Friday, July 08, 2005

One night

If life were a rail-ka-dabba, where you don’t have a reserved berth, you’d learn a lot of lessons.

Humility, for one.
And the old, old lesson of do-unto-others… that lesson finally comes home to you if you’ve spent a night in a train in India, without a reserved ticket.
Finally, you begin to understand what it means to have a ticket to ride, but no place to call your own. Not even temporarily.

Ever traveled on an RAC ticket in an AC rail-dabba?
I recently did, again, on my way to Lucknow (yeah, in our infamous bhaiyya-land. My land.)

There I was – unreserved unless, miraculously, 18 people decided to cancel their trips, at the ‘n’th millisecond... but that miracle never happened.
I didn’t expect it to.
I was grateful enough to just be inside a compartment, and hoped that – being alone, a woman, and possessed of eyes that fill up, without much effort on my part – I wouldn’t be thrown off the train, en route.

I wasn’t. But that night, I finally understood what it means to be a migrant into a big city.

What’s the connection?

This – that you have no place you can sleep in peace, because everywhere you look, all space is already taken -
Booked. Bought. Someone else’s space. Even the aisles aren’t yours to lie down in. They’re public ‘common’ space. Government space. Public space. Private space. Leased space. Not your space.

You can’t even sit up, without the fear that the rightful owner will turn up at the next station and order you off. Not only will he order you off, he will also glare at you for having sat on ‘his’ seat, even if he isn’t around yet, to make use of it.

He will have the ‘oh, so you don’t have reservation?’ tilt to his chin. He will have the ‘pata nahin kahaan kahaan se chale aate hain…’ admonition in his eyes.

You will, without having intended it, given offence and will squirm with the guilt – you have no real right to be on this train, perhaps. At least, not in the nice, AC dabba. You probably belong to the ‘general’ compartment, where you ought to risk your life like millions of others, fighting, stomping, stampeding, elbowing, punching, throwing your weight, literally, onto six square inches of floor, luggage rack… anything!

But you crouch there, on a corner of somebody else’s berth. Hoping against hope that the rightful owner will not turn up. Or not for a while, at least. You very, very tentatively stretch your feet, and shut your eyes, between stations.

At the slightest movement, or the sound of a throat being cleared, a shuffle in the aisle, a child crying, a porter crying, you quickly sit up straight and draw your feet back, folded tight against your hips. Is it time to stand up? Already?

The rightful owners, finally, turned up at midnight. An old couple with their daughter… granddaughter? I sit on the edge of the berth, that belongs to the old woman. She lies down. She doesn’t ask me to clear off.
I don’t.

There are others like me – five schoolgirls who didn’t get reserved seats are similarly perched on the edge of other old women’s berths. And a schoolboy of about 14, sulky, is hunched on the floor, at my feet. All of us are apologetic, though the girls crack jokes about phoning their 'boys' on the sly. I bury myself in a book, wishing I were invisible.

The old woman falls asleep. My back is beginning to ache, because once the middle berth has been opened up, you can’t sit upright. Nobody can. But the little schoolgirls have somehow been accommodated – with other women, or on the floor. Even the schoolboy has also been allowed to sleep on the floor, near my feet. He’s sulky.

The uncle-ji across has gotten into a fight with another uncle-ji on the top berth, because top-berth uncle-ji refused to ‘accommodate’ the teenaged schoolboy on his own berth.

Neechewale uncle-ji is cribbing loudly, “What kind of people are these? Don’t know how to adjust. He’s just a young boy…”
Uparwale uncle-ji retors, “He’s a grown boy. We’re both tall. We can’t fit in together.”
Neechewale uncle-ji repeats, “Selfish people. Don’t know how to adjust… easily done.”
Uparwale uncle-ji finally loses it. “Why don’t you ‘adjust’ with the boy?”
Neechewale uncle-ji says, “I’m…er… heavy!”
Uparwale uncle-ji smirks.
Neechewale uncle-ji, grumbling, stretches out to sleep. He tells the boy, visibly magnanimous, “You can sleep on the floor... we all have to adjust in life.”

