The opening ceremony of the recently concluded Commonwealth Games 2010 at New Delhi showcased Indian culture really well. One of the most fascinating items was the ‘Great Indian Train Journey’. Let’s face it; if you are an Indian, trains are as much part of your life as, say, gods, Bollywood films, potholed roads, and cricket. Whether you try to cross a railway crossing by tilting your scooter under the barrier or hang precariously on to the handle bars in the locals, you are never beyond the overpowering influence of Indian Railways.
Indian Railways fill you with all emotions known to man. As you stand in the queue at the reservation counter, from the night before, so that you are amongst the first lucky ones to get ‘Confirmed Reservation’ when the counter opens at 8 AM, you go through a set of emotions ranging from suspense, extreme tolerance, abiding faith in God, frustration, anger, acceptance, and finally untold joy when the clerk informs you that two of your family have confirmed seats and the other two are wait-listed one and two, which you know is as good as confirmed since within the next 60 days there would be many cancellations. It was, you tell yourself, well worth it, to stand in the queue overnight so that your overnight journey in the train would be comfortable.
Even though you have a confirmed reservation, no one can describe the elation of finding your name on the reservation chart on the platform just before boarding the train. Eager passengers look up to these charts in a manner similar to looking for your roll number in the matriculation exam results. Compartment, in both cases, is welcome, and is better than failure. Meanwhile wait-listed and RAC (Reservation Against Cancellation) passengers try to seek the TTEs (Travelling Ticket Examiners); but, like all public servants, these men make themselves scarce and busy elsewhere until you have sorted out most of the confusion yourself. After that the TTE starts the great Indian trick called ‘adjustment’. This is almost like magic: he looks at his chart, looks at you, shakes his head to indicate no berths available, you reach for your wallet to pay for his sincere efforts to somehow find a berth, he looks at you a little more kindly, looks back at his chart, and lo and behold, like a conjurer, pulls out a vacant berth that had earlier totally escaped his attention. You have song on your lips when you return to the family patiently waiting for you in the space between the western style and Indian style toilets.
Now, if only you can find a place for your one trunk, two suitcases, two baskets and one cardboard box containing Bikaneri namkeen, pau bhaji, sweets, parathas, achar, onions, aloo ghobi subzi and two each packets of cheewada and chikki. The people already on the berths near you have filled in every possible crevice under and around the seats and there appears to be no place for your baggage. But, thanks once again to the great Indian trick, all your baggage gets ‘adjusted’ somehow, some of it hanging from hooks provided for clothes, whilst smaller packets are neatly tucked under the pillow.
It is incredible to think after what you have gone through that the journey has not yet commenced. And how do you know the journey is about to start? Well, not merely by the Guard’s whistle and waving of the green flag; but, also by the fact that an equal number of people (farewell parties) have to get out and make place for those on platform who are actually the passengers. An old Punjabi anecdote describes this confusion of mass movement: On the platform a sardar is waving at his friends in a departing train and laughing uncontrollably. When reminded that parting is a sad occasion he replies, “Do you see those people waving back from the train? They are the ones who came here to see me off.”
In the ‘General’ compartment bigger confusion prevails; it is meant for 68 passengers and generally the number is exceeded by a few hundred. In the slowly moving train some are seen half hanging out since they decided to take the plunge at the last-minute and launch themselves on unsuspecting passengers inside who had taken hours to find their seats. They know as the train catches speed they cannot be thrown out and somehow have to be adjusted in the compartment.
Within about an hour, like dust, all confusion settles down. The conversation ranges from the coolie’s attempt to hoodwink people, to the poor decision on Dhoni’s part to have sent Bhajji as a pinch-hitter. Those who did not want to budge an inch to make place for co-passengers are now in animated conversation with them and insisting that they have a bite of the stuffed paratha that their only daughter packed for them. “What does your daughter do?” asks the man appreciatively taking a bite of the stuffed paratha. One thing leads to another and a betrothal is very much on the cards.
From the next compartment when you hear utterances that resemble Chinese, that is, “Cho Chweet“, these are actually meant for the young infant on the next berth. Earlier, the neighbouring passengers were fed up with his incessant wailing, but now that he has been rocked to sleep with the moving train he looks so sweet.
In another part of the bogie there is heated discussion going over a cards game with a man-of-the-street predicting with authority, “Yeh sarkar nahin chalegi” (This government won’t last) and another one irritated with his pontification, “Per Chopra ji, aap patta to pehle fainko; sarkar ko maaro goli” (But, Chopra ji, first throw your card; shoot the government later”.
Then there are these women who are returning from Brindavan and are full of Krishna’s charisma (quite a tongue-twister that). They break out into what they feel is melodious hymn about Krishna, Radha and gopiyan. An old man next to them congratulates himself that he had the sixth-sense or a sense of higher number to have brought his portable tape recorder for just such an eventuality. So he plugs in his ears with the headphones and is partially oblivious of the hymns.
The great Indian train journey, in many ways, is a true reflection of how Indians make peace with their circumstances. So, when they get up next morning and the chai-wallah tells them that the train is running some eight hours late, the general consensus is that it could have been worse.
Finally when the train screeches to a halt at the destination this peace is broken and nobody wants to wait for even thirty seconds to allow passengers ahead of them to get out. It is push, scream, fret, and get-out with all your baggage in flaming hurry as if the bogie is on fire.As you get on the platform with all your belongings and family members, the one thought foremost in your mind is that the great Indian train journey never ends.
Life goes on…
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