‘Understanding Indian Society’. This is the name of the book I have brought to read on this Howrah to Mumbai train journey. However within hours of embarking on the journey, a relative (;-) ) took severely ill with dysentery and probable gastro enteritis. Any liquid intake, she was throwing up or needing to go to the toilet. As her trips to the toilet became more and more frequent, and she began shivering, she was beginning to lose blood. There was a point of time, when, as we were reaching Raipur, I was seriously debating getting off the train, taking her to a hospital overnight and catching the morning flight to Mumbai. Called my travel agent to find availability, and he did. Tickets were available on the 9.30 Jetlite Raipur-Mumbai flight the next morning.
Raipur is now far behind us. We are still in the train and have entered Maharashtra – a while back, passed a station called Malkapur, and more recently Bhusaval and Manmad, and in these past 24 hours, have understood and experienced firsthand what our society – and our train journeys are all about. She is much better now. But to begin at the beginning.
While boarding the train, my feelings were straightforward. To be at last on a long distance train firmly ensconced on an AC two tier upper berth was a delight I had long been looking forward to, books in tow. Early in the morning hours with the sky still wearing its dark blanket, we reached the spanking second terminal at Howrah, and later as the sound of the train settled to its undulating rhythm, we bunkered down with all our possessions strewn and hung around us within careful distance. A thick blue purdah kept the light out but not any of the sounds. Gentle snores of folks in adjoining coupes merged with long slurps of tea by those determined to stay awake. Pre-schoolers’ pleasant prattle blended with the desultory chatting of a family gradually settling down, and loudest was the conversation of three interlopers who got in at Tatanagar till the next station (note how Jamshedpur in the business and media lingo is always Tatanagar in the world of the railways ).
‘Why do you men always complain women gossip and talk too much? You should be ashamed’ I demanded to know in Hindi of guys never seen before, and never to be set eyes on again, as I pushed the blue purdah aside. One chap got indignant. ‘We are talking among ourselves. What’s your problem’. But the shot had hit home and I had my little triumphal male bashing moment.
She and I hold three berths between the two of us. With the mountain of luggage we are going back with (patali gud from Kolkata, fresh vegetables from Kakdwip…), we retained the third ticket though the passenger scheduled to travel is no longer doing so. Immediately other small advantages have surfaced. Extra pillows, chadars, blankets and napkins, and one less person crowding in, in the inner coupe. Only prob: continuous explanation of why we want to keep that third seat to the TC, to the bearer, and to sundry short-distance passengers seeking a seat.
‘Who’s on this seat?’
‘She and me’
‘No, I mean this one’
‘Yes, it’s us’
‘But you are sitting there’
‘So who’s sitting here?’
Stars like McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras, I read somewhere, always travel first class with two seats on airplanes. One for themselves and one for their tennis racquets. Do you think they have to face this across the Atlantic? ‘No, that seat is mine’, ‘Oh no no nooo you can’t sit there’.
(We gave the seat to a woman we felt deserved to sit, later).
At Rs. 4000 for three tickets (she’s a senior citizen), it is a fraction of two tickets by air at current holiday rates that would have set us back by Rs. 18,000 from Kolkata to Mumbai. Add the sheer feeling of bliss at the potential for uninterrupted reading. And the marvels of the passing land. This train journey is like a gentle finger caressing the land from East to West, drawing our eyes to the delicate skien of its trees, little rivers, fields of jowar-bajra, its thousands of power cables and towns full of mobile shops, homeo clinics and school children wrapped up against the cold. Each feels like a place where I feel I could surely have lived in a different parallel lifetime.
A family of four got a curtained coupe to themselves, and travel the next 30 hours blissfully insulated from the rest of the co-passengers. They were already like a well established household which in its rock solid un-moveability, becomes a counter point to all the movements in and out of other neighboring homes that are tenanted or sold, or have loud differences of opinion regarding shared space or encroachments on verandahs.
