Maggie and I decided to go on a tour to celebrate the 15th anniversary of our wedding. Also the fortieth anniversary of Maggie’s birth. And the fiftieth anniversary of my birth too. So many reasons to celebrate.
“At least once in our life,” I told Maggie, “let us celebrate something.”
We’ve never had any reason to celebrate anything. Except our birthdays which we never celebrated since our job seldom offered time for such celebrations.
Where to go was the next question. The plains are out of question in the summer. “Gangtok,” I said. I was being selfish. I wanted to see a few Buddhist monasteries.
My fascination with the Buddha is merely because he is a guy who never spoke of a god and yet became a god. I wanted to see how he was being worshipped. I wanted to see the irony in a god’s life. Rather his death. I was also curious to know how a monastery looked. Did it have any medieval look? Was I unconsciously travelling into some medieval element in my psyche, I don’t know.
Maggie seldom says no to me.
There was no railway ticket available to New Jalpaiguri. But there were two return tickets available for the 19th of June by the New Jalpaiguri-New Delhi train which has only one air-conditioned compartment, a three-tier ac. I booked those two before they would be lost.
“How will we go before we return?” asked Maggie.
Genuine problem. There really was no rail ticket to New Jalpaiguri available by any class in the Indian Railways which runs half a dozen trains in that route every day. Except by the Mahananda Express. And the Mahananda Express had all empty seats.
“Don’t ever travel by the Mahananda, Sir,” said my student from Siliguri (just a few kilometres from New Jalpaiguri). I shall not list out the reasons given by him. Let it be said that I was convinced by them.
I searched for a flight ticket. The Jet Airways landed Maggie and me in Bagdogra airport on 12th June at 12.30 pm.
About our tour in Gangtok and then in Darjeeling I’ve written in the earlier posts. This post is supposed to be about a train journey. Our return journey.
When we embarked the only air-conditioned coach of the train at New Jalpaiguri there were hardly any passengers in it. But when the train reached the next station, Kishanganj in Bihar, the compartment was inundated with people and their countless bags and bundles. The eight passengers who crowded into our cabin with innumerable bags, cartons, and other forms of luggage had just three seats reserved.
“What will the other passengers do when they come?” I asked as the eight of them settled down.
“We’ll see when they come,” said the leader of the group.
They did see something about it. When the three other passengers entered at the next station, two of them were sent away to some other cabin where this group had two reserved seats. One was still left behind. Thus we were eleven passengers in the cabin meant for 8. Out of the 8 seats one was reserved for the Head TTE who also joined us as soon as he finished his duty. From Katihar station the Head TTE’s two sons also entered and occupied their father’s berth. Thus we were 14 in the cabin for 8. Soon two other TTEs came along to discuss something mysterious with the Head TTE. The number of passengers rose to 16.
“We have to cooperate with one another,” said an elderly person among the Kishanganj-8.
I hoped they always had this sense of cooperation. At any rate, I must add that the group turned out to be quite an amusing lot eventually.
The train did not have a pantry car. We were served lunch by some private agency in Katihar. But dinner turned out to be a disaster. It was brought in open disposable plates. I protested the unhygienic service. “This is the age of fibre plates,” said the man who brought the lunch. “In which age are you living?” I demurely accepted the disparity in the ages in which they and we existed.
It was not only the different-age dinner that was loaded from the Chhapra station. One of the seats in our cabin belonged to an elderly lady, a granny of 85 (she told us her age), who boarded from Chhapra. Thus the population in the cabin exploded further. The granny was settled in her seat with the help of a middle aged man who had his own seat elsewhere in the compartment. He never came back to enquire about the granny.
The Kishanganj-8 entertained the granny quite well. She boasted with considerable pride about her elder sons who were all in America with their families. They as well as their children are all doctors or engineers. She had no daughters, which also appeared to be a matter of pride for her. Her youngest son lived in Delhi and he was a doctor too. She was going to join him. Before she went to sleep a middle aged lady came to ask her whether everything was alright. She helped granny fish out her medicine from the bag. When granny was put to bed, the lady said that she was their neighbour in Chhapra and they were asked by her son to bring her to Delhi for treatment. They had gone to Chhapra on vacation.
“Did you sleep alright dadi (granny)?” the leader of Kishanganj-8 asked the granny the next morning.
“I was disturbed by someone most of the time,” said granny. One of the Kishanganj-8 who did not have any berth was sitting at granny’s foot when she had gone to sleep. Slowly he tried to stretch out his legs on the berth. But granny protested.
More people joined us in the cabin from different stations as the day progressed. People were asked to occupy the TTE’s berth by the TTE himself. They exchanged whispers with the TTE near the toilet before they were admitted into the cabin. Money must have been exchanged more clandestinely. During one such exchange between the TTE and the passengers I happened to be near the wash basin. The TTE questioned me what I was doing there. “Do you have a ticket to travel in this compartment?” I was asked.
“I booked my ticket in an ac coach nearly two months ago,” I said, “and am now travelling in a compartment that’s more crowded than a general compartment.”
The TTE turned away his face.
I did not complain any more. Rail travels are a nightmare in any part of India. If it is the crowds that make up the problem in North India, theft is the problem in the South-bound trains. Almost every day thefts take place in the Kerala-bound trains. When I reached back Delhi I read about a new form of theft that took place in a Kerala-bound Duranto express. Just as the train pulled into the Nizamuddin station the electric power failed on the platform. Within minutes the bags of the passengers disappeared from the platform. The power returned only half an hour later though there is supposed to be a generator. The Malayalam newspapers reported the next day that the thefts are taking place in connivance with the railway authorities and the railway police.
Last week the passengers of Mangla Express (another Kerala-bound train whose passengers are constantly looted) were prevented by the TTE himself from lodging a complaint after their bags were looted. “If you want to file a complaint do it and then come by the next train. I cannot waste time…” the TTE said, according to newspaper reports.
As we neared Delhi, the middle aged lady visited the granny asking her to get ready.
“Will her son come with a vehicle to pick her up?” asked one of the Kishanganj-8.
“We tried to contact him,” said the lady, “but his mobile phone is switched off.”
The lady went on to say that granny was living all alone in her big house in Chhapra. One of the neighbours helped her with the household chores. I hoped granny would have a pleasant time with her doctor-son and his family in Delhi. Or would the doc soon seek out another family travelling from Delhi to Chhapra?
When we stepped out of the New Delhi railway station at 2 in the afternoon the sun was blazing fiercely in the sky. As I started haggling with the auto rickshaw driver, my shirt drenched in perspiration, I realised our tour was over and normal life was going to begin again.