I was fifteen minutes early. If my father was a co-passenger, we would have been sitting at the platform three hours early, watching train after train go by. Train no. 12863 arrived well on time, a stripe of blues in the lighter and darker shade, red boards displaying the train name and number in little alphabets that one has to wince to read. This was to be the home to my weary heart for the next 36 hours.
If you are a pakka Indian, it is a general assumption that you would be well practiced on the method of getting aboard a train. Firstly, five minutes before the train is due to arrive, just as a cranky female voice starts announcing the numbers of a train that matches to your ticket, you stand up. You walk as close to the edge as possible and calculate in your mind the possible locations of the two doors of the coach through which you can enter. You scale the location and check out for passengers who have more luggage, see which door they are entering through and, quickly walk over to the other door’s possible location. As the train arrives, forget the world as it is and focus on the door. Also make sure your eyes are scanning through the small yellow display motioning the coach number. If you are at the wrong spot, run with the train as close to your coach number as possible. And, as soon as the train halts, catch hold of the side support. That way, no one can push you too far. You then mount your luggage, and climb up after it. No matter how long the train is going to stop at your location, it is the pride of an Indian, to be the first climber aboard the coach.
Having excelled at my Indian train traits of climbing aboard, I proceeded to look for my seat. My seat which was the horrors of any train passenger, an RAC seat. RAC which means Reservation Against Cancellation specifically means you have a ticket that will not be cancelled. You can get aboard. But it also means, that there is another human who is sharing that seat with you whose ticket will not be canceled either. Coach no B1, seat no 55. I looked for the best place for my suitcase and went on to sit. Five minutes passed and no one had come. But as I was daydreaming away through the tainted windows of the train, I looked in front of me and saw a man. Someone in his early 30’s, well-combed and with an articulate posture. It took his green duffel to confirm that he was an army man on his way for a family break.
“Aapka seat number kya he?”
“55,” he answered.
“Aise nahi ho sakti, ladka aur ladki RAC share nahi karti,” I proudly stated to which he quickly agreed. We decided to resolve the issue with the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TT).
As the TT came nearer. There was a sort of heaviness in the air, sleepy heads starting to reach out for their wallets, a lady reached through her saree for her waist purse while a young teen opened his backpack to gather together his ticket and government issued identity proof. All the while I said a prayer in my heart. I tried to dissect the plausible results of getting help from his face expressions. Stern, fixed and crude. That was all I could gather from his interaction with the other men and women. It seemed only a second had passed and he was standing in front of me. In the sweetest, most pitiable voice I could muster I said, “Sir, hamara RAC seat hai or ladka ke saath bethaya hai. Please aap kuch kijiye. Hamara seat exchange ho sakhenga?” And his reply was as prompt as his stride, “Maine seat nahi diya, me kya karu?” My army friend tried to plead with him and his nostrils just flared against the humid Bengal wind.
Sensing no other route of escape, I sat back and felt tears stinging my eyes. I so wanted to sleep yet sleep was never so far away. And like any citizen, my distraught heart started to swell with anger. My nation cannot do this to me, I thought. Should Modi hear about it, it would surely upset him. Surely, it should be against the rule of the railways to let a boy and a girl sleep together in that 174x60cm space. Why when the fatal act of rape has been carried out, victims are blamed for going out at the pm, for watching movies with male acquaintances, for wearing minis of any sort, for a lifestyle that gives opportunity to the male population to approach them. Why then, does the Indian Railways Ministry put me and a complete stranger together in a bed to sleep together for two nights. Does my beating heart of fear not resound to the ears of our railways sahibs? If any fatal act was carried out, would I still be to blame for wearing fitting leggings or booking my ticket late enough for an RAC?
I decided to awaken my dormant twitter account and send out a tweet to the Ministry of Railways and the Prime Minister of India. I dreamt that I was retweeted by Arundhati Roy. My tweet stayed as dormant as my twitter account.
In a space bordered by invisible forces between my army friend and I, my nation let me sleep-sit through the night. When my legs tired, I rested on my back, when my back tired I rested on my head. In a small corner, fighting between fatigue and a little slumber and aches until dawn.
