Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Great Indian railways


Does interesting travel happen to some people all the time or do some people make all travel interesting? This post is an attempt to answer that question by way of an example, that of our recent trip to Shirdi.

Shirdi is an interesting place, by all accounts you simply can’t plan a Darshan - it happens to you. This trip proved that once more. We planned to be at Shirdi on the long weekend starting 2nd October, got the leave sanctioned, got up early on many mornings to try and book the ticket online, somehow it never happened. The next weekend, despite the shorter notice, it became possible. On the day of the travel, just about 5 hrs left to catch the train and oops, Chiya develops a fever in excess of 102F. An hour or so to catch the train and we are still with the doctor 20 km from the railway station, decided to leave everything to God (and to the bunch of medicines prescribed by the doctor) and reached the station with 10 minutes to spare! We worried all the way to the station about the fact that her temperature now was below normal (overdose of medicine? should we, shouldn’t we? what if….incidentally come morning the fever was completely gone).

Finally we settled in our compartment. We were in the same Bogey but in adjacent coupe – another way the railways makes your journey exciting. One lower berth and one middle berth is what we had – never mind that another family was completely occupying the lower berth and looked at us beseechingly so that we part with the same – we would have too but for the fact that Chiya is too small to safely occupy the middle berth with Rashmi. Anyway, I managed to be firm without being rude and the rest of the night was relatively uneventful. Not really. For one this family in question was close to 20 people and were traveling with their entire household effects – Food for 100 people (Dinner, Breakfast and Lunch and spare meals for emergencies!), plates, pots and pans, I think I saw a cow as well. Maybe not! They would have had a tough time trying to put a cow in the upper berth anyway! To teach a cow to use a western toilet must be quite a task and to flush after that an even bigger one.

Separately, scores of waitlisted passengers spent the night haggling with the TTE for a Berth. A Waitlisted passenger in AC compartment is just another way for the Railways to become profitable I guess, in the process if TTEs also make some money, why not. After all it’s a nice mix of socialism and capitalism. Maybe even communism with 100 people sharing space meant for 60!

Then again, the Indian Railways were always a social commentary. You see all shades of people and behavior to go along with it. I have had the privilege of traveling in all compartments right from the IInd class to 1st AC. On the one extreme is - a towel thrown in through the window reserves a berth in the best of times and a place to squeeze in in the worst of times? The other is the extreme of snootiness, you not only get a extremely private (read boring) place to yourself, you also get people to wait on you, if only that pot bellied, smelly attendant could be replaced with a Flight attendant from one of the premiere airlines (who knows, you may still – looking at which of those institutions is more profitable). In the first instance, you can shamelessly borrow a Beedi from one of the co-passengers or maybe even tobacco to chew, in the second, in all probability you can peacefully have a heart attack!

The best way to travel in the railways is of course Sleeper class – people are friendlier, most people offering you food are harmless (although occasionally it may be drugged) and unless your planets are aligned in a negative manner, you will find very few cockroaches to share your food and your berth with.
You can safely chain your luggage to any and all existing hooks and pillars without for a second feeling typically middle class!
The best Platform Food and tea is also normally available to Sleeper Class passengers – Tea in Kullars (Non existent mostly, despite Mr. Yadav’s tall claims), Piping hot Bread Omelets, Puri and Sabji both dripping tons of oil – if someone could figure out how to tap into the railway toilets, I am sure it’s a perpetual supply of endless energy, separate the oil and use it directly as fuel and convert the rest to Biogas! I can see the headlines too, “USA signs a historical S1, S2, S3 deal with the Indian Railways despite strong Chinese opposition – Green Cards to Railway Vendors, Citizenship to Indian Middle Class, technology transfer from the Indian Railways. The military is concerned as this is transfer of duel use technology – Potential Biological warfare implications, especially since culturally we fart quite unabashedly."

The biggest advantage of the Railways over the Airlines is that your entire family can see you off right up to your seat.
Oh to see those multitudes, all with valid berths and most with valid platform tickets jostle at the gate as if someone else is going to occupy their seats.
If you are a 20 something good looking female - actually that’s sexist, it happens to quite ugly looking young men as well – no way you can safely travel on the Indian railways unless your Father, Mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunties, childhood friends and the next door auto rickshaw walla come to see you off. They must all enter the compartment, check that all fittings are in order, fan is working, and adjacent seats are occupied by “families” as against hormone pumping, young, lone “deranged” traveler of the opposite sex!
Thank God! I married and have a kid as well, gained some respectability, fathers of all supposedly good looking girls from Patna to Panaji have since sighed in relief. So have I, having suffered the humiliation of being considered a potential “Majnu” or worst a rapist! The added advantage for me is that now, if (academically, mind you, no real intentions) I do decide to lech and ogle, I need to be worried about only Rashmi as against some girls entire family tree since independence!

To be continued…

1 comment:

Prateek N kumar said...

The Great Indian Railways is truly a leveller......BTW ...Chai...Garam Chai.....and other sounds which are just a reminecent of the past still tickle the palattte.....overall a good blog