Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Rajdhani, ever after

Two months ago, I had written out a cribby-fibby post about how the Rajdhani is an inconvenient, boring train.

I had said that Shatabdis and Rajdhanis are great if you're an antiseptic traveller and want to cut down your range of experience to an indifferent minimum; or if you're the kind that prefers to be in an airplane, except that you can't afford it.

Me - I don't like the Rajdhani.
It cuts me off from the world outside - the world of screaming hawkers, the smell of tea in clay kullars, the silence of sleepy railway stations where there are neither hawkers nor coolies, but a lone passenger, and only an uneven row of whispering trees to cordon the platform off from mustard fields...

Besides, I detest having to eat at fixed intervals, especially when they wake you up at the insane hour of 6 am for bed-tea (have you any idea HOW difficult it is to make tea, using little satchets of everything, and boiling water in a flask, when you're too groggy to remember that you cannot sit up straight without banging your skull against the berth above. I got some boiling water on my knees; the poor man on the berth across spilled it all over... er... much above the knees) and then again at 7.30 am, to serve you stale powdery cutlets for breakfast.

To make matters worse, waiters call out 'shoop-shoop', but end up giving you cups of an orange liquid that you assume is tomato soup, until you discover it is Fanta.

Besides, they keep playing instrumental versions of popular Hindi film songs and it drives me up the wall! Not the music, but not having the words. I keep trying to guess at the words and it is maddening when I can't remember.

But that was two months ago.
After the last journey I took, I was positively nostalgic about Rajdhanis and Shatabdis.

In other, older, slower trains, the 2nd-AC dabba is completely neglected. No chai-wallah comes to feed my humble addiction. No water-bearer comes, offering rebottled 'mineral' water. No interesting food. No fruits. No books, or comics. Not even any really loud, nosy families.

This time, there were no waiters to complain to, either. Only a surly attendant who seemed to have memorized a single line to handle all queries and requests "ye suvidha toh nahin hai" (this facility is not available). No facility for buying water, unless you got down at the next station. No facility for an extra balnket. No facility to recharge your cell phone.

There is a death-like silence, with all the curtains drawn to protect a frighteningly large hunger for privacy, through the better part of the journey. The outside is shut out completely, in all air-conditioned compartments, but in these 2nd-AC dabbas, even the inside seems to be shutting you out.
And in turn, you want to shut yourself in, even beyond the privacy that curtains offer. I like watching people, but found that I didn't want to, this time. The slightest whisper seemed like an intrusion and the most cursory glance felt like an insult.

The whole train seemed to say, "You want isolation? You got isolation. Now, don't bother the rest of us."

What would I not have given to have been in the third-class dabba instead... I have traveled unreserved before and have only pleasant memories of those journeys - sitting on somebody else's steel trunk... playing antakshari with total strangers... admiring the teenage punjabi girls' bangles, exchanging comics with boys who didn't speak English (mommy frowning disapprovingly because I wasn't allowed to read Hindi comics unless she's given them the all-clear), being thrilled because one got winked at by handsome young firangs, who actually didn't carry suitcases, just one big bag, strapped to their shoulders... imagine!?

And here I was, in my silent, air-conditioned isolation, as if observing a rich woman's purdah! With time to read, time to retreat, time to think and tease out ideas to their logical lengths... but with no inclination to do so.
Nobody smiled. Nobody asked me any questions that it was none of their business to ask. A baby cried somewhere, but I couldn't see its face. An old man fought with his old woman, but not loudly enough for me to eavesdrop. Nobody spoke a word to me. I spoke no word to anybody.

And I hated it. Each minute of it, especially those three occassions when the attendant would suddenly fling back the curtains, to mutter "Food?". It felt like being the unsuspecting victim in a B-grade murder flick.

Somehow, it is always like this in the 2nd-AC compartments, in all trains, whenever I'm traveling alone.

Next time, I'll just take a Rajdhani. And I will drink Fanta and Appy and 'Shoop', with unstinting gratitude. And if I don't remember the words to a song, I will turn to the passenger in the next seat and ask if he/she wants to play antakshari.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Annie, you manage so well to capture the essence of things like rail travel. Nothing quite like travelling in those non-AC dabbas.

Speaking of cellphones and the Rajdhani, here is something I wrote once that might interest you.

Annie Zaidi said...

very nice column... also enjoyed reading your whole blog series on rail journeys, that you'd posted recently. :)

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Suhail said...

Ask me. The first time ever I came across 3rd AC was when I was on a official trip frm Bglore. The "emptiness shutting out" you described is so true. I hated that trip. Plus I also missed that slight leaning out of the door, and just feel the breeze ruffling through the hair & making a mess of it. In AC dabbas you also miss the sheer enjoyment of a window seat. No last-minute buying of that paper-soap,, those not-so-good-looking guavas(which you avoided when the train had stopped for 20 mins), that one more last cup of tea. No feeling covetous of the person opposite you who has got the window-seat facing the wind & no scheming to convince/befriend him to part with his treasure. Plus the Gujju/Marwari bizness families don't travel in AC, so you don't get the dhoklas/paapdis & all that home-made stuff which they keep churning as their caravan chugs along. This makes me want to go write a train post of myself pronto.
Aah! The simple joys of life. I miss all that.

Neela said...

hi annie

all i remember of the 2nd class compartment was travelling for 36 hours which would often extend to 48 hours in a hot, smelly, nosiy Geetanjali Express and wishing that it had one clean loo and i could somehow get rid of that train smell! i guess I'm one of those who actually likes the antiseptic 2nd AC rajdhanis and so on - the more antiseptic the better!

having said this, I do admire you, dilip, paul theroux and others who wax lyrical about the second or third class indian long-distance trains.


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