Rubbing Shoulders (and Bottoms) with the Other India

2005-04-05

by Mohan Bhuyan

Purna, March, 2230 hours. Bharat and I have just won a race to this nondescript town in the middle of the Deccan, having reached by the Meenakshi Express just seconds before our connection to Manmad - the 1604 Nanded-Daund Passenger arrived there. Bharat sprints across the tracks to buy our tickets while I guard our bags and wonder if we'll get much sleep at night. We have come all the way from Jaipur rather comfortably in 2AC and we are now about to submit ourselves to the opposite extreme - 2S (Unpadded).

Bharat sprints back, anxious not to be left behind and we make our way down the length of 1604 to find a seat. The train is decently occupied, but there are some empty seats - thank God! We select a coach and find seats opposite each other. Over on Pf 1, we can see the 3 coach Purna-Parbhani Express that has been waiting for the Secunderabad bound passengers of the Meenakshi. I ask the man sitting next to me if our train will leave before the 3 coach express. As if addressing the village idiot, he chooses his words carefully and says slowly, ''This is a Passenger, that is an Express. Expresses get precedence, so it will leave before us!" Bharat and I look at each other and scarcely exchanging a word, we pick up our bags and head for the Express that will leave before us.

The Express in question (7666) has two sleepers and one SLR, basically through coaches that will be attached to the 7663 Manmad-Kacheguda Express at Parbhani Jn. We figure that if we reach Parbhani before 1604, we'll have time to observe the goings on at what we believe is a bigger station than Purna. We have general tickets, but the lone general compartment in the SLR is overcrowded. We ask the Guard if we can ride with him, but he tells us to find a place anywhere on the train. So we head for the Sleeper coaches and select one. Though there are empty spaces, every time we head towards one, another claimant springs up. We decide to stand near the door, it's only a 40-km run with no stops.

The train starts slowly and carefully wends its way to the main line. We have journeyed more than a thousand km to Purna and barely spent 20 minutes there! After crossing the Purna River, the WDM 2 opens up. The load is puny and soon we are at a furious gallop. After more than 24 hours on MG, the smooth ride feels rather odd!

After some time a TTE appears and begins his work at the far end of our coach. For the second time that day we are in the right class with the wrong ticket! To compound the crime we realise belatedly that we haven't bought Mail/Express tickets! We decide to spin a yarn if he queries us, perhaps even blame the Guard! In the mean time, we seem to be making good progress to Purna while the TTE is checking the tickets rather leisuredly. If 7666 makes it to Parbhani before the TTE reaches us, we can escape unscathed. So begins another race.

We pull into Parbhani just as the TTE finishes the last compartment and looks in our direction, but we aren't waiting for him! We head for the FOB to survey Parbhani. The line to Vikarabad veers off at the western end requiring a reversal for trains from Manmad. Otherwise Parbhani is unremarkable, at least at night. Some elaborate shunting begins to attach 7666 to 7663 and we watch from the FOB till the latter departs towards Vikarabad.

Upon descending from the FOB we realise that there is quite a crowd waiting for 1604. Perhaps it was foolish to give up our seats at Purna and race ahead to Parbhani - it's just another nondescript junction after all. We resolve to try our best and when 1604 comes to a stop on Pf 1, I hurl myself into one of the coaches, Bharat closely following. I spot a couple of unoccupied seats and charge towards them triumphantly. Just as I sit down, a man on the platform with his hand through the window and his handkerchief on the window seat tells me that the row is his, since he dropped his hanky way before I got there! I tell him that I don't think his hanky trick is convincing enough for me. A minute later he reappears inside the coach and starts arguing with me. I summon my best unpleasant visage and tell him that the seat is ours because we did all the hard work and so he should just get lost. I then notice that his companion is a burqa clad woman and feel a twinge of remorse.

While he continues to remonstrate, I spot that the seats across the aisle that are meant for 4 passengers have two gents with Islamic beards lying on them, one old the other young. I tell Bharat to rouse them and return my attention to Handkerchief Man, saying politely that he can have our places. Pleasantly surprised at this sudden turn of events, he thanks me nicely. The two men on the other side allow us to sit without a murmur, though they each take the window seats. Later I realise that the older man appears to be unwell and feel another twinge of remorse. Only a twinge - in 2S (unpadded) on an overnight passenger, I guess it's every man for himself!

As we leave Parbhani, Bharat gets down to his notes while I take a look around the coach, because I've never been in one like this before. It has an open plan (no compartments or top berths) and is well lit. Seats are arranged in 3+2 formation with an aisle in the middle. Each row of seats faces another, so Bharat and I are sitting opposite each other. The coach is crowded but not uncomfortably so with some people standing at both ends and a few in the aisle. The passengers are a mix of smalltowners and villagers - artisans, small tradesmen, peasants and the like. Many of them are in traditional dress - lungis, payjamas, etc. Bharat and I are sticking out like Eskimos in the Sahara.

