More shoulder (and bottom) rubbing: A trip report
by Bharat Moro
It was 5:30 AM and very wet. Atul hadn't seen this much rainfall during the fag end of the monsoon since recording began. And I was supposed to catch the 9022 Flying Ranee express from Valsad in an hour and a quarter. I was on my way to Andheri in Bombay to attend a hastily arranged college test. All attempts to get a confirmed 2S/CC ticket had failed leaving me with the only available option - buy a GS ticket and rough it out for the 3hr journey.
Dad, as usual wanted to accompany me to the station. My mom tried to dissuade him, but he would have none it. "I'll brave the rain", he let her know. Both dad and me got into the car and listened impatiently for the engine to rev into life. No luck. After several attempts, I gave up (it was touching 5:50AM and I had to travel 7km to the station!) and quickly made my way to the nearest auto rickshaw stand. A lone auto stood, lashed by the rain. I tried to persuade the person sleeping inside to take me to Valsad, but he refused. "Gaadi me zyada petrol nahi hai"(Not enough petrol), was the reply. I was getting panicky with less than 45 min to go for my train's departure. My confused state made the driver a little bit more flexible. He was willing to drop me at "First Gate" - where the Atul complex meets the Bombay - Ahmedabad highway. He reckoned that I might be able to catch a Valsad bound local bus.
Luckily, the minute I reached "First Gate", a Vapi-Valsad bus with no headlights squealed to a halt. I had reservations about traveling in a Gujarat state bus, but this was not the time to think about them. Already wet, I made my inside the bus and for the next 25min was dreading about a nasty highway death. The bus, as with all the state owned transport, was in a pathetic condition. Mesh grills were everywhere -- between each seat row, between the conductor and the seats and between the driver and seats. All of this gave the impression that we were in a prisoner transport vehicle being shipped off to a maximum security center! Even worse were the seats, most of them had foam and covers missing forcing the unfortunate ones to rest their behinds on steel frames. And to cap it all off, it was leaking like a BMC water tanker!
After a hair-raising ride, I was dropped near station. A sprint through muddy puddles bought me to the very slushy and very crowded Valsad station concourse. After buying the tickets, made my way to Pf.3 where the Flying Ranee was to arrive at 06:44. On pf1 was a big container rake hauled by a strange looking ED WAG-7 27565. It had mid-mounted headlights and though it had the red/white/blue livery, did not sport the tiger stripes. Looked yuck! On Pf 2 was the slowly filling-up BL-BRC intercity express. From the loco stabling lines towards the east came WAP-4 22540 from BRC. The white livery on the thing was completely messed by all the rain and muck!
As soon as the big container rake pulled out, an announcement was made that the Surat-Virar shuttle will be arriving on pf1 instead of the usual pf3. A roar erupted on the platform, with all the passengers cursing the authorities for change of platforms. As usual, the vada-pav and bhel-puri vendors were the first to scamper across. The bhel-puri vendors were quite a sight, with a heavy bucket load of stuff on their heads making their way across the slippery tracks. Unfortunately, one of them spilled his stuff when a WDS-4 suddenly decided to make its presence felt! This bought out a few GRP constables who, in their long khaki coats, rain hats and lathis, looked like a desi answer to Dick Tracy! Much lathi wielding later, the situation was bought under control. A smart looking WCAM-1 21810 came in with the shuttle.
If my hopes of a somewhat slimmer crowd for the Flying Ranee were high, they were dashed the instant I turned around to Pf3. Miraculously, more people seemed to have turned up and the scene was just as it was before the arrival of shuttle. What made it worst was that the platform roofs extended for only 40% of the length, and with the rain showing no signs of abating, people were uncomfortably huddled together. The humidity didn't help either! Soon, the announcement was made that the Flying would be arriving in a few minutes. This bought about further chaos, with people under the roofs deciding to take the plunge and brave the rain for a few min. I decided to move to the south end of the platform, reckoning that GS coach at this end might be a tad less crowded.
Boy, wasn't I wrong! When the train pulled in with 21852(the last WCAM-1 manufactured), all I could see inside was a mass of bodies! There was no way I could find a place in there. I quickly decided that I needed to move to the next one, which unfortunately turned out be the ladies coach! I sprinted four coach lengths, past the two ACC, a FC and D-1. With the unreserved coaches still 6 coaches down the line and with thirty sec. remaining for departure, barged my way into D-2. I was dreading getting caught by a TTE but the crowd inside the coach made me smug. No way could a TTE get into a coach like this!? So, now to find a place to stand(not sit!).
The double deck coaches have large landing area between the doors. And a pair of staircases, that lead to the bottom and upper deck respectively. The landing area also has a few seats making for a very cramped coach. And on this the rain wasn't making thing easy. I trampled a few feet trying to find a place. I could make out that we had moved out the station and were going at a steady clip. Suddenly, the man standing in front of me turned to his left which caused his arm to hit my head dislodging my glasses. I protested but he completely ignored me. But what got my goat was the man's armpit was right next to my nostrils and all I could smell was a combination of sweat and cheap country rum! I held on like this for a few min, but by the time we crossed Atul I had enough. I shoved my way further inside, much to protests of people already occupying the space. Just as I decided to head to the lower deck, I found a small patch of dryness on the second rung of the upper deck staircase.
I parked my behind in that small space and decided to tough it out to Andheri. There was no way I would allow anyone to evict me from this place. Beside me was a small but rotund man. He looked like a character straight out of a Manmohan Desai film, with a too tightly fitted half sleeve shirt, garrulous blue trousers and shoes that looked more like murder weapons than footwear! With such a large person beside me, space was a premium and I was forced to hunch - with my knees almost touching my chin. The man beside saw me in this uncomfortable position and cursed the train and WR for not introducing more commuter services in the morning. Trying to offer some solace, he recounted an incident in which he was forced off his reserved seat by "regulars" - gangs of season tickets who harass reservation holding passengers. I was too distracted by my pathetic traveling conditions to listen to him attentively but he ploughed on regardless. And within 20 min I had know all that is to be known about him - he was in his mid 40's, married with 3 kids, lived in Navsari and worked as an agent in the bulk chemical export business and that he was on his way to Mumbai for a very important meeting. By the time he has finished, I knew so much about the Gujarat chemical industry that I could have written a PhD thesis on the subject!
In between all of this, my small dry patch was being threatened by scores of vendors selling idlis, vadas, upma, dhokla, bhel-puri(yes, even at breakfast time!) and chai. Their feet which had dragged all ten coaches of muck, slush and everything crap, deposited it near the dry patch on the staircase. Inch by inch I was being deprived of space which resulted in me taking comical(and painful) positions to keep dry! As if this wasn't troubling enough, the man next to me had drifted off into a slumber and I could hear soft snores. Often his head dangerously drooped towards my shoulder, forcing me to nudge him. He would mutter sorry and get back to sleep. I held on like this gamely until Dahanu Rd, where my patience ran out. I either had to get out of the train or find a better place in this coach.
From where I was sitting, the only place that looked empty were the toilets. I scrambled ahead and pushed open the toilet door only to find the stench overpowering me. All the rain and muck had combined with the "regular toilet smell" and was giving out such a stench that I don't have any adjectives to describe it. The only place remotely dry was, ironically the wash basin. So, the wash basin it was for the next hour so until Borivali, where the thinned crowd allowed me to get out and breathe some less smelly air.
I finally arrived in Andheri tired, wet, smelly and very grumpy only to be told that the test had been postponed. I laughed out so loud that people around thought I was mad! Back outside it was pouring and I stood in the rain calculating my return plans. But first, I needed to get myself some fresh clothes..