The old woman is making soft moaning noises in her sleep.
I wonder if she’s sick. But my own back is totally killing me now. It's 2 am and I can’t bear to sit. I stand up and take a walk down the aisle. The father of the five schoolgirls is also walking. I return, tentative, sit down some more. But the old woman, still moaning in a strangled, breathy sort of way, has stretched her feet. I sit at the very edge, back bent at a 45-degree angle.

I am also very hungry. I haven’t eaten all day and I dare not get down at the station, to buy food. If I get up, that little edge of berth on which I’m parked, might be taken. That uncle-ji with five daughters is looking for a place to sit, too. What if he takes my place?
No, not my place… the place I’m encroaching on.

At 3 am, my back gives way. I slide down onto the floor, near the schoolboy’s feet. It is cramping for the knees, but at least, my back is straight.

The hunger is a gnawing one. I haven’t been hungry in so long. Hunger’s always been taken care of before it ate into me.

At 3.30 am, the old woman moans awake. She pats my head, and motions me to lie down on the berth. I’m too grateful to protest, or even whisper my thanks. I slip onto the lower berth and curl up in a tight circle, beside her. I can’t sleep, though.

This is the first time in my life that I can’t sleep because of hunger. It is not nice at all.

Thank God the old woman is thin. Everybody should be thin.
She is moaning again. It doesn’t matter.
A minor miracle has happened...

Perhaps this is how slum-dwellers feel if they’re rehabilitated. Ten years of getting your back broken in a city where, you’re told, you’ve no right to be in… the relief, the constant fear that the old residents, the rightful-righteous residents, might decide they need to stretch their feet, and you’re in the way.
You, who don’t have a reservation. You, who didn’t belong. Not unless 18 miracles happened.

At 5.30 am, I am up again, though... A miracle lasts only so long.

Besides, those who don’t belong need to work extra-hard to be allowed their stay. Their backs need to get used to more bending, less straightening. They need to be visibly grateful. they need to carefully slip out of the rightful-righteous people’s way, before they realize you’re in the way.

I am careful.
This one night, I don’t belong. This one night, I will not forget….


Anonymous said...

Wow! I didn't know that these things happen in AC coaches too!

sameer said...

:) you need to have a thicker skin. :P

R. said...

During college days it never used to be a problem to travel in an unreserved compartment, jammed along with the rest of humanity.

Now that i'm older and a bit more used to some comforts I think it would be difficult. Travelled a year or so ago in a reserved compartment, when a 50 year old lady was ordered off a berth by a 20+ guy. Well, there was kindness around after all. Everyone there got in the act of getting her a berth and that guy was stared at for the rest of the journey.

Train journeys are great experiences. Your post was so descriptive :)

steppenwolf said...

omg.that was a beautiful ( and sad )comparision.

i liked how you made your made your point here.

steppenwolf said...

and im linking u, k?

balihai said...

i loved the migrant connect.

i have often compared bombay slum dwellers and their use of space with the urban tokyo dweller. the similarities are absolutely amazing with two major differences:
1. that the japanese are better off with more white-goods and gadgets
2. the mumbaiker has an extended family.

the dialogue btwn the 2 uncles was a killer. loved it.

Annie Zaidi said...

Vishnu, it's only a matter of time before it happens on aeroplanes too. Like the song goes "It happens only in India...tananana nana"
Kafka, I don't. The world needs to shed it's thick skin.
R, and balihai, thanks
steppenwolf, double thanks :)

Anonymous said...

expereinced the same thing while coming to Delhi in April. Only thing is that my ticket wasn't even AC. And I did feel the same way u did.
However, my personal experience was that the journey was painful only till I was expecting a jugaad to get a seat. Once it was clear that I wasn't getting a seat, it was fun. I had a ball with some rajasthani tribals who sang me their incredibly crude folk songs:) It was a revelation for me as far as folk arts went.
But doesn't an RAC ticket mean that you have a berth that you need to share with two other people?

