed at enquiry counters are extremely busy, you know. They rarely have time to listen to your question properly, leave alone answer it completely. Usually one takes two to three attempts to piece all the info together to find out which platform the train will occupy. Inspite of all this, at the very last moment, the railways will decide to shift the train to another platform, following which you have a mass exodus rivaling the crowd trying to get into a SRK movie on the 1st day 1st show. In this breakneck riot, one has to watch out not only to avoid being stamped on but also that your porter doesnt run away with your luggage in the ensuing confusion.
When one has finally reached the correct platform, one has to deal with the agony of finding a vacant seat (if you are traveling general class or Without Ticket).In locals and general compartments, we have the brilliant age old Indian method of dropping a handkerchief/scarf/bag to place our claim on the seat (much like age old emperors used to plant their flags on territory hard won). This invariably leads to frequent fights with people not noticing a small handkerchief or fighting over who got to the seat first. Apart from this, you also have daily passengers claiming that a block of seats is “allotted” to them (much like sons of politicians claiming a ticket because of their parentage). In case you dont have a ticket, its actually easier coz you dont have to search for a seat, you just sit wherever you get a chance and look to bolt at the first sign of the ticket checker.
In the case of sleeper class compartments (I am not mentioning anything about AC coaches as I spent most of my life travelling by sleeper or general class), the only difference is that even if you have a reserved ticket, you might end up losing your seats if you are late. Even if you are on time, invariably a family will come in and ask to “slightly sarkao bhaisaab” and push five people on a seat meant for three. One may also find families dropping newspapers on the floor and adopting the floor as a 7th seat in the cabin.
By this time, the porters will be making their entry with the luggage. Slowly a porter will bring in enough luggage to equip an army, leave alone the family of four accompanying him. Once the porter leaves, starts the painful process of stuffing the luggage beneath the seats. After a great deal of shoving, rearranging and wrestling (a process similar to how most girls probably get dressed into those tight jeans), the luggage is somehow out of sight but not out of mind.This is because in accordance with Murphy’s law, 5 minutes later, one member of the family (usually the youngest ) will want something which is packed in the smallest bag pushed into the farthest corner beneath the seat. So out come the suitcases again and the whole process is repeated yet again.
Once the families are settled in and the seat issues sorted out, there is now the tedious ritual of saying goodbye. Invariably as the train gets ready to leave, a crowd of people stand near the doorway. On one side, we have the parents waving goodbye to their children who are eagerly awaiting the departure of the train. These parents will also be screaming instructions and advice till the children look with a look of desperation and expectation at the signal waiting for it to change(much like we look at traffic lights in Bangalore on MG Road ). On the other hand, we have the “couple” who cant let go of each other and keep casting moonstruck looks at each other along with deep sighs ( a la Padmini Kolhapure in earlier Hindi movies). This group keep coming close to the doorway and whispering and moving away every time someone has to get down or get into the compartment. The last group is the joint family which has come to say goodbye to some family member. So we will have the tau’s and the aunts saying their goodbyes while the younger members are sent to bring water and snacks for the leaving family members.
More about the actual journey itself in the next post.Keep watching for further updates
This post is inspired thanx to a #trend started by @busybeebee It immediately reminded me of a great deal of events surrounding railway trips and hence, this post.