When the morning hour struck six, the chai chants started. Our neighbors started exchanging five rupee notes for plastic paper cups of chai with Rs.2 Marie biscuits. The only pre-breakfast meal that’s approved of us Indians. The only love we share with the English folks (other than the Kohinoor diamond). Just as I was dozing off into aching slumber-land, there came another man, “Mango Ji-uuuce, Paneeeeee Water, Cheeeps,” a chant proclaimed through the 24 coaches. As the railway vendor chanted his goods with an expression that was neither tired nor gay, I wondered if it could be that this man was born with lips twisted and designed to chant these very goods and give this very expression because his body had become one with his words and basket of goods.
As the clock proceeded to strike ten, I desired so much for sleep that as soon as I could sense and hear some movement in the berth above mine, I quickly got up and asked the upper-berth bhai if he would like to come down. He gave the expression of he’s okay – a side to side nod and a slight movement of the hand. Mustering all my courage together, I said, “Bhai, do you know English?” A quick nod. “I haven’t slept at all through the night and if you could come and sit in my seat for some time, I would really like to come up and get some sleep.” He said okay and then pointed to his Rs. 2 Marie biscuits and tea in hand motioning that he would come down as soon as he is done with his pre-breakfast.
I started preparing for the sleep of my life. I headed towards the toilet, twisted and turned the locks, washed my face, emptied my bowels. I packed up my bag and tied up my hair. I was all set.
I looked up to see the upper-berth bhai and as soon as he caught my eye, he gave a quick question nod, which is one nod. And I gave a side to side reply. He came down and I approached my castle with gaily legs swinging from one rod to another until I reached my mansion. If Snow White in her white glass coffin and Sleeping Beauty in her duvet princess bed were to tell me of their sweet slumber, I would find no words to express how mine was so much more than slumber. It was to be a pact of peace. A pact with my body to prepare for the next night and recover for the previous night. To lay out the tired in tiny dots of sleep lines and steady up breaths for upcoming sleep depravation.
And my, what a sleep it was. I dreamt dreams I had never dreamt of dreaming. I saw people I had never known and got myself into situations where heavy, heavy masses were building over me. I strained to move under heavy loads of dreams and then I slumbered some more. Such a deep sleep it was that it seemed an eternity of sleep had passed by when I finally woke up.
As if to wish me good morning, “Aloo choop, Daaaal Vadda, Bhajjii,” exclaimed a new railway vendor highlighting his fresh goods. I took out a Rs.20 note and got a plastic plate with three crispy alu chops with red sauce on the side. A little nourishment to keep up with the slumber of eternity.
There is something about the chugs of the train that puts your weary heart at rest. When it seems your heart can no longer beat, the chugs give it momentum. There is peace to be found in the constant hum of the rails, knowing your journey began but it has not ended.
My upper-berth bhai was sitting in a corner across me seeming to wander about his business but with his heart at the seat where I had just died for a short while. I motioned to him, with gestures of the hands pointing to his seat where I sat and he nodded. And taking my cue, I packed my bag, took my pillow and Bisleri water bottle and moved down to my little inched corner once again.
My army friend was asleep with his legs stretched out, enjoying the absence of a female in the berth which gave him freedom to point out his legs beyond his inched corner.
I took out my 446 page, Salman Rushdie authored India colonized to not-colonized narration and started scrolling through the pages. There is something about a book in a journey that catches the attention of the people around you. Sometimes it makes me rather hesitant to bring out my authors to light lest passersby think I was of an intelligence akin to the writer. I am nothing of a Salman Rushdie, I can hardly finish a poem. I am a writer in pretend, full of words but hardly a sentence. But I couldn’t explain that to them. The uncle across from my seat took a glance and then another at the booker-prize winning treasure in my hand. The two teens who were focused on their screens stole a glance at the magnificent dancing girl on my Rushdie cover. The curious girl with spectacles holding her own cover, (which I decided not to look at, lest I would judge her by the cover) asked through a smile and a pointing of the finger if she could sit next to me. Salman Rushdie had won. It was a victory of a book, approved of intelligible quotient. (keeping aside the notions of whether any of that intelligence was processed in my parietal lobe).