Neela said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Madhat said...

brought back memories...

Tanuj said...


Maybe you should plan your journeys better, and save us these forced tragic tales. I am afraid traveling air-conditioned and disturbing sleeping old people (who paid full fare) doesn't sound like the end of the world to me - worse things can happen in life. And next time, please carry a snack.

Also, this is a very one-sided perspective. I understand your uncomfortable predicament but what do you think the old lady should have done? An RAC ticket does not give you the right to a sleeping berth. On the other hand, the old lady purchased her tickets with full fare, legally, and has every right to a good night's sleep without having some squatter disturb her. She has every reason to ask you to go away.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks, Annie. As always, and I have told you before, you make me think.

Annie Zaidi said...

Pawan, let's hear some of those folk crudities :)

Dilip - you do the same :)

Tanuj - 4 things.

1] Read the post again - this was not about me, really. Didn't you get the analogy?

2] Nowhere have I said that the old lady, or the railways, or anybody in the dabba, owed me anything. I was (still am) grateful for the favour. And like I said, I'm very aware that this was a minor miracle.

3] You don't need my help in sparing yourself my 'forced tragic tales'... Not that I'm asking you to stop reading me. But it is an option, you know.

4] If only everything in life could be planned, or that it would go according to plan...

Neela said...


A nice post. But I have to agree with Tanuj - your description was quite melodramatic for a simple RAC travel experience. His advice was sound. I get tragic too if I don't eat a bedtime snack :)

I know that you're going to hit me with a "its the analogy, stupid!" (consider me hit!) but I do think Tanuj had a point. In every one of these grim situations whether its travelling RAC and spending a sleepless night or having your slum demolished, there is always another point of view. And generally it is the technically correct, legal point of view (otherwise there wouldn't be this moral dilemma). So then what is to be done?

As an aside, I am curious about why bloggers advocate not reading their blog as the solution to anyone who criticizes their writing. Would you really rather that someone does not read you if they disagree with what you say or would you rather have them say waht they will?


Tanuj said...


Thanks for your response. Sounds like I offended you - sorry for that.

It's exactly your analogy that I find forced. Sitting for a few hours in an airconditioned compartment is 'uncomfortable' at best. Probably not in the same ball park as a slum-dweller's life. But that's just my opinion.

In keeping with the analogy:
1. By comparing your situation to slum-dwellers of Bombay, you are basically saying they have no right to any space in Bombay - just as you have not right to the berth.
2. What does the old lady, the one who paid good money to get the right to sleep on the berth, do? To extend your analogy, what do non-slum-dwellers in Bombay do?

Finally, I am aware that not reading this blog is an option. Thanks for the timely reminder.


R. said...

My 2 cents worth would be that, the author really talks about a 'feeling' of being unwanted in a place and the emotions involved by using a small incident as an analogy (among many others). Think about it in that respect, it makes a lot of sense.


Annie Zaidi said...

Neela, I've already answered Tanuj about the rest, so I won't repeat myself. And your question about why bloggers keep reminding dissidents the option of stopping to read them, I'll answer that in a separate post today.

Tanuj, (assuming you haven't exercised your option yet)
I was describing feelings, not debating rights.
But 'What do non-slum dwellers?' Perhaps they should also do a rethink about land, space, rights and non-rights. God/Nature didn't create land already-partitioned and pre-sold. The land was always there. To say 'but we've been here for 100 years' is no justification to throw out somebody who's been there only 5 years. Non-slum dwellers don't have natural rights, as rights go. They have money... some of which they haven't even earned themselves... Perhaps, I'm wrong. Perhaps, they're the ones who ought to feel grateful and guilty. If only they stopped being so damn self-righteous and short-sighted.

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Anonymous said...

A very interesting post. I wanted to dwell on the issue of humility because it sounds great to me. I guess this is one of the most fundamental humna aspects. Denying once ability to shine is not humility. However, saying you can do something because it is your role is humility.

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