Trains of thought
A journey may not always make lasting acquaintances, but what it surely promises are lasting impressions of the country's diversity, says SAMIR NAZARETH.
INDIAN bureaucrats and politicians crow over the various statistics that the Indian Railways provide the largest workforce in the world, running `n' number of trains over `n' number of kilometres, carrying `n' number of passengers and freight. In the not-so distant past, passengers would find their hair matted and their skin a shade darker from the soot of the steam engine that was pulling their bogies. Today, electric trains do the job more efficiently and with a lot less huffing and puffing. However, there is a human face to the brute power that provides these statistics; a life that goes on inside its steel walls.
A belief in Fate, on an extended plane, helps one understand better why, during journeys passengers try to make the best of the little that journeys have to give the company, the space and the discomfort. Passengers not only try to make themselves comfortable but also find it in themselves to accommodate others.
It is interesting how the types of compartment/bogie (a/c, sleeper or general) affect travellers and their interactions. People entering a general compartment mill around the doors clawing, screaming, straining to grab the handrail that would give them sufficient leverage to elbow out the crowd. Desperation leads to ingenuity; passengers try to reserve seats by stretching their hand through a window to place a handkerchief on vacant benches.
This desperation provides income to the resourceful. Coolies hop onto empty general boogies at shunting sheds and mark their territory. As the empty train rolls onto the platform, coolies begin shouting out seat availability. After a quick exchange of money, a seat is made available. However, this informal "reservation" has been clamped down on, as bogies are now opened only at the platform and the presence of the police ensures a semblance of order.
With the first jerky movements heralding the beginning of the journey, a bench in the general compartment, now seats eight people, an aisle chair seats two. In the aisles, some passengers sit on their luggage while others, not so lucky, slowly make themselves comfortable on other's luggage. Many standing passengers start moving close to bench-seats to lean on the thin walls dividing the compartment. The seated passengers give a little room. This give and take continues until the standing passenger leans over and says "bhai saab aap thoda adjust karoge?" (Brother would you spare some space for me?). Soon, everyone attains the maximum level of comfort achievable until the next stop where a passenger gets off. Then, with envying glances from other suffering brethren, one standing passenger plops himself into the vacant space.
During the hungry hours, bags are reached into and packets of food and snacks move around; water, that many had forgotten to bring, is no longer a prized commodity but also shared. Conversation is more about trains, timetables and coming stations than on current events. Many of the passengers, in these bogies, try to justify their presence there by explaining their need to reach somewhere in a hurry or, as is often the case that the ticket collector refused them permission to enter the AC coach.
Travellers in the Sleeper class are not much different from those in the general compartments. There are more families and more books/magazines. Children get together, conversation is loud, acquaintances developed and even long lost relations/friends rediscovered; companionship, in general, is enjoyed all round.
Here too, meal times are opportunities to reaffirm camaraderie, they are also an opportunity to appreciate regional and travel cuisine. In the AC compartments, one hardly finds any inter-passenger conversation. Passengers either look out of windows, sleep, read or work. Conversation, if ever struck, is more about current events and subdued. There is a cold detachment among the passengers that has got nothing to do with the climate control features of the bogie.
These differences in the way people conduct themselves in trains go much deeper than the regular arguments of economic class or level of education. The reason lies in the fact that, in the general compartment, everyone shares the same uncomfortable predicament journey time spent together in discomfort. Another reason could also be that passengers in general compartments are constantly shoulder-to-shoulder. With body contact the concept of personal space dissolves barriers are broken by unintentional but unavoidable contact. Touch breaks down walls of class, money and education.
Even among trains, there are distinctions. There are the fleet-footed ones the superfast mail and express trains; while there are those that chug along with apparently no destination in mind the passenger trains. These slow trains are invariably found at small stations waiting for a super-fast to kick dust in their face. The condition of the bogies in these slow trains is nothing to write home about; they are dark, have wooden benches and are usually overcrowded. These trains are the lifeline of non-descript towns and villages. These trains are like Cinderella but without the happy ending. They are almost the last things on the minds of railway traffic controllers. The only competition offered to these trains for right-of-way is from the freight trains. The faster species of trains also have pedigrees. The Indian Railways run the Shatabdi and the Rajdhani. The Shatabdi is a super-fast shuttle between large cities distanced by an eight-hour journey time. The Rajdhani is also a super-fast train that connects state capitals to the national capital.
In the Shatabdi, there are more businessmen and tourists. These trains have one or two stops enroute. The Mumbai-Pune Shatabdi considers air travel as its main competition.
Advertisements highlight the fact that the traveller does not have to report two hours prior to departure, nor are the train services suddenly cancelled, as airlines are wont to do. The Shatabdi also provides plug points for laptop computers.
In these super-fast luxury trains, service is better too. Passengers measure journey times by the intervals between food served. Food is heated in ovens found at the end of each bogie and served on steel trays. `Service' in these trains is very much like the in-flight service. The bathrooms are clean and, of course, one travels in air-conditioned comfort. Stations provide respite from the now familiar faces in a compartment. There is a romance and mystery in chugging into a station at night to the cries of chai-neskapi, or in trying to decipher what the hawker means when he screams baanrudibiscit (bun, fruity, biscuit). There is a certain joy when a passenger introduces his neighbour to a tasty snack a particular station is famous for. Goodbyes give rise to questions of who is being left behind and why.
A journey by train is not only about getting somewhere but is also about time well spent. And each bogie encapsulates a particular form of experience.
A journey may not always make lasting acquaintances, but what it surely promises are lasting impressions impressions of diversity of the Indian persona, the railways' ability to create conditions that not only accentuate differences between people, but more importantly, help cut across these differences, even if only for the short duration of a journey in Indian time and space.
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