Within half an hour the hard seat and straight back are unbearable. We've been up since 4 am that day, and desperately need to sleep, but sleep is impossible. Nobody else is in similar difficulty and many are asleep in a variety of uncomfortable looking postures but with contented looks on their faces. I wonder if it's all right to smoke. Nobody has so much as lit up a beedi thus far. Then I see that a fellow at the door is smoking and resolve to join him.

But before I can summon the energy to get up we stop at a station and two elderly gentlemen board our coach. Their clothing and grooming suggest they don't belong here but their demeanour indicates that they are feeling at home all right. Babus I guess and sure enough, as soon as the train restarts they begin checking tickets. And a GRP constable suddenly appears, as if by magic. The fellow who was smoking had thrown his cigarette away just before these inspectors showed up, very lucky indeed. Everybody in our coach except one young fool has a ticket. I am impressed, not just by the conscientious inspectors still working past midnight, but also by the fact that 99 out of 100 passengers have proper tickets. More proof that a higher civilisation exists south of the Vindhyas.

Unable to smoke, I go for the next best thing. Vodka looks like water I reason, so who'll be the wiser if I take a long swig? I feel better immediately but not for long. Presently we halt at another station where we have to wait for a train to cross. It's probably the Nandigram Express from VT but tonight I'm long past the stage when I care for such trivia! Instead I get down to see whether I can steal a smoke somewhere on the platform.

On the platform the inspectors are berating the ticketless youth. Like everywhere else in India a small crowd gathers to watch the drama unfold. I duck behind a tree and fish out a cigarette. The young man pleads that he has no money to buy a ticket. The constable retorts, "Bet you pay up every time you set foot on a bus, why not on a train? Because it belongs to your daddy?" End of argument and they march him off towards the stationmaster's office, leaving the crowd a bit disappointed with the sudden ending. Meanwhile the Nandigram (or whatever) roars by and I finish my cigarette in peace.

Back on board, we resume our totally uncomfortable journey. The old gentleman next to me seems to be in some special discomfort. Seeing this, his younger companion asks Bharat to take the old man's seat and tells the latter to lie down on their now vacated 2 seater. He then asks the people on the adjacent 3 seater to raise their legs (which they do without showing surprise or even commenting), crawls into the space beneath their seat and is asleep within seconds. We are suitably stunned.

More surprises await us. A few agile types climb onto the backrests and thence to the narrow luggage racks above the window seats, stretch out and fall asleep instantly. A father and son are stretched out on a 3 seater near me, looking quite comfy despite the narrow width of the bench. In comparison my efforts are feeble and ludicrous. Bharat's bag is smaller than mine so first I put it in between us trying to rest on it sideways. No go, so I put it on my lap and slouch over it. Even worse, so the bag goes back where it rightfully belongs - under the seat and I'm left wondering about middle class inhibitions and middle class girths and how the two are connected.

Meanwhile Bharat seems to be doing much better than I as he dozes off for longer and longer periods. During one such session I realise I'm the only one still awake in the coach. Disgusted, I pull out Mr. Smirnoff and take another long swig. We reach Jalna and I check the timetable to see how much farther we have to go until Manmad and salvation. 150 km or so - too long!

The long hard night continues beyond Jalna. I stretch my legs out, then cross them, then prop them on the opposite seat edge. I make a pillow out of my arm on the backrest and sit sideways, even slouch downwards as far as I can go. All to no avail. Nobody else in the coach is fidgeting. Finally coming to terms with my predicament I sit bolt upright and stare wide eyed at basically nothing, waiting for a miracle from on high.

And God is listening! 1604 reaches Aurangabad and suddenly half the sleeping bodies rise, gather up their belongings and get the hell out. Entire rows of empty seats appear here and there and the remaining passengers are already scrambling for them. Telling Bharat to stretch out on our 2 seater, I grab a 3 seater and lie down. I'm asleep before the train leaves Aurangabad!

We wake up just in time to see our line flirt briefly with CR's Manmad-Daund line at Ankai Killa. The eponymous fort is behind us atop its sheer column of rock - how did they ever get up there, let alone build it? I point out Manmad's "Great Thumb" to Bharat, just about visible as the first rays of a still unseen sun streak across the sky. Then 1604 goes on a great looping curve to enter Manmad from the East and we stagger off to the nearest chaiwallah.

Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2005.
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