As the sun lowered its rays, I put my Rushdie down. You do not ever want to miss a sunset from a train. Bollywood got its melodramas after watching the sunset from a train. Aam aadmi becomes un-aam when his eyes are taking in the glory of the orange glows through train bars. I watched as the small orange bulb danced across the horizon amidst trees and houses and field plains. Birds, just as the dotted black ones you see in paintings, flew across the horizon. Passing through the sun and disappearing into the sky. At this precise moment, I seemed to see my life before my eyes. Everyone I had ever loved and ceased to love, every memory I had worth cherishing came across in scenes with an orange backdrop. I wished and un-wished, I reflected on my wretchedly, beautiful life. The lessons I had learnt and was yet to learn. The never ending paradox of humanity, the fragility of emotions and stupidity of decisions. My life was a journey as that of a train, some nights sleepless, some filled with somber dreams, some days of crispy alu chop and some with saggy samosas. It was a journey that would only end when the engine of my breath ceases. With the orange glow as witness, I reminded myself that while humans bind and unbind me, as long as the engine of breath chugs on in these lungs, I have to remember that the journey has not ended.
Before the sun disappeared that day, I decided I had to, wish goodbye to the people that had ceased to tug their engines. I wished happiness and peace to the sun, and to the world that was slowly brimming in deep, dark blue.
And then, I went back to my Rushdie.
Dinner time is the little haven of a train journey. Generations of family who have stopped having meals together due to differences in timing, in opinions and in careers, get together and share plates on a newspaper with a day-old cooked sabji and parathas. The family next to me, a grandfather, his son and daughter in law, his grandson and two other acquaintances I couldn’t quite figure the relation of, sat side by side opening jute bags and taking out paper plates. The parathas were distributed followed by alu sabji and boiled eggs.
The singletons such as I resorted to the pantry car servings which had only two options in its menu, veg or non veg. I was handed my brown tray with a packet of rice, a plastic pack of puri, dal and chhole paneer curry. The heart of the meal thought, is the tiny one rupee mango pickle packet that makes up for all the missing salt and flavor. The hearty meal was followed by a packet of water to wash down the pickle heat.
To the great luck of me and my army friend A TT who had passed us earlier in the day and gave ear to our appeals with no less than a mumble of a reply had taken note of our plight. And in a whisper, ever afraid that the rest of the boogie-ears would hear it, he said, “Vijaywada paunch ne ke bad, B1 seat no 24 me jaiye,” and he disappeared into the dark black coat world of TT’s.
Never before had a whisper sounded so sweet to my nerves. I could only dream of the moment, when in the next two hours my army friend would get up from his seat and I could stretch my legs and lay on my back. And it was going to be through the night! It isn’t until you have been cramped in an RAC seat that you realize the full worth of legs-stretched sleep and at that moment, I could feel its worth in every cell of my body.
This to me was the best train ride. When you have lost and gained, the outcome is somehow better than having never lost. I had lost my right to stretch and now gained it back, and this joy I would never have experienced if I could stretch right from the beginning.
5 o’clock came and my army friend went to check his B1, 24 berth. He came back and said he was ready to go. My silent mate had been a kind one, we had not conversed and that was the cherry on top. A man unwilling to converse with you is the best kind of man in an RAC seat so as to avoid awkward glances and exchange of words. I told him, “Accha se sojao,” and he smiled. As we exchanged smiles, he gave me a look in which only him and I could understand. A look of celebration at the joy of our partition. I waved him goodbye and he disappeared out of sight, my army friend, one I would probably never meet again in this life.
As night caught on, I spread a folded bedsheet. Used one to cover myself and drifted into the sweetest sleep of all. Only to be woken up to the sounds of KR Puram, the station I was to alight in.
As I had mentioned in the beginning, a true Indian knows the proper boarding techniques of a train. But alighting from the train is none the lesser. As your station is approaching, you pack up your towel and shawls and check for food packages. You take your suitcase out and place it on the seat, with easy grip and control for a quick exit. You eye co-passengers based on their speed on how quick they would want to alight from the train. If none seem to be in a hurry, you sit for a while. But if you have co-passengers who, when the train runs past the faintest of city lights gets up from his seat and stands at the door, ready to jump out incase James Bond lights a bomb. You do the same. You faithfully drag your suitcase to the door, with the stench of toilets and city air mixed with train sweat blowing at your face. And wait for the final haul. You let no on pass you by, unless they have come with a towel, which means they have someone waiting for them and would like to wash up and look suave before alighting.
And atlast, train number 12863 comes to a halt at Krishnarajapuram. I put down my suitcase on the ground first, wave off kulis and auto-walas and alight to the cold morning air of Bengaluru.
Though weary boned, pride thuds in my heart, I had once again excelled at an Indian trait, of being the first few to alight from a train.