Even more fascinating, I find the women traveling with kith and kin. The middle-school going children quickly settle down into games – cards, snakes n ladders, and increasingly, the cell phone that they pore over and play on together, keeping themselves busy. The mother has tucked herself under a blanket and gone to sleep on a lower berth. As I have seen on numerous other journeys, and this would be as common throughout the second class compartments, the mother will arise out of her slumber when it is mealtimes, spread out the plates and the food she may have stayed up late at night to cook, serve all, and then – go back to a deeply regenerating deep slumber again. In all likelihood, she sleeps for at least 16 to 20 hours in the 24 hour cycle within. While everyone loves to catch a nap on a train, the Indian home maker woman does so with a vengeance. This train interlude is that time in her life when she need not give explanations to anyone regarding the need to take rest or relax. During a visit to a maika, were she to go to bed this often, it would only alarm her parents who would think she is depressed or hiding something. Nor is there a need to begin to industriously clean up, in the train. That is postponed inevitably to the end of the journey. Even the interruptions she welcomes at home are unavailable here. The strident TV whose invasion she awaits and looks forward to: the soap operas in her mother tongue, and the fairness creams and stay looking young ads and reality shows.
Life on the train picks up its own rhythm. Choice here is between a range of goods. ‘Col-drinks’, milk, coffee, tea, soup, water, Frooti. Or Chow Mein, Bhajia, Samosa, Idli Vada , Bread cutlet and what not. The tea vendors pass through at various times calling out attention to their distinct offerings. One says it is with adrak, one tells us of the ‘peshal chai of Manoharpur’, or ‘Tata se aaya’ (note to myself: he’s not saying ‘made with Tata tea but of location’), ‘masala chai’. One guy kept yelling ‘kharab chai, kharab chai’. When I ask him why call it kharab. How bad was his tea, he retorted ‘It caught your attention, didn’t it?’
Stretching beyond the confines of this compartment, right at the back of the train is the unreserved class. Not even second class. With at least 300 packed in, into a space that can accommodate not more than eighty. But that is notional to us folks in the AC compartments, they were visible but momentarily on the platform as a patient snaking queue of people. To get in, into an enclosed mayhem for the next 30 hours. Where they will overflow on the berths, under the berths, in the passage and even around the toilets.
And then she got unwell. Up the train through the AC two tier compartments, I went asking if there was a doctor on board. Unfortunately, there were none. Called a doc friend in Mumbai who said, she should be given some Electral immediately.
The TC radio’d ahead to Raipur for a doctor, but by the time we reached the station, the doctor had not arrived and the train had to continue on its journey. As the train was pulling out, a young co- passenger came up panting. With a pack of Electral. He had sprinted across Platform one at Raipur and picked it up from a store that he was aware kept medicines.
Gratefully received. Gave mom some sips which is all she could have. Next came Durg after half hour. No doctor yet. As the train pulled out, another passenger traveling up to Mumbai came up and gave me two packs of Electral. The co-passenger had asked a relative to come to meet her at the platform as the train passed through, also asked him to bring some Electral... this after overhearing the conversation between the TC and me.
At Dungargarh, the railway doctor hopped in even as the train was pulling into the station. The lady doc was already right next to the A1 compartment and came with a helper. While the doc quickly examined her, the helper took the patient's BP. A high 90-180. Some medicines and a packet of ORT were given and even as I was tucking her in, they had left and the train was on its way. No more than the usual six minute halt, efficiently dealt with. I ran to the door and yelled ‘thanks doctor’ and the unnamed saviour waved back, still walking away at great speed. I don’t know the lady's name, and there was no time to take a phone number. The railways has not yet charged us a penny for this service.
As the train left, two more packets of Electral arrived. From more co-passengers. All of whom have firmly refused to take any money.
She has spent a quiet night, and is miles better. The book will surely be read at some point of time. ‘Understanding Indian Society’.
So we travel in this microcosm hurtling forward towards Mumbai. The aspiring and the invisible classes of citizens, each virtually separated in their own silos, yet connected in inexplicable, heart tugging ways. And we will all reach the same destination.
I mean the robust 9% GDP growth rate predicted for the nation. Any doubts? I have none. We are on track.