India is a densely populated country. I bet you know that and have a very own personal experience to vouch for, for if you’re living in this country other than the remotest towns lying strewn across the bosom of the Himalayas, you sure have been magically transported from point A to point B through the Great Indian Railway Network at least once in your life.
I live in the Queen of the Deccan, Pune – the twin city of the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, and often travel by trains. I’m travelling on one right now – the Pune-Bangalore Udayan Express and do not have many better things to do, other than observe this cacophony called co-passengers. This is my last train journey of 2013 and it seems to be as epic as the ones before.
Trains form the lifeline of this country. With over a billion and another 270 million people travelling across the length and breadth of this country, the Indian Railways sure deserves a pat on its back, or rather it’s amazing maze of rails that work in clockwork precision. Thanks to the British rule, this is one system that works at sigma level 4 to 6, depending on the assorted group of passengers it is dealing with.
Right now my Udayan Express is dealing with an assortment of passengers from all corners of Pune. The noon sun isn’t kind either. The Express train has just overcome a massive panic attack. Passengers have invaded it from each of its doors and windows. And most of them haven’t even bothered to reserve their seats. But, that goes because in India just about anything goes.
The ticket checker is working hard to ensure this. After securing a cancelled seat for his daughter, he goes about allotting vacant seats to the hundreds of distressed souls moving helter skelter inside the express train. (It doesn’t move like one though!) And by the way, I also learnt that TCs have a special quota reserved for their sons and daughters. And, there are free meals for them too!
There’s more going on –
There are guys selling ‘thanda pani bottles’ (read empty mineral water bottles refilled at the railway drinking water tap). Remember – anything goes? This isn’t adulteration; it’s called ‘innovation’ and it is a thriving business in a tropical country like ours.
Some guys making the rounds are selling everything from safety pins to recycled tea/coffee/meals to metal chains for anchoring your luggage to your seat. They want to make the most sales in these 20 hours, by whatever means possible, even if it means scaring you enough to buy it.
Even more interesting to observe are my co-passengers. There’s a party of colourful people returning from a wedding. I know because the women’s palms are smothered with intricate mehendi designs, and the men are carrying in all the booty. For starters, there are endless boxes of fragile porcelain, just what the doctor prescribed to carry on a jam packed passenger train.
The cartons say ‘Handle with care’ and the party has been fighting tooth and nail to handle them with care. There are tea cups, saucers and a teapot in one box. There are dinner plates, bowls, and casseroles in another. I read the branded labels on the other carton boxes – XYZ air freshener, LMN microwave, PQR cooking range, UVW cooler and EFG something something . If all this was not enough, there is a carton of possibly fifty 200 gm packets of unopened potato wafers too. Some poor soul has been fleeced at the wedding.
Plus there has been a scene at the wedding; I can tell for sure. One of the young lad has a bandage across his wrists and is also making gigantic efforts at standing on his feet. Nobody is bothered a teeny bit though.
And then there is the ‘distinctive’ ubiquitous fragrance of the Indian Railways emanating from each and every nook and cranny of the express. Food mixed with poop or is that pee, I don’t know nor do I care. The family beside with the know-it-all mom, the errand-boy dad, their darling daughter and her super irritating little toddler, are also adding their distinctive smells to it. A floral perfumed hand spray goes foosh foosh on each of their palms every one hour. The combination is lethal. My olfactory senses have been deadened by now.
And, let’s not talk about my auditory senses. The darling daughter with her high-pitched voice has successfully managed to out-perform the many wheels chugging along the rails. Her know-it-all mom has been giving her a piece of advice on ‘how you should not disturb your co-passengers’ while being completely oblivious of the noise pollution she has been spreading around. The only adult male has visibly surrendered to these female forces. Life goes on as they discuss what’s wrong with the State Railway Minister.
Evening has arrived and we are now waiting at the Gulbarga train station, the letters of the language are rounded now; we’ve crossed Maharashtra and are now at Karnataka. The telecom service providers are always happy to welcome passengers in roaming, aren’t they? All of us receive welcome SMS’s from our delighted service providers.
Talking about my co-passengers, there’s also a trio of boys who are dead bored. I guess they could do with a real Temple Run 2 kinda adventure right now. They’ve been talking all the time and wondering what the hell am I typing away on my laptop!
I am thankful to this last moment tatkal quota ticket the agent could get us in the sleeper class, because nowhere else could I have had experienced such an epic journey at the end of the year. I consider myself the chosen one. In fact the mister and me are equal in status of being the chosen ones.
Here’s to more epic train journeys in 2014. Cheers!
Image courtesy: Amit Kulkarni