Aug 15, 2014

Indian Railways: It’s all about the journey

At the risk of sounding too middle-class, I admit that air travel doesn’t even come close to rail travel. In fact, travelling in a humble sleeper class coach of an Indian Railways train contributes to your life experiences in a way you cannot imagine unless you have been through it. Airports somehow seem to put a lot of pressure on you for updating check-ins on social media whereas railway stations don’t. HOW CAN YOU UPDATE YOUR CHECK-IN AT A RAILWAY STATION WHILE HAGGLING WITH THE COOLIES AND RUNNING ALONG THE TRAIN DRAGGING YOUR LUGGAGE TO FIND YOUR COACH AS THE TRAIN COMES TO A HALT?

Indian railways is the ninth largest employer in the world, if the statistics are to be believed. This is quite sad because after paying 1.307 million employees every month, there is hardly any money left with the government for betterment of the trains. We rant about the fare hikes and the shitty facilities provided in the trains and then move on to normal life after unpacking the luggage. Bollywood is smart enough to have utilized the trains for almost all kinds of scenes - dance, romance, robberies, suicides and even the legendary love making scene from Ishaqzaade. (yes, I have watched the movie.)

To begin with, the railway reservation system sucks as much as the Indian caste based reservation system. It isn’t much fun to wake up early in the morning and queue up for a tatkal ticket at the reservation counter for hours only to realize that the tickets were sold out in 0.22 microseconds after the tatkal reservations opened. The online version of this is slightly better. After some hours of demonstrating excellent perseverance which includes staring at the IRCTC website as it loads pixel by pixel on the screen, you finally get a confirmed reservation. The last time you were so much delighted was when your girlfriend tested negative on a home pregnancy test after her missed period.

Once you board the train and bid goodbye to your entire extended family whose platform tickets have contributed to 2.4% of the GDP, you settle down on your berth in the sleeper coach. Given the optimist that you are, you expect all the berths around you to be occupied by pretty females. (Pro-tip: Always go through the reservation chart to avoid heartbreaks.) Before you even realize, a large family of 6 invades the coach with 15 pieces of luggage and starts shoving the bags forcefully below the seats while their kid rushes to fit in the space between you and the window. If luck isn’t in your favor, you may also be approached by a middle aged uncle who insists on swapping your berth with him so that he can re-unite with his family. Being an Indian middle class guy, you happily oblige because you have been taught the virtue of adjustment by your parents even if that means having to sacrifice your dreams.

If you carefully observe, you get to see 4 types of passengers in the sleeper coach. The first type is a passenger who has superb negotiation skills. In spite of having an unconfirmed ticket, he negotiates with the TTE and fellow passengers, manages to get a good berth with the choicest blankets and pillows and then heads out to the door and stands near the footstep till the end of the journey. The second type is an over enthusiastic uncle who will be an expert ice-breaker. He will sit next to you, force you to opine about any random topic and then go on to show his knowledge on the subject. The discussion eventually ends at how our government sucks and politicians should rot in hell. The third type is the foodie. He, along with his family will ensure that they consume each and everything sold as food at every single station. Additionally, they also carry a supply of food enough to feed a village in Africa. (Pro-tip:  These are the biggest saviors. Stay around them so that you are spared from eating the pantry food.) The fourth type is an annoying guy who along with his entire travel troop is just waiting for the train to move so that they can clap and play Antakshari followed by cards.

If you want to learn the concepts of recycling, there is no better place than the pantry car of the train. The same gravy is recycled for all the meals until it runs out after a week. I am waiting for the day when Kejriwal exposes that the chapattis served along with the meals are manufactured by Bata.

Once you consume such a sumptuous meal, you are likely to race to the toilet, which is a nightmare in itself. You get the rarest privilege to perform your act while the cool breeze hits your ass and your eyes try to decipher the indigenous telephone directory scribbled on the toilet walls. It is still unclear as to what algorithm is used to calculate the length of the chain that holds the tumbler. If Murphy is indeed unkind to you, be ready with a bottle. Nature’s call was never this adventurous, isn’t it?

However pathetic the condition of our trains might be, there is something about the typical stink of the sleeper coach, the rhythmic melody of iron wheels hitting the rail tracks, the loud air whistle, the chants of hawkers, villages passing by the windows, the conversations with random co-passengers and that long wait to reach the destination that you cannot afford to miss. As the famous quote goes, focus on the journey, not the destination.