At the end of each bout of travelling, when I get back home, I take a bath, jump into bed, heave a long sigh and promise myself never to do it again. Especially if the travel has been in the loving arms of Indian Railways. But of course, such promises are never meant to be kept and it's not very long before the process repeats itself. Of course, by then, the stresses and strains that brought forth that firm resolve in the first place have been long forgotten. And the astronomical air-fares that jump out at me from my computer screen (a fact of life given that the planning for most of my journeys is usually postponed till the very last possible moment) send me scurrying back to the afore-mentioned loving arms. And that love is not just a metaphorical feeling. It is translated into action and demonstrated in the gifts it bestows - at the end of the journey in the lap of this kind mother, a large portion of the dirt and grime that were previously in her possession have been lovingly passed on to you - and so strongly that it takes a thorough exfoliation down to the deeper layers of skin to finally rid yourself of this gift!
The stories I could tell of my experiences in trains range from the hilarious to the bizarre. Like waking up in the middle of the night in a train that was slowly exiting the platform, desperately gathering my things and jumping off, only to realise it was the wrong station. Or pushing my way into a hugely overcrowded unreserved compartment only to be slowly and inexorably pushed further and further in until I found myself inside the toilet which was where I was forced to spend the rest of the long journey as further movement in any direction was rendered impossible by the teeming and irritated masses. For sure, I have had my share of unforgettable train experiences, just like any other self-respecting Indian. These stories will hopefully keep on ice until they find utterance in the pages of the literary masterpiece that my ever-hopeful soul believes is germinating somewhere deep within (though stories like that would probably make it unlikely to be ever classified as a masterpiece!). Today I tell the story of my latest journey - a two day adventure from Ludhiana to Guwahati.
It started at the unearthly hour of 2:30 am when I bid a sad farewell to my beloved wife (who is, by the way, now a permanent resident of Ludhiana) and wended my teary way to the Ludhiana railway station. In the past, there have been major disruptions to my sang froid when, having overslept on the day of a journey, I would find myself left with a bare minimum amount of time to get to the portal of departure before the mode of transportation left me behind. Having learnt my lessons from these experiences I resolved to refrain from falling into the temptation and stayed awake until I had to leave. After all, I had 2 long days ahead of me where I could catch up on all the sleep I had lost and possibly, even make some sleep-deposits for the future! But I had not reckoned on the various roadblocks that our beloved Indian Railways would erect on my path to a peaceful journey.
The first of those came up when I entered the compartment only to find there were 2 gentlemen on the seat I had thought would be mine. Of course, I had an inkling that I would have had to share my berth as, in accordance with my usual policy and practice in these events, I had booked my ticket at the last possible minute and hence had been relegated to the ranks of 'waiting list'. Thanks to the hundreds of people who change their minds every day about long distance travel, my position had moved slowly to RAC (reservation against cancellation), which means that you can get onto the train, but you may have to share a berth with another passenger. So far, I have travelled this way only once, about 7 years ago when I was working in Jharkhand, and my co-passenger and I spent a day in great much tension and mutual antipathy, until he slipped the TT (Ticket Collector) some money and got himself a berth of his own. After that experience, I was prepared for the worst, but when I got on the train, I realised I was hardly prepared at all.
For, as I mentioned, on my berth there was not one, but two young gentlemen! It seems that they were travelling together with waiting-list tickets and only one of them had been upgraded to RAC. So that meant that I had to share with not one, but two people! Fortunately, unlike the last time, all of us were ready to 'adjust' (don't you love the way that word takes on such a new meaning in the Indian context!!) and so we spent a peaceful, though uncomfortable and slightly cold night together. But the morning brought with it and even more interesting situation. All RAC passengers are allotted the side lower berths, and during the day, the person on the side-upper berth comes down to sit at the window! So now there were four of us on the berth, squeezed together like sardines, a jumble of (dirty) legs, hands and sweaty bodies! And just to make things more conducive to enjoyable travel (!!), there was no electricity in the compartment, which meant that there were no fans to at least dry up the sweat that was flowing freely from all of us, given the heat of the day in Uttar Pradesh! At intervals, we would try to shift positions, if only to bring back sensation to various parts of our bodies that had gone to sleep, thanks to the unyielding pressure of each other, but these shifts involved such contortions and convolutions that they were few and far between. By the middle of the afternoon, I was quite dreading the thought of spending even another hour in this situation, let alone the 30 odd hours that remained of the journey.
And then, just when I thought there were no more muscles in my body that could go into spasm due to the cramped position, a miracle happened. A family travelling with us offered me a berth! Now, this family had booked 6 tickets, but 2 of their members had changed their plans at the last moment and so they had 2 extra seats. I had noticed this and had thought of telling the TT, but something had prevented me. Looking back, I realise that had I told the TT, it is likely the berth would have been given to someone who had increased the weight in his pocket rather than me! Other passengers too had noticed this, but anyone who attempted to even sit in the empty seat was chased away with strong words and raised voices. But somehow, seeing my plight, this family had decided to have mercy on me! The train was jam-packed (though not as badly as the one in the picture!!). Each bogie had at least 40% more passengers than it was built to accomodate. The passages were all lined with bags and people and even a few bathrooms had been requisitioned to hold baggage! (This was possible as, for most of the journey, there was no water!!) But in this packed train, it just so happened that the only 2 empty berths were right in our own coupe! I cannot explain this except to wonder in gratitude at God's surprising provisions in all circumstances.
And so, I spent the rest of the journey in the upper berth they had offered me. The heat of the day , the cold of the night, the lateness of the train and the interminable stops as we neared Guwahati bothered me little. I could not stop shaking my head in wonder at the amazing way I was reminded that whatever the situation, and whatever my mistakes (like booking late!), I was still remembered by my Heavenly Father and offered unexpected blessings from unexpected sources. It is experiences like this that make life so exciting and give me so much to look forward to. I know there will be many who will be happy to put it down to coincidence, but I no longer believe there is such a thing. I know that there was Someone watching over me, who knew I was nearing the end of my tether and put it in the hearts of those people to offer me their berth. My faith is still much smaller than a mustard seed, but experiences like this are slowly, but surely, making it grow.
And as for our beloved Indian Railways, many though the discomforts are, I still greatly appreciate this behemoth that transports such vast numbers across huge distances in ever-shortening periods of time. And remind myself, as I have written before, that every time I travel by it, I am taught something new - about my country, about myself and about my great and loving God.