Thursday, February 16, 2012

And then she dozed off

A couple of months ago, I undertook an arduous but very interesting train journey. It happened like this: I was booked on a night train between Lucknow and Delhi, but the vicious winter fog had been playing its dirty tricks. My train was delayed by four hours, then six, and then seven. Trains were getting cancelled every hour and I was panicking since I was committed to an event in Delhi, the same evening.

So I bought a new ticket and boarded the trusty old Gomti, a daily up-down express that only offers seating (no sleeper coaches). The engine was huffing gently as a girl pulled me into her coach. She said I must throw myself at the mercy of the TTE. I must wave my ‘AC ticket’, sadly unused, in his face. I must beg for the Ladies quota. Only when all attempts to get a ‘pukka’ seat failed must I shift to the ‘general’ coach. Meanwhile, I could have a few minutes of peace in this near-empty coach.

The train left Lucknow station. No sign of the TTE. At Kanpur, more people got on. Still no TTE. Conversations swirled around me like the thick mists of a December dawn. Most of the passengers were young men and they were talking about a police sub-inspector examination, which they intended to appear for that day.

A couple told me I was sitting on their reserved seat, and I vacated at once. On and on the train rolled. I stood an hour, two hours. A large contingent of young men boarded the train. They were headed to the centre for this police exam, and judging from their conversation, they were ticket-less.

Firozabad, Aligarh. More students, more families. By now, the coach was so packed that it was impossible for people to get in or step out. One family managed to put the kids on board, but failed to board themselves. The (emergency) chain was pulled.

There was no longer any hope of the TTE coming by. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t enter the coach, much less go around checking tickets. If he tried, he risked a mini-riot. From childhood journeys in western UP and parts of Bihar, I knew that many young men do not quite believe in train reservations, especially during daylight hours. If they want to sit, they sit. Hang your reservations. 

If you complain, you are politely threatened. Students travelling in large groups might quickly turn into gangs. People get thrown off the train; people get killed for fighting over seats. Most of us accept that it is better to be uncomfortable than dead, or even endlessly frustrated. So we sigh and ‘adjust’.

But one Sikh family was fighting for their reserved seats on board the Gomti. They pleaded, bullied, shoved. The fierce matriarch somehow wrenched seats for her husband and young son. She herself loomed over the young men who'd captured her seat.

The men seemed amused. They told her they were sitting for the police exam, as if that was a valid excuse. They said it was the government’s fault for setting up a center so far from Lucknow, or Barabanki. They said they could not vacate the seat because that would mean that they would have to stand, and there was no longer any room for anyone to stand. So they would just have to remain seated.

When the matriarch continued to scold, the men finally said, “Aunty, come sit on our lap.”

At my feet squatted two men and three toddlers; two pregnant women had managed to find seats. I realised that I was the only passenger who — ticketed or not — had actually vacated a seat. Everyone else had remained firmly seated. If a reservation-wala came along, they just squirmed until six inches of free space was created. Then they said, “Come, sit.” If you couldn't sit, well, tough! Somebody else would.

The matriarch’s scolding voice was silent now. I turned to look and found that she had dozed off. She was finally seated. In the bony lap of an aspiring sub-inspector of police.


Shazia said...

Sounds so familiar...And you are absolutely correct in calling Gomti 'trusty'. It used to be the only choice for last minute unplanned visits to home. Miss those days!

RB said...

Completely identify with the trains getting delayed.. Ushered in the new year, a couple of years back on one such 18 hour nightmare!
And about the lack of reservations and the attitude of these people - just another Indian trait that's so frustrating and exasperating..

p.s. Well written though!

Pareshaan said...


Blue Wit said...

You have such an eye for the unusual, Annie.

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